Indoor cycling used to be boring. It’s just a matter of turning on some music and turning away, there’s nothing else to engage the rider or entertain.
Things have changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and there are now plenty of apps from brands like Zwift and Wahoo that let you do everything from explore virtual worlds to copy the training schedules of pros. Karma.
If you want to take advantage of these endless indoor training opportunities, you’ll need the correct setup. This means using a turbo trainer or an exercise/stationary bike, but which is the best option?
Here’s a complete guide to turbo trainers and stationary/exercise bikes.
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What is a turbo trainer?
Turbo trainers are stationary equipment that outdoor bicycles attach to. They create resistance when the rider pedals in two different ways.
Turbo trainer with wheels
The turbo trainer has wheels that clamp the rear wheel’s thru-axle or skewer to secure the bike in place. The rear wheel rests on a roller or drum that is used to create resistance. This roller can usually be fine-tuned by using a dial to adjust how much it presses against the wheel.
Generally, wheeled turbo trainers are at the entry-level to mid-range price point of the market and do not benefit from the same high-end features as direct-drive turbo trainers.
Direct drive turbo trainer
The direct drive turbo trainer replaces the bike’s rear wheel. Once the wheels are removed, the rear sliders fit snugly onto the trainer and are held in place by a thru-axle or quick-release skewer. The leash is placed around an existing cassette – these are usually included with the trainer but sometimes must be purchased separately – which is used to create resistance.
Because there is no contact between the tire and drum, direct drive turbo trainers tend to be quieter. For most brands, they are also on the higher end, equipped with the best features including more accurate power data, larger resistance ranges, and smart capabilities.
Read more: Zwift training challenge – how fit can you get using a turbo trainer?
What is a smart coach?
To get the most out of apps like Zwift or Wahoo SYSTM, it’s best to use a smart turbo trainer.
Once connected to the app, the smart trainer can automatically change the resistance you feel while cycling. This is great when you’re riding in a virtual world or competing in a Zwift race because the trainer will simulate the virtual terrain you’re riding on. For example, if you’re climbing a mountain, the resistance will simulate a specific slope. Then, as you’re going down, the resistance will decrease.
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Even if you’re following a simple workout, a smart trainer can be really helpful because it will tailor the resistance to your strength goals, so all you have to do is think about pedaling.
When using a conventional trainer, the rider must change the resistance manually, resulting in a less engaging experience.
What is an exercise/stationary bike?
If you want a more permanent solution that doesn’t involve attaching and detaching the bike to a trainer, then a stationary/exercise bike may be the right choice.
These methods have been around for decades and can claim to be the original form of indoor training. Traditionally, they’ve been pretty basic, with a dial that can change resistance while only providing simple data like RPM and workout time.
While this is still a viable option, many options are now more advanced, with many features.
At one end of the spectrum there are spin bikes. Peloton is the most famous brand in this area, although other brands also have similar products. Peloton has its own training app that users can log into to take training classes as well as access a variety of off-bike activities. It’s become a popular choice for people who aren’t necessarily just focused on cycling but improving their overall fitness.
For those focused solely on cycling, there are smart indoor cycling bikes. These function exactly like smart turbo trainers, interacting with apps to automatically change resistance. They also tend to have a high level of power accuracy and can simulate a wide range of powers.
In addition to the resistance component, smart stationary/exercise bikes often have a motor so you can freely move down virtual slides, and they are set up like a normal bike to simulate the feeling cycling outdoors.
Benefits of turbo trainers compared to exercise bikes
For many riders, turbo training is a seasonal pastime, reserved for the colder and often wetter fall and winter months of the Northern Hemisphere. During the summer months, the coach will be inactive or used only sporadically. For those pursuing this model of indoor cycling, a turbo trainer with a more compact design will be very useful. They can easily be stored away ready for the next use, unlike much larger stationary/exercise bikes – you’ll need a large cabinet if you want to keep one out of sight.
If you choose a smart turbo trainer, you’ll also benefit from top-end features, allowing you to take advantage of the best indoor cycling apps like Zwift and Wahoo SYSTM. This opens up a whole world of indoor training opportunities, from racing to exploring vast virtual worlds.
Read more: Guide to Wahoo SYSTM – fitness tracking and workouts for your smart coach
All of these typically cost less than an exercise bike. That cost becomes even more affordable if you choose a coach who isn’t smart. If you don’t care about the interactivity factor and want an easy way to stretch your legs, this is the most cost-effective solution.
When is an exercise bike/stationary bike better than a turbo trainer?
One disadvantage of turbo trainers can be errors. If you’re combining indoor cycling with outdoor cycling, that means you have to constantly attach and detach your bike from the trainer. Using a stationary/exercise bike simplifies things as there is no setup required, just hop on the saddle and ride.
The highest-end indoor cycling bikes also have the same functionality as the top turbo trainers. Many brands, like Wahoo which recently released the Kickr Bike Shift, offer smart indoor cycling bikes that can connect to popular apps, allowing them to vary the resistance. That smart functionality is often backed up by a high level of precision and an impressive power range.
Despite these features, stationary/exercise bikes still lag behind turbocharged bikes in popularity for one simple reason: cost. They are typically much more expensive than their turbo training counterparts, which is a major barrier and consideration for anyone considering them.
How to choose the right setup for your home cycling workout?
Ultimately, the best indoor cycling setup is the one that meets your individual needs.
If you like the interactive element and want to make the most of the many apps available then a smart trainer is a must. However, not everyone can bother exploring virtual worlds, and a regular turbo trainer can be a great choice for basic training needs.
Practicality also factors into the decision-making process and this is where stationary/exercise bikes enter the thinking. There’s no need to mess around with setting them up, and if you plan to train indoors regularly all year round, they provide a simple solution. That solution comes at a price, although many high-end smart turbo trainers aren’t too far behind in terms of price.
Consider all of these factors and then decide which option best meets your needs. No matter which option you choose, indoor cycling is a great way to keep cycling and we know you’ll have lots of fun.
And don’t forget, to complete your turbo training setup you’ll need must-have accessories. Check out our guide for everything you need below.
Read more: Essential turbo workout equipment – everything you need to start working out indoors
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