Monday 16 February 2015

Review: Trainer Road

A structured workout from Trainer Road.
Yellow is power, red is heart rate, white is cadence.
I decided to kick my indoor cycling up a notch and use Trainer Road.  It's cycling software designed for use on an indoor trainer.  It advertises 800+ structured workouts, 40+ workout plans and live feedback from your sensors.  I had followed along with others using Trainer Road and figured I'd give it a shot.  Since they offer a money-back guarantee for the first 30 days, trying it out was a risk-free endeavor.

Trainer Road supports sensor data from both Bluetooth and ANT+ and supports Windows, Mac OSX and iOS (iPhone / iPad) for platforms.  You can watch things like Netflix while it overlays the information on your screen or you can sync it to workout videos like the Sufferfest.  You can create your own custom workout.  The program supports teams and you can set your team to have access to its own private workout.  It works on a subscription based model where you pay $10 per month (lower rates for yearly of course).

I started setting up my Windows PC, which I thought would be a perfect fit for my configuration.  All my sensors are Bluetooth 4 and my laptop has native Bluetooth 4 support.  Unfortunately Trainer Road only supports a specific Bluetooth dongle and cannot make use of native Bluetooth 4 support on a PC.  While it's a cheap fix (the dongle costs $20) I was annoyed.  I also didn't feel like ordering a $20 dongle just to try out the software.

Most of my portable devices are Android based, which Trainer Road does not support.  Fortunately Goldilocks has an iOS device, an iPad mini, which I could steal liberate borrow for my workouts.  Trainer Road works just fine with native Bluetooth 4 on the iPad Mini.

Setting up the application was pretty painless.  It paired seamlessly with my Polar H7 heart rate monitor as well as my Wahoo Blue SC speed/cadence sensor.  

In most of the workouts there is instructional information, Sometimes it is giving specifics about the workout, like what your cadence should be or information on the next interval coming up.  It will also encourage you to do things like go in the drops (or use your aerobars if you have them).  One of the things I really like is the comments on form -- tips on relaxing your upper body to conserve energy and how you should be positioned on the saddle.

The other cool thing about this software is Virtual Power.  In order to see your power output you normally would require a power meter.  But power meters are pretty expensive.  Trainer Road can emulate one if it knows what kind of trainer you have.  Using the power curve information from your trainer and your speed, it can estimate what your power is.  My trainer was in the list; it also took into account what my resistance was set to.

How It Works
The actual work out consists of a profile coloured in blue.  Your sensors generate several lines representing power (yellow), heart rate (red) and cadence (white).  The data is also in numerical format on top of the screen.  The general idea is you are trying to keep the yellow line outside of the blue profile; it's also represented numerically as "Target Power".

The 8 Minute Test
To get started, you want to find out your Functional Threshold Power.  Trainer Road provides a couple of tests to do this, the 20 minute test and the 8 minute test.  I can't really speak about the 20 minute test as I've never tried it, so I'll stick to the 8 minute test.

The test consists of a warm up with 2 fast spinning efforts to get your legs going.  After some easy spinning there is an 8 minute effort, followed by 8 minutes of easy spinning, then another 8 minute effort, then more easy spinning and you are done.

The idea behind the 2 8 minute efforts is to go hard but stay consistent.  You need to hold yourself back enough to last the entire 8 minute interval, but you don't want to feel like there is "gas left in the tank" so to speak.  You want it to be a pretty steady effort, not jumping all over like crazy.  Don't worry about having enough strength left to do the second interval, the recovery period in between will leave you refreshed enough to tackle the second one.

Upon completion the software will calculate your FTP based on both efforts.  With this number it will set each workout with your power numbers in mind.  Each time you do better on this test, the software will push you harder on subsequent workouts.

Problems with Virtual Power
I was looking forward to training with power instead of heart rate.  Heart rate takes up to 2 minutes to respond to your effort, whereas power is instantaneous.  Fatigue and other factors play a role in your heart rate, whereas power is always the same.  Of course, there are things heart rate is better for.  It helps keep your intensity in check, making sure you don't push yourself beyond your limits.  Fortunately Trainer Road also keeps track of your heart rate so you can have your cake and eat it too.

To beat the boredom of working on a trainer, I indoor cycle in a group with others.  Many of us were using Trainer Road so we sync'd our start together and performed the 8 minute test.  At the end we started talking about the results we had.  When I gave my number there was a lot of jaw dropping, eyes widening and people saying, "That can't be right."  My virtual power numbers were reading like a pro athlete.

I got in touch with Trainer Road Support to see what the problem was.  We went back and forth in email many times, each time with different ways to make sure my trainer was set up correctly.  We did everything from ensuring every setting was correct, to making sure the wheel was solidly connected to the trainer, even silly things like making sure I had only one magnet.  I took pictures and sent video of my configuration.  Eventually we did track down a problem with my tube; my tests after that were lower but still too high.

After three weeks of emailing back and forth and several 8 minute tests later, we'd pretty much gone through everything we could and my virtual power was still extremely high.  They gave me a free month due to the length of time I ate up doing everything.  I thanked them for their help and released them from assisting further.  After all, they had been thorough.  They couldn't have made any money off me either, from the amount of time support spent on my problem.

So in the meantime, if I want accurate power numbers I'll have to keep pining for a power meter.  I would love to get access to one briefly, just so I can see how the numbers compare.

Final thoughts
Despite my problems with virtual power, I would definitely recommend it.  Even if those numbers are wrong; as long as they are consistently wrong I will still progress with my workouts.  From the experience I also know that support will try very hard to help when things go wrong.

This is me with my old coach.
Trainer Road put her out of a job.
At least for the winter. :D
That being said, I wouldn't recommend Trainer Road if you are looking for a cheap replacement for a power meter.  I would recommend it as a great software to really push you and get results.

As for me, I plan on keeping my subscription going until it's warm enough to ride outside.  I'm happy with the progress.  If the numbers were closer I'd probably keep the subscription going all year.


  1. Great review, thanks for sharing. I'm sorry about the problems with VP, I know how frustrating that can be. As long as you keep the setup consistent, you can guarantee a good workout every time you ride though, even if it's a bit high. Happy training! :)