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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bicycle Trainers are good for you.

A reader recently suggested that I write an article about bike trainers. I had never thought about this topic for a blogpost before, but I think it's a great one for several reasons.



First, I feel that new riders need to know the value of having a trainer. Many of the "old timers" in my cycling community really hate trainers and speak negatively against them (for reasons that I will address). Some of them wrongly suggest that riding a trainer isn't helpful for conditioning.   As they are set in their ways, I'm afraid it's too late for them, but perhaps I can put some new riders on the right track with some good information.

Actually bike trainers are a great training tool for a serious cyclist. It allows a cyclist to pedal their bike any time of day or night, for as little or as long as they would like and avoid any kind of negative weather condition such as extreme heat, cold, wind, snow, etc. Plus the pedal time is 100% car free, there are no worries of traffic, stop lights, road hazards, dogs, etc, that can alter or halt a workout.  It simply eliminates all geological and  environmental conditions that can interfere with a planed workout.

And the workout can be extremely controlled concerning effort.  Trainer workouts are ideal for specifically timed interval training at specific efforts.  Plus they can be used for warming up for races or used to maintain fitness while recovering from an injury that would ordinarily prevent road riding, and stretching legs out after traveling.  It's also an ideal way to burn more calories and reduce body fat (especially upon waking before eating).  Most importantly it allows a rider to use a stationary bicycle that is properly fitted specifically to the rider (far superior to a gym-cycle).

Before I lose my readers, let me share 3 extremely important facts/tips about bicycle trainers:

1. You must protect your bike from sweat!  Specifically the stem and headset area.  Human sweat  is extremely corrosive to metal parts and will destroy your bearings and such over time.  This can easily be prevented by covering these parts with a dry cloth (change as necessary).  Blam!  I just saved you a few hundred bucks!  (depending on your equipment).  You're welcome!

2.  Riding a trainer is harder than riding a bike on the road.  Literally.  The primary reason is that you hardly ever coast (not pedal for a period of time) on a trainer, but you often do when road riding (5-20% of the time depending)  This means that your muscles do more work, and as a result have less time to recover.  This can be hard on knees (tendons typically),  if they aren't adapted properly over time and/or allowed to periodically rest and be stretched during a workout.  A secondary reason is inertia.  This topic can become rather long winded.  In short, a trainer punishes a rider with a poor pedal stroke compared to a poor pedal stroke on the road.  (It's related to the dead-spots of a pedal stroke and drive-train drag.  I'll discuss it in more detail later along with other considerations).

3.  You need a fan.  A very good fan.  Riding a trainer releases a lot of energy in the form of heat.  Much of that is from your body captured in sweat.  Do yourself a favor and run a fan or two on you as you ride.  You'll be MUCH more comfortable and ride longer as well. 

"So why do old timers hate riding the trainer", you ask?  Well, the primary reason that they report hating riding the trainer is boredom.  And that's legit.  Riding the open road is much more ideal typically.  Nothing can replace the joy of real biking.   I would never suggest trading it for trainer riding just for the sake of it. 

I've already covered reasons for choosing a trainer ride over outdoor riding.  Now, let me discuss how to make it enjoyable or at least bearable:  First prepare your trainer workout.  Set up the fan, get some towels to capture sweat, set up a side table for storing items in easy reach, such as cell phone, music player, tv/stereo remote, bottled icewater, etc.  Watching cycling related videos or upbeat shows can help pass time (for non-intense riding)   Gadgets  such as powermeters and or heart rate monitors are ideal.  They not only provide something to focus on, they help quantify one's efforts, which when applied correctly to training can help a cyclist improve their physical conditioning.   

Keep it short or break it up.  An hour is pretty long on a trainer, but that is an fairly ideal workout period (10 minutes still beats zero though) . I don't recommend longer unless suffering is one of your goals.  Periodically stop and stretch your muscles and ligaments.  Also ride the trainer standing and or change positions frequently.   This lets blood flow back into your nether regions and makes you more comfortable.  Add intervals to your  workout (there are too many combination/variations for this post).  Mentally rehearse bike races or just meditate about different life issues.  The trainer is a great place to contemplate life issues, especially one's that trigger you autonomic nervous system.

As a general rule, intensity of an exercise is more valuable than duration alone (this is a future topic to be discussed, a balance is required).  For a specific set of intensity exercises on the stationary bike trainer see Selene Yeager's article, "How to Ride Inside:  Indoor Trainer Workouts for Cyclists".


Without a doubt, the greatest tool for making a stationary trainer ride more enjoyable is music. However, one problem with trainers and music is being able to hear it. Many trainers become progressively louder. I've used some that sounded like a jet was taking off (or at least a mower). The solution is to use noise isolating earbuds. I have used many including the top of the line by both Bose and Shure (both are good but pricey) and I can tell you that the absolute best sounding earbud for it's price is the Koss KE29S Steel Isolating Earbuds, who's slogan is, "Hearing is Believing" and they got that right.  They are freakin' awesome!   

Unfortunately, I have destroyed every earphone set I've ever owned. Riding on a trainer is one of the ways, particularly due to sweat.  Happily, the Koss earbuds are nearly waterproof. I've even machine washed and dried a pair that was accidentally left in a jersey pocket and they still worked! Do yourself a favor and buy one. I'll help you out...... just click the Amazon ad and they'll send it you to. You're welcome!

One reason that "old timers" list  hating trainers is that they don't provide a real road feel.  This is true and is mainly due the laws of physics.  This is largely because the  trainer is more difficult than the road due to inertia differences.  Specifically, the trainer produces a more constant drag on the wheel/chain  as the cranks rotate.  Whereas a bicycle on the road will continue to move forward when power is removed, whereas on a trainer the wheel will come to a stop rather quickly (the trainer/wheel has less inertia).  This becomes a big deal if a rider has a poor/inefficient pedal stroke.  Specifically poor muscle firing (or contracting) during the revolution of the crank.  The top and the bottom of the pedal stroke is the point of particular concern.  An ideal pedal stroke should have a small amount of push over the top and pull at the bottom.  Just the right amount, not too much, and should feel natural.  Lemond describes the bottom stroke as wiping your feet off on a carpet.  I would describe the top stroke as a floating slide.  Please do not over exaggerate either, as doing so will become inefficient, the pedal stroke should feel natural.    Dr. James Martin has done research showing that pulling up during a pedal stroke is not efficient (oxygen use for watts generated) for cycling.  An exception would be sprinting, in which case you should use every muscle fiber in a properly timed fashion all the way to  your facial expression. 

I should probably mention the subject of cadences (crank rotations per minute) regarding trainers.  It has been shown that lower cadences are more efficient (oxygen used per watt generated) specifically 60rpm is superior to 100rpm (this is going to upset the old timers).  But I am going to throw the old timers a bone.  Higher rpms such as 90 are much easier on the knees.  Sprinting cadences are best in the 120rpm range.  I would suggest mixing up rpms as you ride to keep things from getting boring.  Also periodically stop  and stretch your muscles and ligaments.  (You can read more about proper crank length and cadences here)


I embedded the below video for a couple of reasons.  One it is informative about several good trainers from the industry leader in trainers, and the other is that it is narrated by Robbie "The Rocket" Ventura.  I've actually raced him a few times .  Plus the trainer I purchased came with a dvd video of Robbie racing at Downers Grove.  It was meaningful to me because I recognized several riders in the video (Joe Hill namely).  The video was clearly pre GoPro era because Robbie was wearing a backpack just to film the race.  Pretty funny from today's perspective. 

Anyway, these are great trainers and I highly recommend the CycleOps Fluid 2 trainer.  It's an extremely good trainer and is the quietest one that I am personally aware of. 



Below is another video that Robbie Ventura is in (sorry CycleOps), discussing the Lemond Revolution Trainer:
I find the design of this trainer to be nearly ideal.   The rear wheel is removed in order to connect the bike directly to the trainer.    This is ideal because this method doesn't wear out tires like traditional trainers do and will not produce any slippage from jump starts like some trainers can.  Additionally it eliminates the potential damage that can happen with certain skewers (or just poor clamping) with traditional designs.   My only hesitation on giving it a perfect rating is that it is not quiet when in use.  In fact it becomes pretty loud during higher efforts.  Still it's among the best. 






Of course the "old timers" probably wouldn't forgive me if I didn't mention rollers.  Instead of describing them in great detail you can watch the below embedded video that shows some exceptional riding on rollers. 

Riding rollers is pretty cool if you have never done it before.  The primary advantages of rollers are that they are not so boring.  It is necessary to pay attention so that you don't fall off, and they replicate a more realistic road feel because of the inertia of the wheels. 

The down side is that is very difficult to stand and pedal (which is important in my opinion) and very difficult to do a good sprint effort.  And of course you can fall off and go boom (sweat can make the rollers slick).

I can both ride rollers no handed and one legged (probably not combined).  I've also ridden rollers on a ship that was rolling (best to line the trainer forward/aft against the ship's rolls), and on a flat bed trailer pulled about in a parade with nothing to grab ahold of (I had to have help starting and stopping). 
 


If for some reason (superflurous use of parenthesis) you want to purchase rollers, here you go: 

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