Do you need a smart trainer? Comparison of trainer types for indoor cycling workouts

Bike trainers have long been preferred by anyone who wants to train on a bike indoors. However, there is a wide range of options available, including smart and traditional trainers.

What makes smart trainers “smart”, exactly, and how are they different from traditional resistance trainers? Here’s how to determine the best trainer for you based on their characteristics and your goals as a cyclist.

How classic home trainers work

Trusted by cyclists for decades, most conventional trainers hold the bike still while you pedal against the resistance applied to the rear tire. This friction gives the rider the ability to train on their own bike indoors at any time, making these devices valuable training tools.

Resistance can be provided by fluid-filled chambers, magnetic resistance on the flywheel, or even a fan. The best type of classic trainer for each rider depends on their personal choice. For example, magnetic trainers are generally much louder than their liquid-filled counterparts.


roller trainer

Classic direct-drive trainers are also available; these connect directly to the rear dropout of your bike. This can save wear on your rear tire as it does not rub against a surface.


Smooth Workout Bike Setup

Many classic trainers are purely mechanical devices, although some have smart features. For example, you can turn the Tuno Power Fluid Pack into a smart home trainer using an adapter. These types of adaptations blur the lines between classic and smart coaches.

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How much do classic sneakers cost?

For the most part, classic sneakers are cheaper than smart sneakers, sometimes considerably. Although the exact price varies by brand and model, fluid or magnetic trainers can usually be found for $100 to $200, with many options available for under $100.

And because many of these sneakers are built like a tank, it’s also worth checking out the used market. A used classic trainer can serve you well for many more miles indoors.

How Smart Trainers Work


Direct Drive Training Bike Setup

Smart trainers work by providing electronic resistance to the rider. They usually need to be plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and/or ANT+ to work most effectively.

ANT+ is a wireless protocol that allows devices to communicate with each other. For indoor cyclists, ANT+ can read signals from multiple devices at the same time, such as your smart trainer, power meter, and heart rate monitor.

Typically, smart trainers generate resistance with a flywheel, magnetic force, or motorized resistance, depending on the model.

Some models, like the Tacx Neo 2T, use magnets to create a virtual flywheel. Regardless of how it generates resistance, the goal of each setup is to mimic the feel of riding outdoors as closely as possible.

You can buy smart trainers in wheeled and direct-drive formats.

Benefits of working out with a Smart Trainer

Because smart trainers are all about connection, they can adjust resistance and make indoor workouts much more interactive. In other words, you’ll feel the difference between every flat and incline part of Zwift and other workout programs. Some programs can even mimic the effects of wind or make pedaling easier if you’re trailing behind other cyclists.

Smart trainers can also measure your speed, power, and almost every other metric cyclists like to know. If you follow a training plan that requires a particular distance or wattage from your indoor rides, a smart trainer will easily provide you with those metrics.

The Wahoo Fitness app, for example, displays all of this information (and more) during and after every ride.

Finally, smart trainers can usually pair with whatever bike technology you already have on hand, whether it’s a heart rate monitor or a workout watch. This makes it easy to integrate trainer training data into the programs you already use.

To download: Wahoo Fitness for android | iOS

Connect Virtual Training Apps to a Smart Trainer


Screenshot of Zwift ride

When paired with virtual cycling apps such as Zwift, TrainerRouteWhere Fulgazsmart trainers can take your indoor riding experience to the next level.

Thanks to the speed, cadence and power sensors of a smart trainer, you can race with other runners around the world in real time. Sprinting your trainer will instantly speed up your avatar in the virtual world. The interactivity challenges you to become a more competitive athlete, and it’s just a lot of fun.


Screenshot of Zwift ride with light bike

Additionally, many virtual training apps have a strong social aspect. In Zwift, for example, you can join friends for a ride or a run in the app. It’s easy to keep chatting and encouraging each other to pedal faster, even when you’re miles apart in real life.

While you can use some classic trainers with virtual training apps, they don’t usually offer the same level of interaction.

How much do smart trainers cost?

Price is perhaps the biggest barrier to investing in a smart trainer. Although more affordable options are on the horizon, you can still expect to spend between $500 and $1,000 for a smart trainer.

Wheeled smart trainers tend to be slightly cheaper than direct drive ones. However, direct-drive trainers save wear and tear on your rear tire, which could also factor into the overall cost.

Which trainer should you get?

If you’re looking for an interactive virtual driving experience that connects to popular fitness apps, then smart trainers should be on your radar. Anyone training for a race or just looking to go faster on their bike will also appreciate the metrics and feedback provided by a smart trainer.


Bicycle fluid trainer

On the other hand, classic sneakers are a fantastic option for cyclists who aren’t into all the bells and whistles. You always have the option of cycling indoors at any time, which is an invaluable way to build strength and endurance. And a classic trainer can still provide a leg workout, as anyone who’s hopped on a fluid trainer for more than a few minutes will understand.


    direct drive smart bike trainer

Finally, don’t rule out the option of stationary bikes either. Popular Peloton bikes have a large, dedicated following. There are also plenty of Peloton alternatives that are also worth checking out.


If you’re not ready to cycle indoors, self-contained stationary bikes can provide a great indoor workout.

Boost your cycling workouts with a trainer

Whether you opt for a smart trainer or a classic trainer, either variety gives you the option of endless indoor rides. While smart trainers can connect to virtual cycling apps to provide a fully interactive social experience, classic trainers still offer a great training option for rides in the rain.


Three men with bicycles talking
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