How to build your perfect pain cave: Part two – essential accessories

To get the most out of your indoor riding you'll need more than just a smart trainer.

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In part one of our how to build your perfect pain cave series, we looked at choosing the right trainer for your indoor cycling goals. In part two, we are looking at the vast range of accessories and tech available to complement your trainer and improve your indoor experience. 

Pain cave accessories fall into two categories: essential, and non-essential but we still love them. Today we are focusing on the essential pain cave accessories.


Fans

If you’ve ever ridden indoors you don’t need me to tell you that you lose the natural cooling effect from the airflow of the great outdoors while sitting on a stationary trainer. Even if we somehow ignore the sensation of baking from the inside out, a quick look at the pool of sweat below you is enough to show that things get hot when pedalling on the spot.

When managed correctly, that increased heat and core body temperature can provide some performance gains, but more often than not, it is detrimental to training at best and can even be quite dangerous. 

Looking for the best fan for Zwift? Bigger is not always better – a channelled high-speed airflow will keep your core cooler than a much larger circulator fan.

“Humans are great at thermoregulation compared to other species. We can dissipate heat through conduction, convection, radiation, and most significantly evaporation as a result of sweating. However, the body’s capacity to lose heat is not unlimited and at a certain point these processes are unable to match the accumulation of heat during exercise which can ultimately lead to mild hyperthermia or even severe heat exhaustion.

“When indoor training it is important to set a lower room temperature (10-15 ºC) and ensure good airflow over your body to maximise evaporative heat loss. Plus, don’t forget to stay hydrated as with high airflow, sweating can be less obvious compared to still, hot, and humid conditions.”

Dave Bailey – WorldTour performance consultant.

So what can we do to avoid these nasty side effects? Ventilation is key. When possible, have your indoor setup in a well-ventilated area. I have done many trainer sessions in the garden when the weather permits and the neighbours are not home. It goes without saying indoor training outdoors is not the norm or even possible for most of us looking to maximise our winter training.

If your space permits it, aim to place your setup near an open window and ideally have a window open at both ends of the room to promote airflow through the space. 

Do I need a fan for indoor training?

With the housekeeping boxes checked off, let’s look at accessories for combating heat build-up, specifically fans.

After a suitable trainer, the number-one essential on my list is an adequate fan. As mentioned in part one, factor in the cost of a fan when calculating your trainer budget. We will take a deep dive into different fan options and their effectiveness in an upcoming article in this series, so consider this an intro to the subject.

The best fan for indoor training?

Without preempting our fan test results, it is safe to say any fan is better than no fan. With that said, some fans are much better suited to keeping us cool while riding indoors than others. To understand why, let’s first assess our fan requirements.

When we ride outdoors, we benefit from the natural cooling effect of air moving over our bodies. Even on the calmest days, this cooling effect is much greater than any fan can replicate. Think standing still versus descending at speed. We want to maximise that same body-cooling airflow indoors.

“The body gets rid of excess heat mainly via two mechanisms: convection and evaporation. A fan will increase the efficiency of both cooling mechanisms by providing your skin with a continuous stream of fresh and dry air, eventually providing a higher cooling efficiency and thus lower body temperature under same effort (or same power level).”

Michele Zahner – Research and Development Engineer, Core

Cubic feet per minute (CFM) is a measurement of both the speed and volume of air a fan can produce. The metric is used to calculate the fan size required to achieve the necessary air exchanges within a room or building. While air exchange is not the primary goal with an indoor training fan, this CFM measurement is a useful proxy for air speed in a channelled airflow from a fixed direction fan.

Put simply, low CFM fans will not have the capacity to channel enough air at a high enough speed to provide adequate cooling for higher intensity efforts. Fans with higher CFM will get closer to replicating that air flow over our bodies we enjoy outdoors.

Fan options. Three-year-old added for scale.

While air-circulating fans such as ceiling, oscillating, and drum fans with high CFMs are great for cooling rooms and large areas, they usually lack the speed and focus we require for indoor riding. The best indoor cycling fans offer fixed direction airflow with a high CFM. These fans are much better suited for our indoor training requirements and do an admirable job of recreating that feeling of high-speed on-bike airflow.

Get the fan’s direction angle just right, and that high-velocity airflow over the body can help dissipate the heat build-up in the key areas (core, arms, and head).  

So just go for the highest CFM rating you can find, right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Frustratingly, not all manufacturers publish a CFM rating, the Wahoo Headwind being the most relevant example for us virtual riders. Furthermore, higher CFMs are usually associated with higher prices, increased noise levels, and, as you might suspect, increased size, height and floor/wall footprint. None of which are ideal if you are working out in a tight or shared space.

Look first for fans within your price range with that fixed airflow direction, avoiding those air circulators, and then filter by fan dimensions to find those that will fit in your space. Finally, opt for the fan with the highest CFM rating from the list already filtered for your other needs.

A fan’s airflow range and distance is also crucial. Too short or narrow might put less of your body is in the strongest airflow zone; too wide, and much of that airflow gets wasted. Luckily our forthcoming fan test will compare these measurements from a selection of fans. 

Without contradicting myself, a circulation fan improving the air exchange within the room in addition to your main fan(s) will help improve the overall training environment. If your budget permits it, additional rotating, ceiling, and drum fans can be beneficial for our pain caves, but these are very much of secondary importance to your main fan(s).

The Black and Decker circulator fan on the right is no match for the Vacmaster Cardio on the left. The Vacmaster packs a gale force storm in its compact housing.

“Beyond the cooling advantages of having enough air flow, a further consideration of good overall air circulation is avoiding a concentration of humid and oxygen-depleted air.”

Michele Zahner – Research and Development Engineer, Core

Which fan do I need for Zwift and other indoor training?

Having decided on the type of fan and how much you want to spend, some bonus features might help in choosing the exact fan for you.

Look for variable speed settings. Almost all fans will feature several speed settings. While the highest setting will almost always prove best for the most intense efforts, a wind tunnel-esque blasting might be overkill for easier-paced endurance or recovery rides. Furthermore, you may wish to increase and decrease the fan intensity to match ride intensity. 

Many of us train in garages and basements with air temperatures closely matching those outdoors. In winter, these lower temperatures will help in controlling body temperature. However, these chilly conditions combined with a full force fan can be extremely uncomfortable early in a ride before we have fully warmed up. As such, I look for a fan with a remote, or at very least a remote wall plug that can activate the fan from the discomfort of your stationary bike.

Fan remotes will control all the speed settings the fan offers, while remote wall plugs only offer on or off for the existing setting on the fan. 

Consider also the other components of your pain cave. Handlebar tablet mounts and trainer desks may obstruct much of the airflow to your core and/or head. One solution is to position the fan in front and to the side of your setup. While this will ensure an unobstructed airflow, you will leave a large proportion of one side of your body unchilled.

This brings me to what I believe is the ideal setup: two fans in front, with one on either side of you, will ensure complete front and side coverage. If budget is an issue I would gladly take a dual setup with slightly lower-powered but cheaper fans, than a single fan out front.

There is a fan in there somewhere. Trainer desks and tablet holders can obstruct the airflow from a fan.

Whichever fan you choose you will be hoping it will see a lot of action over, hopefully, many years. Check the warranty cover on any fan. Furthermore, compare fans’ CFM and wattage rating. At the risk of stating the obvious, higher wattages (measured on max setting) will consume more power and hence cost more to run.

How long will you ride? Some indoor fans wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a four-hour ride. With a smart trainer, a large display, and a hungry fan (or fans), this could all add up to a significant increase in your annual electricity bill. 

Lastly, and semi-fan related, a dehumidifier may prove a valuable investment for many pain caves. By removing moisture from the air, dehumidifiers can help keep the relative humidity down in a room. If your pain cave is in a confined or unventilated room, and especially if shared with others, humidity can build up, resulting in mould, mildew, and rot which can damage room contents or worse still lead to respiratory and allergy issues.

Sweat collectors

Even with excellent ventilation and the right fan, indoor training still gets hot and sweaty. All that sweat collects in a pool on the floor beneath you. Before it gets to the floor, all that sweat has to get past your bike and all those lovely components.

Sweat is salty and corrosive and can destroy frames and components. As much as we would like to, many of us don’t have the luxury of sacrificing a bike specifically to use indoors (more on this later), and for those of us who do, it still needs protecting to ensure it lasts for many winters to come. 

For this reason, I have sweat collectors at number two in my list of essential accessories. “Sweat collector” can just be a fancy name for a good old fashioned towel draped over the handlebars, levers, and stem.

Towels are the perfect quick and unobtrusive solution for protecting your front end, keeping your hands dry, and drying yourself off mid and post-training sessions. Invest in a set of towels for your pain cave and wash them with your kit so you always have yours ready for the next ride. Aim to have one smaller towel at hand for drying your face, and a larger towel for folding over the front end of the bike.

Many indoor trainer brands also offer bike-protecting sweat collectors or thongs. These sweat collectors are essentially dedicated frame towels designed to mount to the bike. These bike thongs don’t offer the versatility of a good old towel, but the bike-specific design means the thong can protect more of the bike and frame ride after ride.

Most of these collectors feature a large elastic loop that slips over the saddle, anchoring around the seat post. That elastic loop transitions into a moisture-absorbing material that grows wider as it follows the top tube towards the handlebars.

This moisture-absorbing material is the key feature here. Narrow at the rear, the thong is wide enough to catch sweat droplets above the frame, protecting everything below it while still narrow enough that your legs shouldn’t (but not always) catch it during the pedal stroke. Once clear of the knees, the thong expands wider to collect wider-flung sweat droplets, protecting the headset, stem bolts, and central section of the handlebars. Two velcro straps wrap around the handlebars as the front anchor for the thong, offering adjustability to fit almost any bar. 

Some manufacturers include extra design features to improve the indoor training setup. Tacx and Cycleops include a transparent pocket for a smartphone (check smartphone sizing compatibility). A seemingly discontinued Cycleops sweat cover once offered a neat-looking double pocket draping over the front of the bars to protect the brakes and front hub while offering a home for TV remotes and other accessories. 

Wrist and forehead sweatbands might scream tennis court, but they are equally at home in a pain cave. Sweat builds up on your arms and only has one place to run: down your arms, onto your hands, and all over your bars and levers. A winter full of sweat can corrode handlebars to the point of failure, and the effect on your shifters can be every bit as detrimental.

For these reasons, sweatbands are essential in my book, and that’s before we even get to the increased comfort and improved grip dry hands offer. I have even cut the feet out of old worn socks to provide some sweat catching on the calves and keep my shoes drier for longer. 

Nearly every trainer brand now has its own indoor training mat. There is not much functionally to differentiate between the various options other than dimensions, pricing, and design differences.

Last but not least is floor mats. Providing your floor with protection from sweat, dirt, oil, spittle etc., and protecting you from the wrath of an angry significant other if said mess gets on the carpet, floor mats could get an entire section of their own. Of course, we are all really well behaved indoor cyclists and only ever using sparkling clean bikes, so I am including the floor mat in the sweat collection section. 

There are many options when it comes to floor protection. Many trainer manufacturers offer matching floor mats. You could also use interlocking garage flooring tiles, upcycle some packaging plastic, or some lino flooring offcuts. My personal favourite design is a collab by LeCol and Eigo which I just ordered recently. It just arrived and while it feels a bit too absorbent to be a trainer mat, it is the perfect pain cave floor accessory.

Floor mats should also provide some level of vibration and noise dampening; another plus for those training in shared enviroments. 

Indoor training motivation aids

A welcoming pain cave with plenty of motivation aids will help you keep coming back time and time again.

For many, the improved training specificity, safety, and even the social interaction indoor training now offers are reasons enough to hop on an indoor trainer. Others benefit from the motivation and inspiration provided by platforms like Zwift, TrainerRoad, Wahoo Systm, Rouvy, RGT etc. (the list is growing all the time).

Motivation is key to any successful indoor training period or plan. The best indoor setup in the world with all the bells, whistles and gadgets possible, will only get you so far. It is motivation to hop on the trainer that will keep you coming back for more.

While all differ in their exact offering, all indoor training platforms offer some improved experience and motivation to get your sweat on. Whether it be virtual-world exploring, structured training plans, social interaction, or some challenge to complete, most of us can find a platform to provide the inspiration needed on cold, dark, wet winter days or even in the height of summer.

I’m not going to suggest which is right for you; we all have our own forms of motivation. But when planning your pain cave and calculating your budget, save a chunk for some form of motivation subscription. 

Need some motivation? Wahoo Systm lets you act out a bike race as a structured workout, just like The Sufferfest did previously.

Not all motivation requires a subscription, though. Photos, medals, posters, even just your good summer bike carefully placed within sight can provide reminders of your best days on the bike, and a little boost if motivation is lacking. Not everyone will have the option to go full interior designer on their pain cave, but if you do, it certainly won’t hurt.

Devices and displays

Those who get motivation power-ups from online platforms will need a device to run their preferred program.

There are four main options when it comes to pain-cave hardware and displays. Laptops and tablets are amongst the most popular device options, with Apple TV quickly catching up for Zwift users. Although smartphones are more than capable of powering most software platforms, their smaller screens tend to make them less desirable.  

Little screen or large screen? Whatever works for your space. Or better yet, both!

What is the best device for Zwift and indoor training? I will start with the easier answers. As mentioned above, a smartphone will work, but the small screen may get annoying. In all likelihood, given a choice, very few will choose a smartphone over a laptop, tablet, or larger display. That said, there are some positives to choosing a smartphone.

There is the obvious space-saving bonus of using a smaller device, portability, and lastly, ease of use. There is also the option to stream or screen mirror your smartphone display to a larger screen. Keep an eye on battery levels though. You don’t want to lose a session mid-ride because your smartphone has died. With smartphones, simply click your chosen app and off you go.  

Apple TV is similarly ready to go for Zwift, FulGaz, Rouvy, and RGT users. These platforms all offer an Apple TV app making it quick and easy to start riding. Better yet, Apple TV offers one of the lowest-priced stand-alone device options on the market for those building a pain cave off a blank canvas. In recent years, the Apple offering has surged in popularity, converting TVs of all shapes and sizes into virtual-world playgrounds. Apple TV will work with any display that supports an HDMI cable.  

One word of caution though: Apple TV only pairs via Bluetooth and to a maximum of two devices (the third connection is taken by the Apple TV dedicated remote). This is not an issue for many users, and Zwifters can pair further devices using the Zwift companion app. But it will be a problem if you wish to connect an on-bike power meter, a controllable trainer, heart rate strap, and cadence sensor without the companion app, or even just connect via ANT+.

If you enjoy virtual racing and want to use your ANT+only power meter as the primary power source (as many do) you will need an ANT+ to Bluetooth converter such as the NPE Cable to pair said power meter with the Apple TV. These are non-issues for most riders, but for the most dedicated racers, those with select power meters, and data-hungry nerds like myself, it might be enough to mean Apple TV will not work for you. It doesn’t for me.

A mini-PC from Dell, Intel, HP or Lenovo can offer Apple TV form without the connectivity limitations. These are, as the name suggests, mini PC towers and require a separate display. Mini-PCs feature USB ports meaning ANT+ dongle connectivity, but this can come at a price. Some of the top-rated mini-gaming PCs can hit four-figure price tags, although they can be picked up for as little as £150 (check platform compatibility), assuming you already have the necessary display and Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

All within reach.

Tablets offer another app-running display option for indoor training. Sitting somewhere between a smartphone and an Apple TV setup, depending on the exact tablet you have, these mid-size devices are the perfect up-close or handlebar-mounted display.

Handlebar tablet mounts put the touchscreen devices easily within reach for power-ups and in-session adjustments, making tablets amongst the most accessible devices on offer. This accessibility is a double-edged sword, though. As the intensity increases and the sweat pours, wet fingers and touchscreens become the worst of enemies. Your finger wants one thing, but the screen wants something entirely different — a recipe for virtual racing disaster. 

Now for the complicated stuff, TVs and monitors. I say complicated because there are just so many options. As mentioned already, Apple TV will work with these displays, but I separated that out as I want to discuss laptop, Macbook, and PC-powered options here. This is where the options become nearly endless.

There is the laptop/Macbook to TV via HDMI cable option (my own choice) or the dedicated gaming PC to gaming monitor option. Within these, there are a multitude of considerations: graphics cards, CPU, RAM, screen refresh rates – lots of fun. The good news is that Zwift’s list of supported devices and computer requirements is not all that complicated or high spec. The flip side of that is it can be easy to go overboard on computing spec for no added benefit despite a likely additional cost.

For many riders a TV will provide a large enough screen at a much lower price. For others, the option of quicker response times, higher refresh rates, anti-glare coatings, and improved colours are enough to justify the extra cost associated with a dedicated gaming monitor.

We have developed the following questionnaire to help you decide which larger display is right for you: 

  1. Do you currently use a smartphone, tablet, or laptop and simply want a larger screen?
  2. Are you happy with the graphics (not screen size) on these devices?
  3. Is virtual world cycling the only “gaming” you do? 
  4. Are the size and/or smart connectivity the main features on your wish list when looking for a new TV? 
  5. Do you have access to a laptop that meets Zwift’s optimal computer requirements? (While these requirements are listed in computer gobbledygook, many laptops will have these listed on the front or rear of the keyboard area. Failing that a quick Google search of how to check my laptop specs will provide a step by step guide to checking your systems capabilities.) 

If you answered yes to all of the above, a larger TV screen with an HDMI port will provide the bigger display you desire. If you answered no to any of these and/or you are a dedicated gamer with an eye for refresh rates and improved graphics, a dedicated gaming monitor might be the way to go. At that point you will need to consider if the screen and computer are solely for indoor riding purposes or if you need to expand its capabilities for other gaming activities. 

There is one last option when it comes to pain-cave displays: the “go big or go home” projector display for an immersive feel and life-size avatar.

Former WorldTour professional and co-founder of Cycle Espresso, Russ Downing, is now a Zwift mega-fan and recently upgraded to a projector display. We spoke with Russ to get his take on the pros and cons of this ultimate pain-cave flex. “I wanted something immersive, sleek, and with a larger display”, he explained. “As an online coach, I was spending four or five nights a week in the pain cave, so I needed the sleeker setup for the most immersive experience.” 

Fancy a life-size avatar? A projector might be the way to go.

Many of us will have seen the start-studded Zwift ad with a totally immersive video-mapping projector room and questioned if it is possible to recreate that setting at home. Unfortunately, Zwift has confirmed a 360° immersive projector setup such as that seen in the ad is not possible, but many Zwifters do use projectors for an almost life-size display.

As with almost everything on this list, projector prices range from one of the most affordable display options right up to eye-watering prices for the deluxe options. 

When considering a projector for virtual world training, projector brightness, light source, and the screen are some of the key features. There is no escaping the fact projectors will work best in a dark room. Brighter rooms will require greater projector brightness to display a clear image. Thankfully many projectors now offer improved light output for better displays in brighter rooms.

Typically projectors are marked with a lumen rating. This is an indication of the light output of the projector. While more lumens is better, quite often, the listed lumen rating is for the projector light source rather than the actual light projected. The projector’s imaging process can significantly reduce the actual light output from the projector.

Look for an ANSI (American National Standards Institute) Lumen rating. The ANSI Lumen rating measures the true light output from a projector across a nine zone average on screen across a range of conditions, accounting for brightness and contrast. As a quick rule of thumb, less than 1,000 ANSI Lumens will require a dark room to create a clear picture. The brighter your room, the higher the ANSI Lumen rating you will need. The contrast ratio is the ratio between black and white portions of any image or video. The brighter the room the greater the contrast ratio required to keep that image looking sharp. 

All those lumens have to come from somewhere. The type of light source will impact projector service requirements. Expect to get 3-5,000 hours of viewing per lamp from a lamp projector – many years of indoor training for most of us. These lamps are relatively cheap to replace, but lamp price, lifetime, and ease of access are worth checking before investing in a lamp projector. Expect to get many more years of use from LED and laser projectors, which are said to offer in the region of 20,000 hours of viewing. 

Factor in throw ratios, pixel density, refresh rates etc. and projectors are among the most challenging setups to get right. However, with some careful consideration and the right room, a projector can give the virtual world a whole new dimension.

Add in an adaptive Philips Hue light and Hue Hub (or other smart adaptive ambient light) for the ultimate ambient lighting that adapts to the Zwift in-game background and you’re one step closer to that dream Zwift projector room. A cheaper option might be just painting the entire room and everything in it orange for total Zwift feels.

Last but not least on displays, think connections. HDMI and USB ports are your friend, and the more, the better. I have never heard anyone lament having too many USB ports.

As displays get bigger, they also tend to need to be further away. While this is great for viewing, it might create an ANT+ connectivity issue. Anything more than 3 meters (10 ft) from device to your trainer, power meter, and other sensors will likely result in some signal dropouts. A longer HDMI cable might make it possible to move the device closer to your sensors, or alternatively, a USB extension cable such as this 1.5 m extension from Lifeline will bring an ANT+ dongle closer to your devices. 

WiFi woes

Is there anything worse mid-session than a WiFi dropout? Well, yes, but try telling that to someone left standing on the side of a virtual road as their race disappears, literally, off their screen.

Direct ethernet connections for your devices is the sure-fire way to prevent signal dropout and potentially improve speeds. Alternatively, if space permits it, then simply moving closer to your router is a free and effective way to reduce signal drop-outs.

A WiFi mesh network solved many of my signal and speed issues with satellite hubs around the house. Wahoo Elemnt Bolt for scale.

Unfortunately, these solutions will not be an option for many, so improving signal is the next best thing. WiFi boosters/repeaters offer a seemingly convenient and affordable solution to WiFi signal woes but are far from perfect.

WiFi repeaters may create as many, if not more, issues than they resolve. Repeaters typically have their own name (SSID), and password so users must switch between networks for optimal signal. Plus, WiFi speeds will drop as they are repeated further from the router. If you forget to switch repeater or you lose track of which repeater is where, you could easily find yourself with a less stable and slower signal.

The Wahoo Kickr Direct Connect physically connects your Wahoo Fitness trainer directly to your internet router with an ethernet cable for a much more reliable signal.

WiFi mesh networks offer a more stable connection for our pain cave needs. Mesh networks use a base router that connects to your existing modem paired with satellite modules to extend signal coverage, improve reliability, and provide theoretically the same speed as the central router. Crucially, with a common SSID and password, the network will automatically connect devices to the satellite and frequency band that offers the best performance in its current location.

Mesh networks are not perfect either, though. The added convenience of automatic connections and improved signals come at a relatively considerable investment. My WiFi mesh network was the equivalent of almost five months worth of my combined TV, broadband, and home phone bill.

Furthermore, since moving to a mesh network, I have found the Zwift Companion app is sometimes less willing to play ball with my Zwift-operating devices. Despite having both the device running Zwift and the device running the Companion app both on the same network and frequency band – as required by the Zwift Companion app – sometimes it just doesn’t want to play ball.


That’s it for now. Join us next time for part three when we look at some of the nicest accessories for indoor training.

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