Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Agony of an Indoor Trainer

My bike set up on the trainer so I can use the TV to try and fight trainer boredom. This did not work. Note that my trusty Surly is sporting fenders from the 1970s. Unlike the TV&Trainer, these work very well.

" have to consider the mental factor of riding indoors. Even the most mentally strong individuals, will eventually reach a breaking point when riding inside.O’Brien Forbes, Your Indoor Trainer: To Use but Not Abuse,

Almost a year ago, I purchased a bicycle trainer. I blogged at the time:
So what am I doing about [my lack of enthusiasm for cycling in the summer]? ... I just bought myself a cycle trainer: I figure it is one more way to ride, a way not affected by weather. I have heard that these make the Rice Bike Track seem interesting by comparison so it is not a panacea, but I am hoping that every little bit helps.

So how is the cycle trainer working out? It has turned out to be far from useless, but equally far from what I hoped it would be. Since purchasing it, I have used it six times, my wife has used it once or twice, and my son used it quite a bit during his recent visit. (I will only be blogging about my uses.) Here are the problems:
  1. It is unbelievably boring.
  2. It is incredibly hot.
I purchased this trainer in response to my lack of enthusiasm for long rides during the hot, Houston summer. I was eager to try it out, so a few weeks after it arrived, in mid-July, I cranked up my air conditioning as low as it would go, and started riding. It was unbearably hot - hotter than if I just did a ride outside. The reason for this is that a bicycle ridden outside generates its own breeze that makes the temperature feel much cooler than it is; 70 degrees (Fahrenheit), indoors, on a trainer, felt hotter than 90 degrees, outdoors, in a cycling-generated breeze. I considered setting up a fan to generate an artificial breeze, but in the end, it was November before I tried the trainer again, this time, in the garage, with the doors open. The reason to ride the trainer then was that it was raining. If overheating was an issue for that ride, I did not record it in my training log. I rode again in January when it was raining and 40 degrees. This rather low temperature (for Houston) gave me the opportunity to experiment with temperature control. When I started warming up, I was quite cold, needing to wear sweatpants and a fleece jacket. As I increased my speed, my body temperature increased dramatically and I removed clothes until I was riding in shorts and a short sleeve jersey. When I slowed down at the end of the workout, my temperature dropped, and I found myself putting on the sweatpants and fleece again. To combat boredom, I played Toby Keith, which helped but did not completely eliminate the boredom.

I rode once more in January, but then it was March before I rode again. This time, I tried riding in front of the TV to see if I could create a tedium free ride. I am a huge TV addict, so I had a dream of turning my addiction into a force for good. Unfortunately, it didn't work. Although I did a relatively easy workout, the workout required enough of my attention so as to spoil the TV experience. I guess I will just have to rely on Toby Keith for boredom control. Although this ride was indoors, I opened doors and windows and relied on natural weather to keep the temperature down. The room was at about 65 degrees, which was much too hot, even for this easy workout. Later that month, I did a ride outdoors where it was 60 degrees, and noted this was about as hot as it could be for a reasonably comfortable ride on the trainer. From all these experiences, I estimate that at a moderate exertion level, my trainer is about 20 degrees warmer than the same ride on the road.

Kinds of Workouts

I have tried a couple of different kinds of workouts on the trainer. Of the six rides, two were moderately easy rides, holding my heart rate at the top of Zone 2, and four were some kind of intervals. For those that are interested in this kind of thing, I recorded my highest heart rate ever while on the trainer; 187 beats per minute. This is mostly interesting as a demonstration of how far my heart rate deviates from the average for a person my age (161 beats per minute), and, by example, how much people differ one from another.

Joe Friel recommends trainers as a good way to work on cadence, to learn how to spin the pedals as quickly as possible. To accomplish that, one would rider the trainer using a low gear and focus on pedal speed. This is something I hope to try in the future. Back when I was a kid, in the 1960s, there were not a lot of trainers around. Rather, people trained indoors using rollers:

Courtesy Wikipedia.
There are two major differences between rollers and a trainer:
  1. A trainer supplies resistance to the rear wheel so that one can mimic the effort of a ride on the road and get a relatively normal workout. Rollers have very little resistance. They can be used to build rhythm and smoothness (and are good for warming up), but not for building strength.
  2. A trainer holds the bike firmly in place, the rider has to do very little to keep the bike upright. On rollers, one is actually balancing the bike, just like on the road. It is actually a bit more difficult to stay upright on rollers than it is on the road because you are always at risk of steering off the sides of the rollers.
If I were to take Joe Friel's advice and work on my cadence, I would prefer to do so using rollers rather than my trainer. I simply find rollers more fun and natural feeling. Rollers are much less expensive than a trainer, less than $100 compared to over $300, so my wife notwithstanding, purchasing a set of rollers would be only a modest indulgence.

Trainer Review

The trainer I purchased, a Kinetic by Kurt Road Machine Fluid Trainer, comes highly recommended. I have had no troubles with the device and would happily recommend it to anyone. I do not find that it closely mimics riding on the road, rather, that it is an artificial-feeling experience. Specifically, riding on a trainer captures none of the joy of a bike ride. I do not know if other trainers would be better in this regard, but my intuition tells me that they would not. I think the whole concept of an indoor trainer "is what it is" and that this one does it as well as any, better than most.


I am not sorry that I purchased my trainer, but so far, it has been a pretty expensive way to get in a bit more training. It has been an utter failure as a solution to the problem for which I purchased it, a way to continue training during Houston's long, hot summers; I do not expect to use it again until well into next fall. That said, I hope to use it to solve a different problem. Next winter, I plan to use it when it is too cold or too wet to ride; to allow me to maintain a more even training schedule than I have managed during previous winters. Stay tuned to find out how that works.

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