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This article originally appeared on the Triathlon Academy ( website on the 11th of February, 2015.

Over last few months I’ve been reading a number of articles about the supremacy of bike training on the road compared with training on a trainer.

This has prompted me to share my own experience of bike training in winter. Together with my wife, Alicja, we live and work in London. We work around 8-10 hours every day and during the week we are not able to ride outside. Moreover, training on the roads of London is not only logistically challenging, but potentially dangerous. Four years ago during one of my training rides I was hit by a car on a roundabout. Luckily enough my quad muscles softened the impact and doctors concluded that well developed muscles protected my femur from breaking. My bike was less lucky though, with the frame being a complete write-off.

The sustained bruising and road rash meant I couldn’t run or swim for almost a month. It was at this time I decided enough was enough and finally bought a turbo trainer! It wasn’t anything expensive, one of the basic models with no power, no connection to the internet and no other gadgets. It only had speed and cadence readings along with a few levels of resistance. When I told my coach (who was one of Brett’s former athletes) he got very excited. Since we started working together he strongly recommended I buy one, but I wasn’t convinced and kept finding different excuses for not having one yet.

At the end of the day we all race on the roads, right?

To be honest with you this purchase was probably my best investment in any training equipment I’ve ever made and has greatly contributed to my subsequent improvements in bike splits. I started training on the turbo 3 times a week. The sessions during my first winter of indoor training were not long, most of them 45-90 minutes but designed in a way that they were stimulating different systems improving not only my strength, but also endurance.

As an example I would be doing a set or 10 x 3 minutes of big gear, high resistance and low cadence working on my strength. A second session would be 6 x 5 minutes going hard at a race cadence so that my heart rate would go close to what I think my maximum is. The third type of session was more a mini endurance set, but as you would expect being trained by someone from the Doc’s school not neglecting the other aspects – 30/30/30 set – 30 minutes at moderate, 30 at medium and 30 at mad effort. The famous MMM about which those of you who follow Brett’s blogs may be familiar with by now.

Of course these are only examples of my trainings. During the winter and early spring the sessions varied but the stimulus and the types of the workouts were similar. After my first few months of my bike training, mainly indoors, I started to worry about my first race of the upcoming season – 70.3 Mallorca in May. Before the race I only had a chance to do 3 or 4 ‘longer’ rides outside and the longest of them was less than 3 hours. To add to my worries, I hadn’t done any climbing specific training and the course had a nice 7 or 8km non-stop uphill section. The coach seemed very relaxed and confident that I was ready for the race. He just said ‘let’s surprise ourselves with what you can do after spending the winter in the guest room.’ Or rather our bike room that my wife started calling the ‘performance center’.

The race plan was simple:

  • Go hard on the swim, which is not difficult for a non-swimmer like me, just completing the distance of 1,900m is hard enough;
  • Start the bike at a medium effort for first 15km or so, until the beginning of the climb and then go all out with a time trial to the finish line;
  • Don’t to worry about the run, the legs will be there. I was told that even if my legs are dead at the end of the bike I should still be able to run at a reasonable pace.

The objective of the race was to check if the training on the trainer works for me, or rather, as I was told after the race, to show me how well I can ride on the back of such training.

The result? I surprised myself, I wasn’t expecting that the legs would be as strong as they were on the day. I felt strong all way and nobody overtook me on the climb, not a single person! Despite the fact that it was getting really hard towards the end, my time of 2:35 was really good. I was only 2 minutes slower than Marek Jaskolka [Polish Olympian from Beijing and London] and I completed the climb faster than him, this is a good scalp to have! The running legs were also there, although when I jumped of the bike I could hardly walk. It wasn’t my fastest run but only a couple of minutes slower than my 70.3 PB at the time, another surprise.

I really didn’t expect such a good result after the winter in the guest room and not on the road. Since this race I have my bike set up on a trainer all the time and I do the whole bike training during the week on the turbo, every month, every season. The bike is only taken off the trainer for longer weekend rides, training camps and for racing. The results of such training, especially for time-starved age groupers, cannot be questioned.

In my view a turbo trainer allows not only for an effective training but also helps to save a lot of time. If I finish work at 6:30pm (we only live a 10 minute walk from work) I can be on the bike at 7pm starting my training and by 8pm I’m already taking shower. If I wanted to ride on the road just getting dressed and taking the bike outside would take me at least 30 minutes. Both of us (as I’d imagine for the majority of age group athletes) have very limited time for training and we try to maximise the effectiveness of how we train during this limited amount of time.

One may ask where does this effectiveness come from? The turbo is not the same as a bike. Well it is not the same, I think it is better for specific sessions. Where can you find an unobstructed 20 kilometres of road where you can do 30 minute time trial effort pedalling non stop? Definitely not in London. I have tried though. I found a 5km quiet loop with very light traffic especially on Sunday morning, but the intensity of such training wasn’t the same. Maybe it is just me after the accident but I can’t seem to replicate TT efforts on the road. I look back to see if a car’s approaching from behind or I slow down going through junctions and roundabouts, not mentioning the potholes… It’s not as controlled training environment as in our ‘performance centre’. As few coaches say: “Champions are made when no one is watching”.

If I haven’t convinced you these are some examples of my better bike splits on the back of 80-90% of total bike training volume on my turbo trainer and I have no cycling or any other endurance sport background. My last ‘major’ effort before I started playing with triathlon was a cross country regional race in Poland in February or March 1985, almost exactly 30 years ago:

– Kona 2013: 5:00:49

– Ironman Arizona 2013: 4:49:51

– 70.3 Mt Tremblant 2014: 2:20:45 – 1 minute slower than Daniela Ryf and 1 min slower than Ritch Viola, who won my AG in Mt. Tremblant and in Kona in 2014.

Rafal_TrainingTurbo training in the ‘performance centre.’

I’m often asked about the boredom of training indoors, ‘surely all the time you’d be looking into one point on the wall?’ I don’t think it is as bad as people who never tried think it is. You need to improvise a bit as I agree that looking at the wall is not fun.

We have a TV and DVD in front of the trainer, sometimes we connect the laptop to the TV. When we train we like watching sport as it does not require too much focus like when trying to watch a film. We watch a triathlon or a cycling race and if there is nothing live we find something on YouTube, the choices are endless. During winter we watch mainly winter sports, cross country skiing and biathlon are our favourites and we would be supporting our national hero Justina Kowalczyk or the female biathlon team (our men are not even close as good as ladies). During our time trial efforts we hope we give as much as them, but we don’t fall down when we finish as they tend to after crossing the finish line. Although a few times I’ve been pretty close!

I hope this article is interesting for the readers who have just started their triathlon adventures to understand better how we incorporate training into our lives. How after 9 years in the sport and 7 years racing Ironman we still enjoy it (well above the average, which according to Ironman’s own research lasts just over 2 seasons in Ironman racing). We both work full-time and need to share our time after work between often demanding training, friends and family. It is training through a lenses of an ‘experienced’ age grouper.

I would like to add that for some time we have been working with coaches trained formally by Brett Sutton and since November 2014 by the Doc himself. I also helped (and am still helping) a few friends and colleagues with their training plans and advise on healthy lifestyle, whether they prepare for an Ironman or they want to break 30min for 5km. It is very rewarding when you see that someone whose first training was a set of 10 times (jog 2 min, walk 2 min) after 6 or 7 months can not only complete 10km but break the ‘magic’ 60 minute mark. Maybe when I retire I will more seriously think about coaching age groupers. Having worked with a number of coaches from different backgrounds over last 10 years and based on my own experience I believe that more could be done to improve the understanding of how to incorporate the age group training into their day-to-day lives, how to adapt the training principles for pro/elite to amateurs with full time jobs, families and friends and only limited time for training. Age groupers should enjoy the sport and the healthy lifestyle for a number of years rather than getting burned out after 2 or 3 seasons and turning their back to the sport they once loved.

All the best to the readers until the next blog.


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