What’s better? Turbo or road?

June 27, 2019

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Last week I had one of my athletes express concerns for the bike training at the moment because of an increased number of turbo sessions in their program of late. The question has inspired me to share some of the key benefits to training on a turbo in comparison to riding out on the road.

 

In the context of this athlete, some of the sessions were last minute swaps from road to turbo due to severe weather conditions. So this may have influenced the athletes doubt, given that the turbo session wasn’t the original plan. However, provided there is an adequate translation in the session prescription from road to turbo, there should be no compromise in the quality or the outcome of the session.

Let’s look at some of the perks;

Safe and controlled environment

First and foremost with any training session, safety should be a coaches and an athletes number one priority. If it’s a training session undertaken by an athlete independently, then the onus falls on the athlete to make a judgement call about the conditions of the day within the context of their skill level. With some rather ordinary days of weather cropping up throughout winter in Australia, an athlete needs to be able to recognise the dangers of cycling on the road in strong winds, low visibility, and heavy rain. Any one or a combination of these factors is enough to put a cyclist at a significantly increased level risk of an accident, compared to riding in optimal conditions. I’m sure I don’t need to inform anyone whose ridden a bike on the road the possible outcomes of something going wrong while riding a bike (cue awkward hand raise from all of you out there whose had a broken collar bone)! Safety always first people, there is no need to be a hero. There’s no award for the most ‘macho’ cyclist who gets out on the road in stupidly dangerous conditions. You’re far better off playing it safe and shifting your session to the safety of your pain cave instead.

Nowhere to hide

In addition to the safety aspect, athletes have complete control over the session. No traffic lights and no freewheeling on descents. Depending on your set up, athletes might even be able to control the climate of the session to more accurately match those of an upcoming race to help you better prepare. With some pretty savvy smart trainers available these days, if the objective of a session is for an athlete to spend an allocated amount of time at a certain cadence and wattage, this can be dialled in to the second. If your coach wants you doing 8 minute hill reps at 60rpm at 110% of your FTP, then this is exactly what you can do. You don’t have to go searching for a suitable hill that isn’t a consistent gradient and has no bike shoulder. The physiological benefits of spending 8 minutes at 60rpm at 110% of your FTP are no different on the road versus the training – the body is experiencing the same strain, but you have the added benefit of the accuracy! And by training accurately, this means you are training efficiently and are more likely to reach session objectives by training this way rather than dealing with the ‘uncontrollables’ (road works, traffic lights interrupting interval efforts, poor visibility forcing you to ride at a slower, safer pace etc) out on the road.

Mental Fortitude

Endurance triathlon is mostly a head game. Now there is absolutely nothing stimulating about staring at the back of your garage door for hours on end. I appreciate that some people may have some fancy screen set ups to have you racing people from random parts of the world, but for those of you who are limited to the entertainment of your own thoughts – this is a great way to learn how to stay focused and remain mindful while the body is suffering. In long course racing, being able to remain present and focused for long periods of time while suffering can make or break a race. So using your turbo sessions to help build that mental fortitude is a great use of your time on the turbo, and a benefit you can’t quite replicate on the road.

Perks of road riding

I should conclude that there are still plenty of benefits to riding on the road, depending on the objective of the session. In particular bike handling skills and developing confidence riding in different conditions and in close proximity to other riders really only comes from getting out there and getting amongst it. But it’s important to practice these skills in a safe environment that is suitably matched to the skill and confidence levels of the rider.

Skill development aside – your legs, heart and lungs can’t tell the difference between turbo training versus training on the road. The physiological gains for your muscular and cardiovascular systems are the same.

I hear of some coaches relegating their athletes to indoor only sessions for months on end, and seeing strong performances as a result. For our European counterparts this makes absolute sense! For me (given all my athletes are based in Australia) I prefer to give my athletes more of a combination of road and turbo sessions to reap the benefits for the two different styles of training – however, if outdoor conditions are unsafe then I’ll always encourage my athletes to opt for the safety and efficiency of the turbo.