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How does turbo training help your cycling?

Here are seven key cycling skills that turbo training will help improve

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. So said Doc Brown to Marty McFly at the end of Back to the Future in 1985, before whisking him through time to, er, last year. Even a few months later, only the most committed of eco-activists would deny that we do, actually, still need roads. But could the wild-haired inventor of time travel have been right after all, at least in one respect?

“I wouldn’t be as daft as to say only train on your Wattbike,” says the static trainer company’s founder and chief sports scientist Eddie Fletcher, “but people do, and you can go a long, long way by doing so. And if you can’t get out on the road because of the weather, then you can build a whole training programme around it and come out fighting.” With that in mind, we looked at some of the key techniques involved in road cycling and asked the question: can I work on that indoors?

1. Endurance

“You can absolutely build your endurance working indoors,” says Fletcher. “Our winter plans in particular are designed around building the base endurance that you need to then go on and do big intervals. Working indoors allows you to control your endurance workouts just as you would your intervals, to ensure that you are doing what you should do rather than what you shouldn’t.

“And you really don’t need to go out for five hours to build that base endurance on a static trainer because it is all work, from the moment you step on the bike.

“The maximum that any of my riders would do on a Wattbike – and this is the absolute maximum – would be 90 minutes. And even then I split that session up because it can be soul-destroying just sitting on a static trainer for 90 minutes, although people do. I’ve seen people on the internet talking about sitting on the turbo for a long, long time, but they don’t need to. Ninety minutes on the static trainer is probably worth at least three hours on the road, so you’re getting the ‘miles’ in and it’s very controlled, so you’re getting a heck of a physiological workout from it.”

Inside info

Spend 90 minutes riding in zone 2 (see In The Zone, opposite), and move around within your zone to help combat boredom. Or break the time into 20-minute blocks at the top of zone 2/into zone 3 with five easy minutes recovery between blocks.

2. Strength

Although opinions vary on the need for weight training for cyclists, incorporating some strength work into your on-bike sessions can help you produce more power and train more muscles to disperse lactic acid.

“Strength work needs to target strength fibres in your leg muscles at a very high resistance,” explains Nick Thomas of The Endurance Coach, “so cadence during these intervals will be low. Strength sessions on the turbo will typically involve very short efforts working 100 per cent at maximum resistance with long recovery periods. Gear selection will need to be high during the efforts, and you should remain seated throughout.”

Inside info

Try a set of 15 10-second all-out efforts at maximum resistance with 1min 50sec recovery periods spinning an easy gear. Always warm up and cool down.

3. Cadence

“Building a better cadence requires the control of an indoor trainer,” claims Fletcher. “Once you’ve built it indoors you can go out and practise it, in terms of matching gearing and cadence to terrain and conditions, but while building that leg speed it is something you can practise very precisely indoors.

“I do believe, after hundreds of tests, that there is a need to build cadence. I have done tests with riders with too low a cadence and they weren’t able to get to the result that they were physiologically capable of purely because their cadence was too low, so they were pushing too high a gear, and the body just can’t do it.

“So you are limiting yourself if you get the wrong gear selection and cadence selection. Yes, people have different abilities, if you like, but you are holding yourself back if you try to push too big a gear at too low a cadence all the time. Lightening the gear means there is less force per pedal stroke, but the increase in pedal revolutions gives greater power with a lower physiological effort.

“And training your cadence on the static trainer does translate to the road – I have no problem in getting my athletes to then replicate a higher cadence/lower gear approach on the road.”

Inside info

3 x 3min @ 90, 100, 110rpm – watch for hip wobble, think smooth; take one minute of easy spinning between sets

4. Climbing

Can an indoor training plan really prepare you for those moments when the road points upwards? Some coaches would suggest upping the resistance again, to recreate the force of gravity, but Wattbike’s Fletcher suggests that training cadence will again prove beneficial here. “While you do have to prepare for the hills in the hills to some extent, climbing is something I think you can train for indoors,” stresses Fletcher, “using leg speed and low gears: watch Chris Froome go up Mont Ventoux at 103rpm on a 35×28: physiologically it works well and you can train it. You can’t replicate terrain indoors, but you can replicate the effort and leg speed needed. And it will translate to the bike, despite what purists will tell you.”

Fletcher-coached athlete Mark Fenn adds: “Is there a limit to replicating climbs indoors? No, if anything its easier. Where I live there are no long climbs, but setting cadence and power on the Wattbike to simulate climbs is easy.”

Inside info

Try 3 x 15min blocks, with five minutes of recovery in between, riding at a high intensity that replicates your effort level on a climb. Try to achieve this with a high cadence, rather than pushing a big gear.

5. Top-end speed

“Top-end speed comes from base endurance, but a lot of people neglect that, so you get people doing a lot of high-end intervals and ‘threshold’-type work, but all they’re doing is the same thing over and over again,” explains Fletcher. “Improvement comes from punching up that huge engine that you need, and then just topping it up as the icing on the cake.

“So the bulk of the work that my endurance riders do is building that base endurance and what I call sustained power – the ability to sustain their power for a long period of time.
If you’re aiming for a 100-mile sportive, what you need to be able to do is sustain that power for four or five hours, or however long it takes, and that’s not really about doing high-end intervals.

“If you are in the category of a racer who is going to be up there vying for position then you will have to be able to react to people putting the hammer down, and you will need to do some very specific work for that. It’s no
less or more important than endurance or anything else, it’s just another part of the plan.”

Inside info

Top up your top end by introducing all-out efforts into an endurance session: two blocks of five minutes sprinting flat out for 10 seconds then 50 seconds of recovery, with a recovery period in between the two blocks.

6. Threshold

“The thing about ‘threshold’ and so-called threshold testing is it comes out with statements like ‘based on that result you should be able to do x for an hour’,” says Fletcher. “Not true. The maths involved in these equations is based on perfection and perfection doesn’t exist. Not even in a highly trained athlete.

“So if you did a type of threshold test that suggested you could do a given power for an hour and you tried it you’d probably die in the attempt. You might do half-an-hour, or 35 minutes, but getting up to an hour might not be possible unless you had that exceptional physiological ability and you had successfully built up that base endurance or sustained power.

“So I have a golden rule that if the athlete busts the heart rate for a zone then they must reduce the power – keep the cadence, change gears and keep the heart rate in check for that particular zone. In the end that will push everything else up as well, but I’m not using the test as the gospel because that’s perfection and it’s never going
to be achieved. So it’s about interpretation, and managing
the athlete.

“And that’s the beauty of indoor training, you can precisely control all of those elements.”

Inside info

A 2 x 20 session: 2 x 20 minutes at level 4 with 5 minutes easy spinning in between.

7. Recovery

“The priority of any training plan is to improve fitness while keeping the athlete as injury- and illness-free as possible,” explains Endurance Coach’s Thomas, “and that requires rest. Improvement comes from training overload plus adequate recovery. It is essential that you commence your training sessions recovered, ready
and able to hit the required intensities.”

Although a day of total rest should be scheduled into your week, the turbo is an excellent way to work easy recover rides into your schedule, again because of the consistency of environment they provide.
Even if you set out for an easy ride on the road, a headwind or a hill can soon push you outside your recovery zone.

Inside info

A 20- to 30-minute spin in an easy gear on a rest day keeping in zone 1.

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