5 tips for using a smart trainer

A little technique and tuning your tech can go a long way

5 tips for using a smart trainer

Smart trainers have transformed indoor riding, engaging cyclists with changing resistance based on a virtual course or a power-based workout. But letting an app drive your trainer can cause frustration.

Here are five tips to keep your pedaling and your overall experience smooth.

1. Keep your cadence up

When approaching hard hills or intervals, don’t coast! In general, smart trainers do a great job of replicating riding outdoors by applying physics-based algorithms to guide resistance. But a common issue is that when you stop pedaling when a high wattage is required, getting going again is comically hard.

If you do get bogged down to the point you can’t pedal, Zwift, TrainerRoad and other apps have a way around this by temporarily disabling the ERG function until you can get going again.

Before a hard interval or hill starts increase your cadence (most of the time you won't be getting on-screen reminders!)
Before a hard interval or hill starts increase your cadence (most of the time you won't be getting on-screen reminders!)

But what’s better is to just stay on top of the gear with a good cadence when you see a hill or hard interval approaching.

2. Keep your shoulders down

Riding inside is a great time to focus on form, whether that is one-legged drills, practicing a smooth pedal stroke or studying the relationships between cadence, power, heart rate and your perceived output.

When riding hard, it is common for your shoulders to creep up around your ears. Be aware of this — and relax!

3. Adjust difficulty as needed

Power numbers are great, but if something doesn’t feel right to you, then change it. In Zwift you can adjust the trainer difficulty on the setting screen.

I would recommend that you crank up the difficulty for smart trainers such as the Elite Qubo and Arion Digital, and perhaps turn it down a little for races on Zwift.

Don’t worry, you’re not cheating others or yourself. Smart trainers replicate outdoor conditions where it is easier to put out high watts when climbing but harder to do so on downhills. Sometimes the trainers are a little too good at this. If you find that you are getting dropped on downhills, try turning down the trainer difficulty. You will still have to do as many watts, but it will feel more like riding on flat ground all the time instead of sharp climbs and steep descents.

If a workout just feels too hard (or too easy), you can adjust resistance up or down with the arrows at the left of the screen (in both Zwift and TrainerRoad). If resistance is routinely too hard or too easy then you probably need to retest your FTP
If a workout just feels too hard (or too easy), you can adjust resistance up or down with the arrows at the left of the screen (in both Zwift and TrainerRoad). If resistance is routinely too hard or too easy then you probably need to retest your FTP

Workouts in TrainerRoad and Zwift are based on your FTP. In order for this to work well, make sure you have your correct indoor FTP number plugged in.

But even still, sometimes hard intervals are just too hard. You can adjust resistance on the fly within TrainerRoad and Zwift workouts by clicking the up or down arrows on screen.

4. Don’t get on without a reason

Smart trainers can make indoor riding a hundred times more engaging than a standard trainer, but some of the same rules still apply. Climb on the bike with a purpose, whether that is to do a workout, a group ride or race, or just to explore virtual worlds.

Training with a plan is certainly effective and gratifying for many people. With Zwift and TrainerRoad, you can import your workouts from TrainingPeaks and Today’s Plan if you subscribe to those, or you can subscribe to a plan within Zwift or TrainerRoad.

If that is too much of a commitment, you can also just pick a workout when you hop on based on your available time and how you’re feeling.

5. Use Bluetooth if possible

Virtually all virtual trainers come stock now with ANT+ and Bluetooth. ANT+ is great in that it can connect to multiple things at once, but Bluetooth is better for smart trainers because the signal is often more stable. 

It’s frustrating to be racing away, fully committed to not getting dropped by some random guy in Finland, only for your ANT+ signal to temporarily drop your power signal and thus you from said Finn’s wheel.

Plus, with Bluetooth, you don't need to keep track of an ANT+ USB dongle.

Bonus tip for power-meter owners: use it!

If you already have a power meter on your bike, use its data for the power source that your favorite app is reading. For example, in Zwift, you can select your power meter as 'Power Source' and the smart trainer as 'Controllable Trainer'.

TrainerRoad has a cool 'Power Match' feature that reads the power measurement from your meter and uses that to drive resistance of your smart trainer. 

The benefit here is getting the same power measurement inside as you do outside. (Okay, you can probably produce more power outside, but the measurement device is the same.) Even among the very best smart trainers such as a Wahoo Kickr or a Tacx Neo, you are almost certainly going to see a small delta between its power reading and that of your meter. On less expensive smart trainers, the difference can be much larger. Just go with your meter. 

TrainerRoad's Power Match lets your power meter dial in the smart trainer's resistance
TrainerRoad's Power Match lets your power meter dial in the smart trainer's resistance

Ben Delaney

US Editor-in-Chief
Ben has been writing about bikes since 2000, covering everything from the Tour de France to Asian manufacturing to kids' bikes. The former editor-in-chief of VeloNews, he began racing in college while getting a journalism degree at the University of New Mexico. Based in the cycling-crazed city of Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two kids, Ben enjoys riding most every day.
  • Discipline: Road (paved or otherwise), cyclocross and sometimes mountain. His tri-curious phase seems to have passed, thankfully
  • Preferred Terrain: Quiet mountain roads leading to places unknown
  • Current Bikes: Scott Foil Team Issue, Specialized S-Works Tarmac, Priority Eight city bike... and a constant rotation of test bikes
  • Dream Bike: A BMC Teammachine SLR01 with disc brakes and clearance for 30mm tires (doesn't yet exist)
  • Beer of Choice: Saison Dupont
  • Location: Boulder, CO, USA

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