Why Bikepackers Might Want To Try Turbo Training

Bikepacking and the outdoors are intrinsically linked, and most endurance cyclists are committed to riding outdoors in any weather (after you’ve been caught in a few storms on tours, a bit of rain, snow or cold becomes less of a deterrent). But as turbo trainers and training software have become more like riding outside, more and more bikepackers are adding indoors training to their box of tricks – and putting their own unique spin on it.

With improved social elements and the ability to better replicate the real world, turbo training has become another way for bikepackers to train, ride with distant friends and squeeze in a ride when they’re time-crunched. We spoke to four ultra-distance cyclists about why they incorporate turbo trainer miles into their training and riding – read on to find out why you might want to join them.

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Katie Kookaburra faces away from the camera, viewing her avatar on Zwift as she rides

The Social Rider

Katie Kookaburra is an endurance cycling YouTuber with a love of all things outdoors (but also enjoys an indoor Zwift session).

For Katie, the turbo trainer is a way to socialize with other riders as well as more serious solo training rides. Most of her turbo miles take place in Zwift, an online cycling and running platform that allows users to be able to train, interact and compete in a virtual world. The main ‘world’ is a fictional location called Watopia, but there are also other ‘worlds’ that replicate real locations such as London, Yorkshire, France, New York and Japan, adding an element of realism to turbo training.

To ride on Zwift you need a turbo trainer that attaches to your bike. You link it all up and off you go riding in the virtual world. Your speed is based on your actual watts (taken from a power meter or the turbo) so you are legitimately able to race others up climbs and around courses.

Because Zwift is hugely based on community, it’s perfect for virtual meet-ups. I host two rides a month on Zwift and being able to ride with friends who live locally or in an entirely different country is amazing. I’ve had hundreds of people riding alongside me up Alpe du Zwift (Zwift’s virtual replica of Alpe d’Huez) and yes it does have each of its brutal 21 switchbacks.

For me, Zwift is perfect because you can do your set training sessions alone so you are building that endurance base for the year ahead, but you can also ride alongside friends in a more social sense too. There are literally hundreds of events on Zwift such as Gran Fondos, races and really steady social rides. 

I would recommend getting an extra free app called Discord, which allows you to set up channels so you can talk with groups of friends as you ride, making it a lot more sociable. 

I would recommend mixing up your turbo sessions. Try a training session, race and social ride. That for me keeps me motivated to jump on the turbo. Also, the fact you don’t have to take 15 minutes getting kitted up to get outside is another huge bonus for me.” 

Katie rides her bike on a trainer, viewed from the side, with Zwift on a TV screen in front of her

The Virtual Ultra-Distance Rider

Ross Duncan is a virtual ultra cyclist and was the first to complete a triple Everesting on Zwift. He holds the record for the most consecutive Everests on Zwift, the record for the most elevation on Zwift in seven days and is the only person to ride 50,000m in one ride using Hells 500 rules.

Turbo training allows Ross to challenge himself and raise money and awareness for important causes. He’s set several records for virtual elevation gain and regularly performs feats of ultra-endurance on the turbo trainer. 

I have completed a few virtual Everesting (vEveresting) attempts, all of which have followed the rules set out by the team at Hells 500. I use a Tacx Neo smart trainer as to vEverest you have to use a smart trainer, specifically one that can replicate the gradient as indicated by Zwift or RGT (another smart training app). This means you can’t use a smart trainer that can only simulate a 15% gradient and then do an vEverest on a hill that has a 20% gradient. There are only two virtual platforms approved for vEveresting that is Zwift and RGT. I have completed over 20 vEverests on Zwift, sometimes even carrying on to 10,000 meters(ROAM) and as a result, I have set a couple of world firsts and records on Zwift.”

He offers the following advice for anyone keen to try a virtual Everesting:

“Most people will do their Everesting on the Alpe du Zwift. If you want to give it a go, I recommend building up to the vEverest – so do two reps of the alp and increase by a rep a week. Like with Everesting outside, you need to add the elevation gain you have at the base of the climb to the 8848 meters required – so a full vEverest on the Alpe du Zwift is 8.5 reps. Once you have done a few ascents, you will find out if you need to use a larger cassette than normal.

With indoor training, you may find that you are locked into a static riding position, and you may find you get uncomfortable compared to riding outside, as you are not moving and using the bike in the same way as outside. There are some that use a rocker plate to help simulate side to side motion and even forward and back, so you get more of a ride feel.”

Thomas Ivor rides on the turbo at night, with the Zoom call with his ultra distance idols visible in the background

The Lockdown Rider Turned Turbo Convert

Thomas Ivor Jones is an accomplished cycle tourist and fundraiser, regularly taking on challenges on the bike. His passion for ultra-distance cycling was enabled during lockdown in the UK when he couldn’t ride far from home and had the opportunity to cycle with his ultra-cycling idols on Zwift.

Thomas Ivor has completed bike tours with his family (Family ByCycle) since he was small in places like France, Denmark, Scotland and his local Northamptonshire. When he was 11, he rode his first 100-mile day on the road from Carlisle to Glasgow as part of his challenge to climb the three peaks of Great Britain and cycle between them. He’s also raised funds for the National Autistic Society by doing a 7km swim, run and cycle.

Lockdowns at the start of the pandemic saw Thomas Ivor forced to ride on the turbo and quickly racking up over 4500km on Zwift, including a 500km ride in just over 16 hours and a 1,600km week.

“On the turbo, I did a whopping 400km in one day on a virtual call with my idols, Mark Beaumont, Steve Bate MBE, Ross Duncan and so many more. After I felt that I had a craving for more so I rode for an entire week, accumulating 1600km.

It was a huge undertaking that involved getting up before 4 am to start on time. This made it so that I started quite tired; in the end, I had to have some coffee (which I absolutely hate) on my third break. Most of us on the ride took our breaks at the same time to be able to continue our conversations after. Without the Zoom call, I think I would have felt really quite bored and antisocial. I believe that this method for chatting to each other on zoom was better than using Zwift’s own chat function.”

Following such long stints in the saddle, Thomas has the following advice for increasing comfort and preparing for a long turbo session:

“Riding the bike for a very long time is difficult. It is not the riding that is the most difficult though, it is how you manage your head. I have gone through many books and have also binge-watched tons of tv-shows! 

I find it helpful to pace myself in blocks between breaks, aiming to do 100km every four hours. When resting between blocks I suggest to not waste a single second off the bike so you can do more things in the 15-30 minutes, for example, have a shower after every couple of blocks, change your kit, refill your water bottles or eat. 

It also helps to make sure you have all the things you need during the ride next to you within an arm’s reach of you. There are many ways to do this including having a top tube bag on your bike to store devices, snacks and charging leads. But you can keep on even more of your bike packing bags to help with storage issues that may occur. I have used music stands, bike stands and tables alongside my bike.”

Despite preferring riding outdoors and only turning to turbo training when that wasn’t possible during the UK’s Covid lockdown, Thomas tells us that he’ll not stop riding on Zwift and is embracing the turbo as another way of riding… who knows, he may even do another ‘big week’ to see if he can do even more distance next time…

Thomas Ivor rides his turbo outdoors. His full setup is visible with a phone and laptop in front of him and a table to the side with supplies on it

The Reluctant Rehabber 

Cory Wallace is a professional Canadian mountain bike rider who has spent years avoiding the turbo, preferring to ride outside no matter the conditions. Over his impressive career, he’s racked up three world solo 24-hour victories, is the two-time Canadian marathon champion and is the BC bike race champion, alongside holding the Anapurna Circuit FKT.

After multiple collar bone dislocations in the last eight years, Cory spent a long winter having his shoulder pinned and undergoing rehab to build the strength back up. Rather than risk riding outdoors during his rehab and with guidance from his doctor, he reluctantly took to turbo training for the first time in ten years.

“For me, riding is about going places, seeing things and getting away from electronics to just enjoy life. My only experience with turbo training was back when you attached your bike to a simple trainer by the back wheel – it wasn’t very intuitive and I’ve got bad memories from training for a race in Costa Rica. I locked myself in my parents’ basement and trained wearing a down jacket to acclimatise to the heat and I just hated it.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel overseas and train in better climates most years, so turbo training was totally off my radar until I had the surgery on my shoulder. I didn’t want to miss out on training during the rehab, so my doctor lent me his whole smart trainer setup and talked me into giving it a go. It took a bit of persuasion, but eventually, I gave in and said ‘okay, fine, I’ll try the damn thing and see if it works!’.

He organised a group ride and I rode with him the first time to get me going. Without the down jacket and with a fan going, I found I was able to ride for about an hour or so

It was more about just keeping the legs moving than targeted training. I used a heart rate monitor, cadence and power and spent a while working out how the whole smart training system works – organising meetups with my buddies overseas so that I could get to the point where the setup was dialled in and I could just get up in the morning and just hop straight on the bike before I could even think about what was going on.

I’ve always had a hard time pushing myself on a turbo trainer, so I used it to do fasted rides rather than aiming to hit training zones. I just felt like I’d rather focus on body composition and what I was burning for fuel than trying to push x amount of watts doing intervals. My arm was in a sling, so I couldn’t do too much and it was a perfect way to fill an hour to keep the muscle memory and then go out, take my dog for a couple of hours walk in the snow, which was the real exercise.

I think it’s important to remember it’s rehab, not training. It’s about spinning the legs and keeping yourself sane, rather than trying to get fitter. I’d normally ride for about 45 minutes and then if I felt good, keep going. I think a couple of days I hit two hours, but most days an hour and fifteen minutes at most. It ended up being four weeks that were less painful than they would have been without the turbo.

Turbo training is actually not too bad these days and it was cool just getting out of bed and getting on the turbo whatever the weather was like. It’s quick and efficient – mentally it’s harder, but an hour on the turbo is the equivalent of a couple of hours outside, so it’s a really efficient way to push yourself.

Manage your expectations and remember that just getting on and spending an hour is better than doing nothing. A good setup helps a lot – music, TV or just scrolling Facebook or Instagram instead of sitting on the couch. Just get on the turbo and see how you feel – I’d just start spinning for five to ten minutes and if I wasn’t feeling it, I’d shut it down instead of just totally avoiding it.”