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How do I stay motivated on the turbo?

Michael Donlevy
11 Jan 2021

Train your head as well as your legs during an indoor cycling turbo trainer session

Motivation is complex. It can be seen through the selection, persistence and intensity of behaviour; that is, what we choose to do, how long we do it for and how hard we do it.

It is also about the reasons we give. Do you ride because you enjoy it (called intrinsic motivation) or to win prizes (called extrinsic motivation)?

Motivation is also about how we judge success, whether by beating other people (ego-oriented) or beating personal bests (task-focussed). All of these factors are in play when you decide to go for a ride: how hard, how long, who with, what’s at stake, even whether the route is nice.

There are advantages to knowing what motivates you. If you’re highly trained you’ll feel ready to beat other people or achieve a PB. If you’re tired, or need a recovery ride, a pleasant environment and good company give you motivation to go out.

In short, knowing your motivation helps you plan your training to keep you motivated, even if you’re facing the prospect of turbo training.

If that means riding alone in a hot room, it’s easy to see how you can say you can’t be bothered. It’s also easy to understand why online platforms and ergometers that provide a course, accurate performance data and a connection to others are so popular.

With knowledge of what motivates you, you can make even turbo training interesting. Be clear on the goal you’re setting before each session, and also think about how it’s a stepping stone towards a bigger goal – that race or PB.

If the goal is to get faster and the session is a hard ride, this is easy to set up on a turbo. On the road you have a rapidly changing environment full of momentary distractions, so one strategy indoors is to use technology to create a more interesting and motivating background environment.

You could play a race that motivates you, for instance. If I’m doing an hour on the turbo – a tough session – I find watching Bradley Wiggins going for the Hour Record helps.

You can synch your cadence to the rider you’re watching to create a sense of going well (even if your power output is lower). But it’s easier on a turbo to break sessions down into intervals, as this helps with concentration.

It also helps to have meaningful feedback. Heart rate is useful if you don’t have a power meter, and is best used by comparing your ride against a previous one – this is a good, task-focussed approach to motivation.

A cheap piece of kit is a cadence sensor, which with heart rate is an easy way to monitor performance. For me, with a heart rate peak of 180bpm (maximum heart rate reduces with age albeit with huge individual variation; I’m 53), a classic session is 6x3min, with 2min recovery for a total of 30 minutes, where the goal is a heart rate of 160bpm at a cadence of 100rpm.

I focus on an image of train wheels going round and try to be as smooth as possible, trying to notice how relaxed my feet feel. On a Wattbike, I also set an efficiency goal.

For longer rides at a lower intensity, make the environment as interesting as possible. Films, boxsets and races can help. I enjoy watching re-runs of classic Tour de France stages, where mimicking the breaks can provide a distraction. Even better, I usually win…

The expert: Andy Lane is a professor of sport and exercise psychology, former boxer turned runner, indoor rower and cyclist. He is director of research at the University of Wolverhampton and works with a number of endurance athletes