Indoor Trainers - What's the Best One For Me?
Updated: Jan 18
Indoor trainers are more popular than ever for cyclists. How do you know which one to buy?
Maybe a good place to start is to think about why you want an indoor trainer in the first place, and what you plan on using it for. If you’re like me you’d rather be out on the open road or mountain bike trails than stuck indoors on the trainer so why bother getting one?
Indoor training may be a good choice for a few reasons:
1. If you are time poor you can get a hard workout in a shorter space of time.
2. For racers you can control your workout and get great fitness results if you have the appropriate tools to monitor performance (eg heart rate monitor, cadence sensor and power meter – the power meter can be on your bike or built into the trainer).
3. Perhaps you need to train indoors for family reasons (eg. you need to get your workout in when the kids are asleep but can’t leave the house).
4. You want to avoid bad weather or reduce the risk of falling in the wet. Or avoid Corona virus whilst staying fit!
5. You might enjoy an online virtual race against friends anywhere in the world using software such as Swift.
6. Indoor training is an excellent transition from rehab after a major injury before the doctors let you back onto the open road.
7. Maybe you just like training indoors far more than I do!
Once you know what you plan on doing on the trainer you can start to look at the choices available, and these days there are lots of choices. The types of indoor trainers can be broadly described as:
1. Rollers: these are used frequently by track racers and require more skill and core stability to ride. And before you ask, yes, you can fall off rollers (you rarely actually fall off the bike onto the ground though). The other indoor trainers take some special talent to fall off! Rollers are very good for developing a fluid pedal stroke and for higher cadence work, but are probably not the choice for recreational cyclists. They have little to no resistance so they’re simply not suitable for high intensity interval training.
2. Friction trainers: use a roller under / against the back wheel which provides friction via a magnetic or fluid based resistance (sometimes a fan blade termed “turbo” or “wind” trainer is used for resistance). These trainers are generally lighter weight, more portable and cheaper than direct drive trainers, and are available as smart trainers (see below). They are comfortable to ride and feel realistic (as if you were out on the road) when accelerating but tend to lose the resistance and feel “too easy” once you reach a steady-state speed. Not necessarily a problem unless you race and want to focus on very high intensity workouts.
3. Direct drive trainers: require you to take the rear wheel off and clip the bike onto the trainer. They require you to purchase a cassette for the trainer, and are more stable, more realistic and much heavier (thus less portable) than friction-based trainers. Definitely the best type if you want to simulate actually riding on the road or for racers seeking high intensity efforts, but also the most expensive.
Another variable to consider is whether your trainer is a “smart trainer”, which means it can connect wirelessly to your device (smart phone, laptop etc) and allow a training app or Swift to control the resistance. This obviously adds to the cost, but for the tech lovers or those seriously committed to indoor workouts it is obviously going to be of importance. Electronic trainers are not always smart trainers so check carefully before you buy.
Other important comparisons to make between the different types of trainers include:
· Noise: some trainers can be very loud, although the latest smart trainers (eg Wahoo Kickr) is very quiet (if you are working out early in the morning and trying not to wake the rest of the house this might be a key factor for your choice of trainer).
· Portability: do you want to use the trainer say for warm up before a race, or perhaps need to move it into a cupboard for storage between training sessions? A friction-based trainer (which can also be a smart trainer) might be for you.
· Stability: in harder efforts you definitely want the trainer to feel stable. Bear in mind that trainers are generally suitable for seated efforts; none that I’ve seen are super-stable for standing sprints.
· Connectivity: best to check what apps you plan on using and ensure the hardware and software are compatible with the smart trainer. Some well-known apps include Trainer Road, Swift and Sufferfest. Each offers something different. Alternatively you may prefer to use the power meter and computer on your bike and follow your own training program.
· Boredom: for me sitting on a trainer and staring at a blank wall is no fun! I prefer to put a cycle race on the tv and watch the replay, and I know plenty of people who put their favourite program, movie or some music on during the workout. I even know a few college professors who catch up on work or edit their papers during a workout! The point is that you are more likely to make indoor training a regular part of your workout week if you can alleviate boredom. Another way to do this is to constantly change something in the workout (eg. the intensity or cadence might change every few minutes which gives you something to focus on).
· What room will you train in? In summer an air conditioner and fan are very helpful as you have no breeze generated by cycling as you do outdoors, so you tend to sweat a lot. A towel draped nearby to help wipe the sweat from your eyes, and something to catch the sweat to avoid leaving a puddle on the floor are important.
You might think I avoid indoor training, but I regularly use an indoor trainer and am happy to keep doing so. Indoor training is definitely worth it but before buying a new trainer consider your needs, your planned use and of course budget before diving in as the price can vary from around $150 to $1500.