Why you should train with rollers – and three sessions to master

What are rollers, how can you use them and why would you choose them over the turbo?

The winter months, dark cold nights and wet or icy days can make it very difficult to get outside and ride your bike.

The obvious solution, therefore, is to ride inside in the warm. I get asked a lot about using both turbo trainers and rollers to train inside.

Here we are going to take a look at the latter. What are rollers, how can you use them and when you might choose to use them instead of a turbo trainer?

Turbo trainers and rollers each offer something different to your indoor training session. pic: ©Media24

What are rollers?

For those unfamiliar with rollers they consist of three cylinders (the rollers) suspended in a frame so they are free to turn. Two of the rollers are close to one another at the rear of the frame, where you place your rear wheel, and the third is at the front of the frame where your front wheel sits.

The middle and the front rollers are connected with a rubber band. This means when you pedal, your rear wheel drives the two rear rollers.

The rubber band then turns the front roller, the front roller turns your front wheel meaning both wheels are turning and you can balance.

Rollers from Elite, featuring two rear cycinders and one front

You should set up the rollers so that when the rear wheel is placed between the two rear rollers, your front wheel should sit right on top of the front roller.

I would advise that, if you are new to rollers, you set yourself up in a doorway so that should you lose your balance you can simply put your hand out and stop yourself from falling.

Why you should train with rollers

Rollers are a great way to replicate riding outside inside. Because you need to balance while you pedal, rollers force you to ride in the same way you would out on the road.

You need to engage your core and pedal smoothly to ensure you stay on the rollers and don’t fall off.

Rollers help you to engage your core, improve your pedalling technique and can make sessions less tedious as you have to concentrate on your position at all times

As you are having to concentrate more when riding on the rollers compared with a turbo trainer, most riders also tend to find time passes much quicker.

Finally rollers are much easier on your bike than a turbo trainer. Wheel driven trainers are notoriously hard on tyres. This is less of the case on rollers.

The benefits of training with rollers

Anyone familiar with riding on the rollers will tell you a good smooth pedaling technique is key.

If you have a choppy pedal stroke you will find it is quite difficult to balance. For this reason the rollers are great for improving your pedaling technique. Riding on rollers teaches you to apply your power to the pedals in a smooth and efficient way.

– Bike fit: the myth of the upstroke – 

I should mention at this point, this does not mean pedaling in circles. Pedaling in circles (i.e. pulling up and well as pushing down) is mechanically efficient but not bio-mechanically efficient. The reason for this is pulling up uses much smaller muscles with less power than those used in the push phase.

Pedaling correctly involves applying all your power in the push phase of the stroke and limiting any negative power in the up phase; simply lifting the foot up at the same rate as the pedals are being turned but not pulling. The key to a smooth pedal stroke is the transfer between the push and pull phases – from 5-7 and 11-1 o’clock in the pedal stroke. This comes with practice and riding the rollers provides exactly that: practice.

The rollers allow to work on correct pedalling technique (pic – Allan McKenzie/

Another benefit of riding on rollers is it works on an aspect of fitness riders often refer to as ‘having speed in your legs’.

Lots of riders find that after long slow winter miles it takes quite a bit of time to adjust to riding in a bunch. The reason for this isn’t the power required but the way the power is produced.

When riding in a bunch you have to alter your cadence and torque constantly to deal with all the very small alterations in speed and position within a bunch. For example, ensuring your front wheel is the correct distance from the rear wheel of the rider in front to maximize the drafting effect requires constant small adjustments in pedaling.

When you are training, unless you are in a big group, both the torque and cadence remain very constant throughout the ride and as you are constantly adjusting to stay centered and balanced on the rollers this simulates the way you pedal when riding in a bunch.

Riding the rollers in training means that, when it comes to racing, you can apply the gains made in training to the race environment.

Rollers vs. turbo trainer

Most rollers don’t offer any resistance; this limits the sessions you can do on rollers compared with on the turbo trainer. For example if you are trying to complete a Sufferfest or trainer road session you will struggle to hit the power numbers due to the lower level of resistance that rollers offer.

Riding on the turbo, however, doesn’t give the same benefits in terms of pedaling technique or leg speed.

My advice is to look at the session you want to complete or the type of training you do indoors and then choose either the rollers or turbo depending on which is the most appropriate.

The turbo trainer is a better option for sessions requiring higher power or heart rate zones

When to choose the turbo

If the session requires higher power or heart rate zones go for the turbo. This will allow you to add the resistance you need. Likewise if you need to do any strength work at lower cadences then choose the turbo.

When to choose the rollers

If you are just going to be riding along in zone one or two, I would always choose the rollers. The reason for this is you will be improving your pedal stroke as you go.

For recovery rides the rollers offer a much better solution than the turbo as it enables you to ride at a high cadence with low resistance. This isn’t always possible on the turbo.

If you are going to do a session based on cadence then again I would recommend the rollers as it allows you to easily change cadences without a change in resistance.  

When riding the rollers the temptation is to shift into a harder and harder gear; this mean the wheels spin faster and it is easier to balance. If you really want to work on your pedaling technique, avoid doing this by staying in the little ring and not dropping any lower down the cassette than the 15-tooth cog.

Three roller sessions

Recovery ride – a great session to allow you to recover ready for the next hard session.

45 minutes in zone one, aiming to keep your cadence above 90rpm. Stay in the little ring throughout.

Cadence drills – this session is designed to teach your body to change cadences quickly. This is a particularity good session for track riders to replicate events such as the points or scratch race.

Duration: one hour

1) Ten minutes zone two warm-up

2) 3 x 12mins upper zone two as follows:

  • one minute, 80rpm
  • one minute, 110rpm
  • one minute, 80rpm
  • one minute, 110rpm… and so on

3) Eight minute rest between efforts

4) Cool down zone two decreasing to zone one until the 60mins is complete.

Rollers are ideal for work done on cadence (pic – Allan McKenzie/

Cadence stretch – this is a great session to help improve the efficiency of your pedal stroke

Duration: one hour

1) Five minutes zone two warm-up

2) Start at 110rpm and hold as long as possible: the important thing is not dropping below 110rpm 

3) Once it becomes unsustainable, take five minutes break riding at a normal cadence (85-95rpm) before returning to 110rpm and repeating.

4) Continue as long as possible until you have completed 55 minutes in total.#5) Five minutes cool-down at normal cadence.

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