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Buyer’s guide: smart turbo trainers

Get smart with your turbo training with our guide to buying a connected turbo trainer

Cyclists have long retreated indoors over the winter season to log quality training time on a turbo trainer. In fact, it’s become a helpful tool throughout the season, for those riders who are time-pressured and want to squeeze a key training session in, but can’t afford to spend hours out on their bike.

Using the turbo, therefore, is an efficient way to keep fit – but the game has moved on in recent years, with the rise of the smart trainer, which brings a whole new level of accuracy, interactivity and realism to the world of turbo training.

But if you’re not sure what all the fuss is about, we’ve put together this buyer’s guide so you can discover the potential benefits of using a smart trainer, and if it’s right for you. We’ve also picked out seven of the best smart trainers on the market right now – head this way to see our short list.

Want to take your training to the next level? Read on for our guide to smart turbo trainers

What is a smart turbo trainer?

A smart turbo trainer is a trainer which has the ability to communicate with a smartphone, tablet or computer, as well as a range of cycling accessories like power meters and cadence sensors, via ANT+ or Bluetooth.

– Seven of the best smart turbo trainers –

All smart trainers will offer a form of power measurement, though the complexity and accuracy will increase hand-in-hand with your budget. For example, more affordable units will use an algorithm to estimate power, while more expensive trainers will measure power directly and achieve more accurate readings as a result.

Either way, smart trainers allow you to train with greater efficiency and, as a result, give you the chance to make the most of your time on the turbo by completing sessions with increased accuracy. They also open up a whole world of additional features, depending on the type of the trainer you use – and your budget.

Many smart trainers also allow you to pair the trainer with a range of apps and online platforms, so you can create workouts, build your own courses, and ride and compete with other riders in a virtual reality world. More upmarket smart trainers will also automatically adjust the resistance according to the ride you’re doing, whether that’s because of the interval you’re completing or a change in gradient in the virtual reality road you’re ‘riding’.

Of course, smart turbo trainers are only ‘smart’ if they’re connected to both your control unit (usually computer software via an ANT+ dongle or Bluetooth, or an app on your phone or tablet) and a power source. But that doesn’t mean you can’t then use them on their own – they’ll just act like ordinary turbo trainers if they’re not connected.

Zwift is one of the most popular third-party apps for use with a smart trainer, and allows users to ride with or against each other

What are the benefits?

Using a smart trainer has numerous benefits to help you get the most out of your time on the turbo and, in turn, have the potential to improve your ability as a rider.

  • Power measurement

As we’ve already mentioned, all smart turbo trainers will have some form of power measurement, and that will allow you to complete high-quality, structured training sessions with greater accuracy than if you’re using a non-smart turbo and training on ‘feel’ or using a power meter. If you have limited time to ride, then a smart turbo gives you the opportunity to get the most bang for your training buck.

  • Accurate performance monitoring

While smart trainers work with third-party platforms, they are normally most adept functioning with the accompanying software specifically designed for them. While the software will differ depending on the trainer you buy, most will record and monitor your performance and progress in great detail and accuracy. The most premium products will offer truly pro-level analytics, as well as the ability to create and monitor training schedules, and follow training videos.

Advanced smart trainers measure power directly from the turbo
  • Third-party apps and interactivity

A host of third-party apps have also been developed to work with smart trainers, with Zwift the most popular of all. Zwift allows riders from around the world to ride against or with each other at the same time. Efforts are translated into on-screen virtual rides, where you can see in real time where you are in relation to your online riding friends. If you normally find turbo training a harrowingly lonely experience, then this may provide all the motivation you need.

  • Automated resistance control

Advanced smart trainers offer automated resistance control which reacts to the training video you’re watching or the pre-defined session you’re following. For example, if you’re completing an interval session, the trainer will automatically adjust the wattage as you start and end an interval, so you can just focus on hitting the numbers.However, as we’ll come on to, it’s worth noting that basic smart trainers won’t offer automated resistance control.

  • Riding realism

Advanced smart trainers are also capable of automatically reacting to virtual stimuli, such as inclines on a course, virtual road surface, drafting other virtual riders, and even weather conditions. Indoor training has never been more realistic.

Are there any drawbacks?

  • Cost

While you can get a non-smart trainer for less than £100, you’re looking at considerably more for a smart unit. Prices start at around £250 for a basic smart trainer and rise to more than £1,000 for the most advanced units. On top of the initial outlay, you also have to consider the cost of any subscriptions to software that you’ll need to have to make the most of its potential. For example, you may opt for a cheaper model as an introduction to smart training, but may also need to spend around $10 a month in order to use platforms like Zwift.

Direct drive trainers off a more realistic ride ‘feel’

What do I get for my money?

If you’re tempted by the idea of using a smart trainer, how much should you spend? With such a wide range of options on the market, and a huge variation in cost, what will you get for your money?

  • Drive system

At the bottom end of the market you’ll usually find a wheel-drive system, whereby you simply slot your bike into the unit and your tyre rests on a resistance-controlled drum, as with a traditional turbo trainer.

This is certainly simple in terms of installation, as you can simply fasten your bike to the trainer and detach it with minimum fuss, though, on the flip side, there’s also the potential for additional wear on your rear tyre.

More expensive trainers tend to rely upon a direct drive system, which means you need to install a cassette to the trainer, which you then fit your bike to having removed the rear wheel. The benefit here is a more realistic ‘feel’, and reduced wear of the rear wheel you’d otherwise be using.

  • Resistance system

Again, looking at cheaper models first, it’s common to see an electro-magnetic disc used for the resistance source – usually seen as a premium setup on traditional turbo trainers. You can expect reasonably quiet operation because that resistance isn’t provided by two contact points generating abrasion.

As we’ve said, at the other end of the spectrum brands more commonly offer a direct-drive interface. In terms of resistance, this tends to give a more stable performance, and with a greater size flywheel, helps generate a realistic feeling of inertia.

More affordable smart trainers like the Wahoo Kickr Snap will use an algorithm to estimate power
  • Wheel compatibility

All smart trainers are natively designed for 700c size road bike wheel, while some have the ability to take other size wheels, including mountain bike sizes. All come equipped with quick-release skewer for fastening to the trainer, although some brands now sell thru-axle adaptors to allow you to use your disc-brake equipped bike on the trainer.

  • Power recording

All smart trainers have the ability to record power, although how this happens is split into two categories, and can largely dictate overall cost.

At the cheaper end of the market, your power is estimated using an algorithm worked out by the trainer software, based on the speed of the wheel and the level of resistance the trainer is set to, as well as taking into account factors such as your height and weight to give an accurate representation of how your power is translating into speed in the virtual world.

More expensive models measure power directly from the unit, and this results in increased accuracy. For example, Wahoo’s premium Smart trainer (£999.99) is a direct drive unit with a built-in power meter and a claimed accuracy of +/- 2%, while the more affordable Kickr Snap (£499.99) is a wheel-on trainer which uses an algorithm to estimate power to a claimed accuracy of +/- 5%.

Some smart trainers can work alongside your own power meter if you already own one. That way you can pair the trainer so the resistance is driven by your power meter, meaning you’re working to the same numbers as you would out on the road – upping the accuracy once again.

How much power does your smart trainer be capable of handling?
  • Power outputs

The more you spend on your trainer, the more power the trainer can withstand and record accurately. Some can record pro-levels of power, reaching over 2000w. However, consider carefully if this is really what you need from your trainer, by asking yourself what sort of power you can generate with a maximum burst. Are you going to be putting out efforts to match Peter Sagan?

Software packages

All smart trainers are provided with a computer or app-based software package (pay special attention to any charges a subscription to these packages might incur) to help you get the most out of your riding, including the ability to plan and structure your training.. Look out for whether you need an ANT+ dongle to allow the trainer to connect to your computer, and if this is supplied with the trainer.

The software supplied with Tacx smart trainers allows users to train according to gradient, power and heart rate, while riders can also follow films and create their own workouts

Some brands, like Tacx, offer a system that works with multiple platforms, from phone and tablet to desktop computer (although in this case limited to Windows-based machines). Others, like Wahoo, are entirely app-based, so check the compatibility of systems to decide which setup is right for you.

Take a look the the supplied software to see if it does what you want it to, but also remember that all smart trainers can link to third-party software like TrainerRoad, a complex training app which allows you to log and track your training, choose training plans, and complete detailed intervals, and Zwift, which, as we’ve already covered, offers an ever-expanding virtual world of riding in which to test yourself. As a result, you can choose the app which best suits your needs.

Smart trains will also work with third-party software like Zwift and TrainerRoad, allowing you to pick the best option for your needs

Because Zwift is an online community, it also offers the ability to organise virtual group rides around the imaginary island of Watopia, or on simulated course like the 2015 UCI World Championships course in Richmond, Virginia, alongside the ability to simply plug-in-and-ride on your own. Customisation is also a key feature, allowing your virtual self and bike to look as realistic (or not!) as you choose. The company even held their own virtual ‘world championships’ recently, open to all users of the platform.

TrainerRoad is another popular app and allows riders to complete structured intervals to power

In the case of those trainers with automated resistance control (and, in reality, that is now most smart trainers), you don’t have to manually adjust the effort level required to get the most out of the sessions. If you want automated resistance control, pay careful attention to the trainer you are buying. For a list of trainers compatible with Zwift (and also those with offer automated resistance control), follow this link.

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