Without exaggeration, my trainer is the single best exercise equipment purchase I've ever made. I have used it for eight years now and am really happy with it. More about that in my post called "Going Nowhere: The Technology" from a few years back.
Here, I want to offer a few thoughts on buying a trainer for yourself in response to questions I get from friends and co-workers.
1. What Kind of Trainer Should I Get?
Like bikes, I recommend buying a trainer that you will actually use. For that reason, I recommend a fluid trainer for every one. And...this may seem counterintuitive, especially for those who are not hardcore cyclists.
And now a word about types of resistance...and what "fluid" means:
A trainer is something you hook up to your bike's back wheel that provides enough resistance to allow you to pedal as if you were on the road. How the resistance is created is the primary way trainers vary. So when we talk about types of trainers, we are also talking about types of resistance.
All things considered, I find it is better to go with a fluid trainer which uses hydraulic resistance over the other two common types of resistance: mechanical/wind or magnetic. The other two types are much less pleasant (they are louder, and rather than a smooth resistance "curve" they offer sharper tiered or all-or-nothing resistance levels). These types also tend to be far less convenient to use. You may have to get off the bike to change resistance or you might top out, limiting the kind of riding and workouts you want to do. Fluid trainers do cost a bit more than the other two types, but not so much more that it makes the less convenient ones more attractive. This is particularly true if those features cause you to use the trainer less.
Fluid trainers are quiet - I can watch TV at normal volume when I ride mine - and they give you "road feel" resistance that works just by changing gears on your bike. Hence the fluid model is worth the extra cost.
2. How much is this gonna cost me?
Fluid models start around $300 for major brands like CycleOps or Kurt. But you can get a good fluid trainer for a little over $200 bucks by discount brands like Blackburn or house branded by Nashbar or Performance bike. Wind and magnetic units will go for around $150-250. The major brands will be sold at your local bike shop, which offers a chance to go ride them and compare. I also needed a warranty repair on the resistance unit for mine after several years of heavy use, and my LBS took care of everything for free. So if you've decided to go with a fluid model, I recommend going to your LBS for it. But whatever you do, don't be the guy who goes and rides one at the LBS and then comes home and buys it on Nashbar. That's bush league, man.
3. Are they tough to set up?
Not at all. Most (apart from pricier direct-drive units that replace your back wheel altogether) just require lining the back wheel skewer up with a collar on the trainer and using a locking lever to hold the bike in place. It's easy to take the bike on and off (or swap bikes if more than one person is riding). After you get the initial set up done, it takes literally a few seconds.
4. Besides the trainer, what else do I need to get?
You should definitely get a riser block - a plastic cradle that raises your front wheel to make it level with the back wheel as it is suspended in trainer. These are inexpensive ($20) and work better than phone books (the wheel is secure under load and won't slide). Without a riser or climbing block, your wrists will suffer from the pressure of pointing downhill. You won't want to do more than a short ride without one.
Optional, but recommended:
- a trainer tire. Nice road bike tires are expensive (~$60 or more) and nothing wears them out faster than riding on the trainer. A trainer tire is inexpensive ($~25) and is made of thicker, harder rubber that won't wear out.
- a mat to put the bike and trainer on. Especially for hard floors, this will make the area less of a mess when you sweat and it will make your whole rig more quiet.
5. What about used models?
If you can find a used one, go for it. You'll likely see the wind and magnetic models pop up like mushrooms on Craiglist shortly after the New Year each year...but that's because of the annoyances I mentioned above. Folks upgrade to fluid and never look back, selling their cheaper models. If cost is a big barrier, you might get started this way too. You will not see many fluid models for sale used. In fact, I'm not sure I recall ever seeing one on CL even though I check it routinely in the bikes category. This tells you something, no?