Turbo Training for Triathletes

Rick Kiddle extols the virtues of indoor training to beat the winter blues. He shows you how to create a programme tailored to you and stay motivated

Turbo Training for Triathletes

Turbo, aka indoor, training is a great way to improve your fitness over the winter months, especially when it’s too dark, cold or wet to get outdoors. It enables you to clock up your bike mileage inside, in the warm, without having to worry about the rain, fog, snow or wet, leaf-strewn roads and dark evenings. However, while it allows you to avoid the grim winter weather, it does present another problem: boredom.


Sitting in the same place, staring at the same four walls, endlessly turning your legs over isn’t as much fun as getting out for a bit of fresh air. As such, it can quickly become a chore and lead you to lose interest in your bike training.So how can you fight that feeling? What can you do to keep your turbo training fun and interesting, and yourself motivated and enthusiastic? Well, the short answer is: you need to have a plan.

Planning your training means pinpointing goals and establishing a timetable of how you’re going to work towards achieving those goals step by step. Each step is a smaller goal in itself and allows you to make progress in smaller, more manageable chunks. Working through a regimented training programme in this way lets you keep closer tabs on your progress and helps you observe noticeable improvements more regularly.

Constructing a programme that’s tailored to you, your fitness, your ambitions and your time to train is crucial if it’s going to produce the desired results. Which is what we’re going to show you how to do right here.

But you’ll need more than just a plan if you’re going to take your biking to new levels. If you’re going to spend the winter turbo training, the first thing you’re going to need is a turbo trainer.

Choosing a turbo

There are many different types of turbo trainer on the market but they all follow the same basic design. A stand clamps to the rear axle and positions a roller underneath the back wheel, turning your bike into a stationary cycle.

Prices vary widely, starting from around £90 and going all the way up to £600-plus. Fundamentally, they’re very similar but where they differ is in the materials they’re made from and the way they add resistance to your pedalling (it might be wind, magnetic or mechanical resistance).

More expensive models also offer various methods of measuring your performance – heart rate (bpm), speed (mph/kph), cadence (rpm) and/or power (watts). You can make things even more sophisticated with a virtual training partner by hooking some turbos up to a computer.

There are also various rides and race routes available on DVD and, to make things more ‘realistic’, some have course profiles programmed in that you can reproduce by adjusting the resistance on your turbo.

How to choose a turbo trainer

Turbo training isn’t the only indoor cycling option, of course. Rollers or spin classes are two other alternatives. Rollers are like turbo training except both wheels spin and your bike isn’t clamped into place. There’s no resistance but it allows you to improve your balance and pedalling technique since staying upright on rollers demands concentration and smooth power application.

Spin classes are run by gyms and require dedicated spin bikes. They use weighted flywheels on a fixed-gear (single-speed) bike and provide a challenging workout that improves your leg strength, leg speed and pedalling technique.

Get yourself set up

If you’re turbo training indoors you can expect to get very hot, very thirsty and very sweaty. Luckily, there are a few things that make the whole experience a little more comfortable – and save your carpet.

The first thing you need is a drink. You won’t have the cooling effect of the wind, so you’re going to heat up quickly. You’ll need to replace the fluids and minerals you’ll lose through sweating if you’re going to make the most of your workout.

Sweat is also an issue for your bike and furnishings. It has a corrosive effect on metal components, as well as turning any carpet into a damp, smelly mess. A towel draped over your top tube and bars, or dedicated sweat catcher, can protect your bike while a mat or newspaper under your steed will help keep your floors and carpets clean. A fan will also provide ventilation and keep you cooler.

When it comes to bikes, there are a couple of things to consider. Check the ends of your rear-wheel quick releases to make sure they fit into the turbo’s clamp before you choose your turbo trainer.

Turbos wear down tyres quickly, so keep old tyres to hand and use these instead of your expensive racing rubber. Companies such as Continental (www.conti-tyres.co.uk) make a hard-compound tyre specifically for use with turbos. Lastly, a riser for your front wheel keeps your bike level as well as providing the option of lifting it further to simulate climbs. Various manufacturers produce risers but you can use a couple of telephone directories, bricks or a bucket. Just be careful getting on and off. Once you’ve got all that sorted, you’re ready to start work…

Training Plan

A good bike training plan is like any other. It takes you through the winter months right the way up to the beginning of your race season. It will be structured to progressively build your fitness starting with aerobic endurance first, followed by strength and speed, before putting the finishing touches on your form prior to racing.

Turbo training is enormously helpful in plans like this since it allows you to do your workouts in a controlled environment that can be easily and accurately measured and reproduced. What’s more, it’ll probably be easier to train consistently as you won’t have the weather as an excuse to miss training.

But where do you start? Leaping blindly into a training programme is unlikely to produce the best results because you won’t know how much and how hard to work. You need to get an accurate idea of what state your fitness is in before you can begin to build upon it. And in order to do that you first need to test yourself – and your heart rate.

Find your levels

Training plans are based on heart rates because they allow you to carefully control your effort to elicit specific effects. A certain level of effort produces a particular effect. These levels are particular to you and you need to know what they are if you’re going to make the most of your training.

If you’re unsure what your levels are the first thing you need to do is figure them out. Fortunately, with a turbo trainer, a heart rate monitor (HRM) and a bit of time, it’s a simple process. If you already know your HR levels you can get started on adapting the workouts in the ‘Turbo Sessions’ section to your needs. If not, you need to carry out a sub-max fitness test and use the tables below to find out.

There’s nothing more motivating than seeing improvements. The sub-max fitness test outlined here not only gives you your training HR ranges but also gives you a clear basis against which you can measure future improvements.

Sub-max test protocol

Try to do this test after a full day’s rest, when you’re fresh, so your results will be more accurate. Don’t eat for two hours before the test or consume any caffeinated drinks. Don’t carry out this test if you feel unwell and check with your GP first if you’re unsure of your condition.

Start by warming up for 5-10mins with some gentle pedalling on the turbo trainer. Then, start at level 1 (100bpm) on the following Sub-max fitness test chart. Ride for 2mins at this level and make a note of your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) using the ratings in column X of the Sub-max test scale box.

After 2mins, increase your effort to the next HR level specified in column B of the Sub-max fitness test chart. Ride for another 2mins at this level and note your RPE again before raising your HR to the next level. Continue in the same way until you have stepped up at least six levels. Don’t worry if you can’t manage six readings – just do as many as you can until your reach an RPE of 7.5.

Once you’ve finished, fill in column C in the Sub-max fitness test chart with your RPEs at each corresponding level. The RPE numbers in column X in the Sub-max test scale box, right, also correspond to remaining heart rates in column Y. For each of the RPEs you’ve put in column C, copy the corresponding remaining heart rate into column D. (Note: these ‘remaining heart rate’ figures apply to all of you and don’t change, no matter what your max HR is.)

Next, add together the numbers in columns B and D and write the answer in column E. Once you’ve added up all the readings for your different levels, work out the average of the numbers in column E. That will give you an accurate guide as to what your estimated HRmax is.

The Sub-max fitness test chart has been filled in with example results to give you an idea of what yours might look like.

You can use your estimated HRmax to determine your HR training zones. Now look at the Training Zones table below. Work your way across the top line of HR values until you get to the one closest to your estimated HRmax. Once you’ve found it, work down that column to get the rest of your HR training zones.

For instance, in the example above, our HRmax was 178bpm. The closest number along the top line of the Training zones table is 180bpm. So working down the column, our redline zone (zone 5) is 162-180bpm (floor to ceiling); our threshold zone (zone 4) is 144-162bpm (floor to ceiling); and so on.

The sub-max fitness test gives you your HR training zones to use when following the turbo and pyramid sessions specified on page 49. It can also be used as ‘benchmark’ session to test how your fitness is progressing at regular intervals throughout the winter. Fill in the Sub-max fitness test chart’s ‘Distance Covered’ and ‘Power’ columns each time and the readings should increase as your fitness progresses. You should also notice a drop in your RPE.

Incorporating sessions

Turbo sessions shouldn’t completely replace all your outdoor riding. Try to get out on the road for a longer ride at least once a week. Turbos are handy if you have limited time in the evenings or the weather/light is not suitable to go out in.

If you’re just starting out on a training plan, try adding one or two of the following Turbo sessions to your weekly long ride.

Your winter training can be divided up into three eight-week cycles. Each cycle focuses on building different aspects of your fitness: 1) aerobic endurance; 2) aerobic endurance and strength building; 3) speed.

As you progress, you can develop the sessions in one of two ways – by increasing either their intensity or their duration. If your resting HR remains normal after two weeks of training, you can increase the duration by 10% for the third and fourth weeks. If it remains normal after weeks three and four, increase it by 10-20% for weeks five to eight.

Other sessions ideal for turbo trainers are pyramids. Pyramid sessions are great for improving your ability to maintain higher paces for longer periods of time. They get you to work at 65-85% of your HRmax for increasing intervals before gradually reducing it again. The following table outlines some workouts specific to different levels of ability.

You can introduce pyramid sessions after the first eight weeks of training. If you’re new to triathlon, only go up to 80% of your HRmax. More seasoned triathletes can try going to 85% HRmax (or your highest sustainable HR) for 2 x 15mins.

It’s not just aerobic fitness that turbo training can help with. If you struggle on hills, you need to focus on strength training. You can do this on a turbo by pedalling against greater resistance with a lower cadence (60-80rpm). Strength training intervals are much shorter, and involve lots of resistance and recovery time. Turbo trainers with power-measuring equipment are useful for this.

For example, if you can produce 390 watts for a short period of time, start with a series of 4-8 x 30secs at 240 watts (approx 60% of your maximum wattage). Then take 2mins recovery pedalling at 100 watts.

Turbo training is also a great way to work on your pedalling technique as you can focus on how your legs move.

A good way to visualise the pedal stroke is to think about it as a circle. Move your leg through the complete revolution by first pushing your foot forwards at the top of the stroke and then down towards the bottom. Next, pull your foot backwards and then up towards the top of the stroke, as if scraping mud off the sole of your shoe. This action allows you to use the complete pedal stroke and recruits more muscles in your legs and around your hips for a more powerful action. One-legged pedalling is a great way to practise it and something you can do simply and safely on a turbo trainer. See session 2 for a one-legged workout.

Getting out

The important thing to remember is that turbo training should be an addition to, not a substitute for, riding outdoors. If the weather is okay to ride outdoors, then get out for a few hours and work on your aerobic endurance. Use indoor sessions to work on your ability to maintain a hard effort for an extended period of time by focusing on intensity.

Do all your winter bike training on a turbo, and it quickly becomes boring as you find yourself staring at the same wall night after night. And once you start getting bored, you start to lose motivation. A structured training plan with an overall target will help, but there are other things to make turbo training more enjoyable and help you stay motivated…

Maintaining Motivation

Keeping yourself motivated is the hardest part of training, particularly if you’re training indoors in the same place all the time. Without the stimuli of a route, road surfaces and scenery, riding can become quite dull. However, there are various ways you can keep indoor training interesting. The easiest is to construct and work to a plan as outlined on the previous pages. Alternatively, you can try some or all of the following…

Music Turning on your stereo or plugging in your headphones will help take your mind off the constant droning whirr of your turbo trainer and your increasingly heavy breathing. Music stimulates you and can get you geared up for a hard workout, but you need to choose your music carefully. Leonard Cohen and Radiohead may be masters but are probably not going to get you in the mood for a high-energy workout. Try albums that are more up tempo, even if it means dusting off ‘The Greatest Air Guitar Anthems Ever: Vol 3’.

TV and film Spinning away for an hour or more gives you a great chance to catch up on all those films or programmes you’ve never gotten round to watching. Set your bike up in front of the box, slot in the DVD, sit back in the saddle and let the film carry you away.

Again, your choice of viewing material can affect how you approach the session, so pick something that’s going to keep you enthusiastic. Ingmar Bergman films are probably best avoided in these circumstances. However, sports videos – particularly bike races, for obvious reasons – make for ideal viewing when you’re spending an hour or so pedalling furiously. You could also try some of the various indoor training DVDs available. These give you a workout and a sense that you’re being coached with others.

Group sessions Finally, you could get a group of friends/clubmates together for an afternoon or evening, and turbo train together.You’ll get all the usual camaraderie and banter as well as a bike workout specific to your needs. Think of it as a stationary club ride where you get to pool your efforts (and your sweat). Whatever method you choose, keeping it fun will help you keep it consistent.

Rick Kiddle won the British Tri Champs in 1989 and has competed in the World and European Champs as well as the Commonwealth Games



Bike training: turbo vs road cycling

Four winter turbo trainer sessions

Sub-1hr bike session: TT turbo