Want to be a faster rider? Of course you do. What if I told you that for around £9 a month you could be quicker, stronger and better looking? Well, that last one’s a stretch, but many cycling services promise to make you a better cyclist. Are they true?
Yes and no. Truth be told, nobody needs these programmes, not if they are highly motivated and have all the time in the world. Yet this isn’t always the case. It’s like exercise and weight loss videos. Of course you could exercise and eat better without the videos, but for some training videos add structure, motivation and a basic education. Cycle training services do the same.
Before we go any further let’s cut the crap: there is no miracle answer to gaining free speed other than hard work and training. However, many training tools on the market can help you train better by providing structure and measures to ensure progress rather than burnout or stagnation.
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect”
I began following a cycling training plan a year ago. Prior to this I was merely riding and pretending to be training. Since then I’ve tested Strava Premium training plans, Zwift workouts and finally, TrainerRoad. I’m only using one of these now.
What is TrainerRoad?
I’ve been subscribing to TrainerRoad, the online workout software, for almost a year. What does it do? It’s essentially an online cycling workout and training tool that, when combined with a turbo trainer and many tears, provides structured and measured training in the shape of intervals, lots of bloody intervals.
Here’s a quick review of the features:
The number one feature for me as I have no power meter. Yeah, I’m poor. Training with power ensures your workouts are consistent and completed as prescribed. Be warned, once you have a power number you’ll become addicted to increasing it. Sure you can train with heart rate and perceived exertion but you’ll never really know if you were nailing the power required, especially for sprint intervals where HR lags effort. HR is influenced by your body (goddamn it) and those trivial life distractions, namely sleep, diet and health.
Caveat – I’ve not used a full TrainerRoad training plan. There’s a wide range of training plans, which typically follow the tried and tested base, build and speciality phase as pioneered by Joe Friel in his book, the Training Bible (worth reading before you sign up to these training programmes).
Whether you are a beginner, time crunched or advanced cyclist there’s a plan for you. There’s also speciality plans which allow you to train for century rides, criterium racing, hilly road races, general road races and time trials. Pretty much everything but my preferred format of short, sharp hill climbs.
Why don’t I use a training plan? I find them too prescriptive, even the time crunched plans. Everybody is different and I do not believe a single training plan can work for everyone as we all react and recover differently. Besides, I’m a control freak, I like to think the plan is mine, all mine!
Training plans are also impractical and will come to dominate your life and riding. I like to cycle outdoors, and, you know, enjoy riding. Many of these plans will keep you enslaved to the indoor hamster wheel. Helpful over winter perhaps but not when the sun’s shining or once yet another sprint interval has driven you insane. Tip: you can suspend your TrainerRoad account if you only want to use it during specific months e.g. winter.
The plans are great however if you’re short of time. Plus they’re a great place to begin if you’re new to cycling workouts as they will help you learn how your body responds to intervals and you will quickly discover how to adapt the plan. Before long you’ll be ready to build your own training plan based on your experiences.
TrainerRoad has hundreds of workouts for every possible training scenario. This will keep your indoor riding fresh as you could easily ride for years without repeating the same workout. The huge choice also has its downsides as it is quite an effort to browse through the workouts, even with the very good filters supplied to narrow down the choice by tempo, endurance, sweetspot, anaerobic etc. Not all of the workouts are tagged consistently either which means you can get odd filter results.
The biggest problem with some of the workouts is the lack of a proper warm-up – especially the shorter sessions where you are expected to begin sprinting after a short five minute warm-up. None of the workouts have a warm-down either so an hour work-out in TrainerRoad is at least 1hr 10min with a 10 min warm down. Creating your own warm-up and warm-down is easy enough but you cannot queue up workouts in TrainerRoad so it’s a lot of faff.
Work out mode
The user interface is simple and the best I have seen. Forget about the child like presentation in Zwift or the 1970s presentation in Golden Cheetah, the clean, easy to read interface allows you to follow the workout easily. You can play videos at the same time to distract yourself too, something I don’t do as I like to focus on the pain! I find intense workouts require huge amounts of concentration to hit the power targets.
The onscreen text commentary is also very good with a friendly, informative and humorous tone that will keep you motivated and guide you through the workout. Top marks.
Career mode – history
TrainerRoad provides a limited post-workout analysis. There’s training load totals, individual analysis for each part of your workout, power PBs, and that’s about it. If you ride outdoors there’s no way of importing your rides to keep a full training diary which pretty much makes all of this data next to useless!
Strava do this well with their premium fitness and freshness feature which allows you to use power and heartrate to get a total stress score and monitor your tiredness, form and training load for all of your rides. Other more dedicated training tools like TrainingPeaks give you much better data if you own a power meter.
You can easily create your own workouts in the separate workout creator tool either using the drag and drop feature or simply by entering the numbers you want to hit as you would in a spreadsheet. The latter is the easiest, unless you are dragging pre-existing interval segments like warm-ups into your new workout. TrainerRoad really does excel here with a great, easy to understand interface.
Will TrainerRoad make me a quicker rider?
My FTP when I began using TrainerRoad was 278. It peaked at 333 and I’m now at about 324. That’s an incredible 19% increase from my base to peak. So I must be quicker right? TrainerRoad is a speed and strength miracle, yeah? Well no, it’s not that simple.
Why is my FTP higher now? Training of course! Yet this is not the only reason. I began training in the off season. You know the time. Belly wobbling like trifle, bursting with Christmas turkey, barrels of booze and giant pyramids of Ferrer Rocher chocolates. A time when your base fitness is so low reaching for the TV remote increases your FTP.
Secondly, FTP testing is more of an art than a science. You have to learn how to FTP test properly and consistently before reliably benchmarking your FTP numbers. How long does this take?
I reached the point of testing properly after seven FTP tests. And that’s not to say each one is now perfect. Every test is a challenge to pace yourself sufficiently, so if you’re a time trialler you will have a distinct advantage.
What do I mean by test properly? First, you have to be comfortable pushing as hard as you can for the full duration of the effort. This only comes with practice, it’s a very fine line between going too slow or too hard. Go too hard and you’ll blow up before the end of the test. Too slow and your FTP will be lower than your full potential.
How do you know if you are testing properly? Well I enjoyed my first few FTP tests. If you’re enjoying an FTP test then you are not doing them properly! They should be painful. You should feel like you can give no more. Every ounce of energy should be expended.
Pacing an FTP test is tricky. Most beginners will be risk adverse, starting slowly and finishing strong. A few tests later and you’ll challenge yourself to go harder at the start, invariably going too hard and thus finishing slowly. The latter tactic is a very painful lesson you won’t want to repeat.
In addition to pacing and base fitness, there’s many other variables to consider. You must ensure the conditions of the test are consistent. Same turbo, same set-up, same tyre pressure, same time of day, same amount of sleep, same amount of EPO etc.
So have I become a quicker rider thanks to TrainerRoad? Yes, but not as much as the big numbers suggest. If nothing else I’m riding more often than ever plus I joined a local cycling club, which has also helped boost my fitness, although due to a lack of specificity, my FTP with the club actually began to dip.
Ultimately there’s no hiding all of those shiny gold cups on Strava and I’m also beginning to claim personal bests on my local hill climbs regardless of wind direction! I feel stronger too. Both my top end speed and cruising speed on the flat are demonstrably quicker. Could I have done this without TrainerRoad? Undoubtedly yes.
So why do I continue to pay my TrainerRoad subscriptions? TrainerRoad has made me a better rider. How so? Thanks to virtual power I have a greater understanding of my effort and pacing. I am able to target specific training zones to improve endurance, speed and power.
I have a much better understanding of the training loads my body can sustain before rest is required and thanks to virtual power my workouts are more precise, reducing the risk of under or over training. The structure of TrainerRoad makes my training more consistent. Exciting eh?
TrainerRoad vs Zwift vs Strava Training Plans
Zwift is great fun but is currently no match for TrainerRoad when it comes to structured training workouts. Why? TrainerRoad simply has a bigger workout library and better search filtering. It’s also much easier to follow workouts and create custom workouts in TrainerRoad, plus the presentation of workouts is much better.
Where Zwift excels is for longer turbo sessions. For anything over an hour I’d prefer Zwift as the immersive gaming experience helps the time pass faster. If I wanted to train for time trials, i.e. long, tempo and threshold efforts, I’d definitely choose Zwift. However TrainerRoad wins for the shorter, time crunched training plans. Full Zwift review here.
What about Strava? Strava Training Plans are too intense for my liking and fairly repetitive once you have completed one. However they can be very motivational with the daily emails from your ‘virtual coach’ and they are a great way for beginners to see if you enjoy structured turbo training. You can read a full review of Strava Training plans here.
What TrainerRoad lacks
TrainerRoad does a few basic tasks very well but the overall feature set is currently pretty limited. There’s a distinct lack of post ride analysis. I need to use tools like Strava Premium fitness and freshness to monitor my training load over time because TrainerRoad doesn’t account for outdoor rides. That’s yet more money each month.
There’s still not a good cycling training service on the market for cyclists who don’t have power meters. Probably because most ‘serious’ cyclists will have a power meter and so will subscribe to specialist software like TrainingPeaks or PerfPro.
Is TrainerRoad worth it?
Priced at $12 a month using the pay as you go model, that’s about £9.35 in UK money, which since Brexit is actually pretty expensive for what is a basic service. The feature set of TrainerRoad is very limited but the features it does have are best in class.
You can of course sign up for the full twelve months for $99 which brings the UK monthly cost of TrainerRoad down to about £6.25. More like it, but I only value the service at about £4-5 a month.
The development cycle and new feature release is also very slow. Half of their customer base had been waiting for an Android app for goodness knows how long (recently released) and you get the impression of a single developer in his man shed writing code long into the night after his day job. Which is fine for a start-up yet these are not start-up prices.
Writing this blog I’ve realised the full monthly subscription cost of TrainerRoad is actually high given the exchange rate at the moment. I thought I was paying 50% less than the actual cost! Perhaps TrainerRoad could consider charging customers in their own currency?
So should I continue to pay for TrainerRoad? I’m torn. I’m a light user of TrainerRoad. I use it once a week mostly, do not follow one the inbuilt training plans and don’t use it with any videos. All I’m getting are some pre-made workouts and virtual power.
I know I can create my own workouts easily enough for free using Garmin Connect, Golden Cheetah or any number of apps on the market. The novelty of having a massive workout library soon wears off because there’s only so many workouts in the world before they begin to get repetitive and become variations of other workouts.
I also know I can get free virtual power using Golden Cheetah, the free cycle training programme for people with a mathematics degree. It’s free and full of features, but the user interface is pretty complicated and daunting if you are time poor like me, aka lazy.
So why pay? I don’t follow training plans so where’s the value? Convenience, ease of use and virtual power are the big factors for me, especially the last one. However I am going to re-evaluate my subscription which is now costly enough to motivate me to spend more time learning how to use the free Golden Cheetah courtesy of some YouTube tutorials.
At the moment it’s a bit of a luxury to pay so much money to train with power and perhaps a better investment would be the expensive power meter option so I can train with power both indoors and outdoors. Watch this space!
What about you? More of a Zwift fan? Bkool? Or dare I say it, cycling outside?!