Getting the Most Out of Your Bike Trainer

Ever since buying my first bike, I’ve lived in Arizona, where I could ride outside virtually every day of the year. While my cold-weather friends were lamenting the snow piling up outdoors, I would send them photos of the most spectacular sunrise photos taken during my 70-degree February rides.


If you believe in karma, you’ll laugh at what I have to say next: Recently, I moved to Salt Lake City, and it will Not. Stop. Snowing. Now my February bike rides look more like this:

bike trainer

That’s right — this winter, my bike has become a piece of furniture in my den. I pedal furiously for hours without moving an inch, longing for warmer weather and the freedom of the open road. Karma, you sure are an ass**** (ahem).

Using a bike trainer has become a necessary evil for this snowbound triathlete, just like treadmills and lap swimming in teeny-tiny indoor pools. They’re not my favorite ways to train, but utilizing these indoor options now will make my training much more enjoyable when the weather finally warms up. Though I’d rather be riding in the sunshine right now, I’ve learned to make my peace with the trainer — some days, I even enjoy it. With a few tips, you can, too!

Bike Trainer

Choose Wisely

Trainers, like bikes and their riders, come in a variety of forms. Each has its own pros and cons.

  • Wind-resistance trainers, where the rider’s pedal strokes propel fan blades to provide resistance on the back wheel, are the cheapest bike trainers to purchase (usually coming in at around $150). However, the savings to your bank account may not be worth the cost to your sanity — wind trainers are very noisy.
  • Magnetic trainers allow the rider to set the bike to a certain resistance level using a magnetic spindle that makes contact with the back wheel. They’re quite quiet, but there’s no variability within a set — if you want more resistance, you have to stop riding, dismount your bike and change the resistance level manually.
  • Fluid trainers combine the best of both worlds — like wind trainers, the harder you pedal, the more resistance you get. Like magnetic trainers, the noise level is low. The same can’t be said for the price — fluid trainers tend to run more than $300.
  • Some eschew stationary trainers altogether for rollers — a workout tool where a bike isn’t attached to the trainer (like it is for the above trainers) but instead balances on top of three cylinders, which “roll” as the rider pedals. It’s the same concept as lumberjack log rolling, only with the added challenge of keeping your bike upright. Some love the challenge of rollers, while others (including yours truly) crash a lot.

Set the Stage

Where you set up your bike trainer will depend on a variety of factors. You may have ample space in your bedroom, but your partner may not love the sound of your workout at 5 a.m. The garage can be a great place for a bike trainer, too, unless you live in a particularly cold climate. Some people insist on setting up their trainer in view of a television to help reduce the boredom of stationary trainers.

Once you’ve determined your perfect location, prep the area so it’s comfortable and functional for all. If the trainer is on a hard floor, place a yoga mat or towel beneath the trainer and front wheel to prevent sliding and scuffing. If you sweat heavily, a towel over the handlebars will go a long way in protecting both bike and floor. Many riders like to elevate their front wheel, too, to keep the bike level. Though a front-wheel prop, or block, can be purchased with your trainer, a phone book under the front wheel is just as effective (and far more economical).

And, of course, you’ll need standard cycling equipment for your ride — shoes, a good pair of bike shorts and a water bottle.

Entertain Yourself

One of the benefits of riding on the trainer is (finally!) having the time to catch up on your Netflix queue. Let’s face it, trainer rides can be boring. Distract yourself with your favorite mode of entertainment, be it loud music, intriguing documentaries, or old episodes of The Golden Girls.

Mix it Up

Spinning your wheels at the same boring cadence is a surefire recipe for burnout. Within a workout, you can do a lot of things to keep yourself entertained — break up your time on the bike with intervals. These can consist of a faster cadence, harder gears, achieving a certain heart rate or sets of “climbing” out of the seat. Technique work is also great for trainer time — try some of these pedaling drills from triathlon coach Joe Friel.

Know Your Limits

If you hate riding on the trainer, don’t force yourself to stay on it for hours. Know when you start to get a little stir-crazy on the bike, and plan your workouts accordingly. For example, my threshold is two hours. I’ve tried to make myself tolerate it longer, but it just doesn’t happen. Instead, I accept that as my limit and make my two hours the best two hours I possibly can. If your limit is shorter, consider breaking up your ride into two workouts — two 30-minute workouts bookending your day can be just as effective as one long hour on the trainer.

Do you take to the trainer in the winter? How do you make the most of it? —Susan

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