Why you should try spin classes this winter

Spinning can be a good alternative to winter road training

Spin classes are a good way of training indoors

If you feel uneasy about taking to the roads on dark nights to put the miles in, why not train indoors? Nicola Smith shows us how you can win with spin.


What is Spinning?

When American cyclist Johnny Goldberg was knocked off his bike one night while training for the 3,000 mile Race Across America he decided to recreate the training conditions indoors. Goldberg developed a training programme he called Spinning, designed an indoor bike based on his road bike and took it to gyms around the world.

While Spinning is Goldberg’s trademark — only accurately used for classes run by instructors who have attended the official Johnny G Spinning instructor training — indoor cycling classes have taken off in gyms across the world and it can offer a great winter alternative to road training.

Classes take place on a fixed wheel bike, the pedals are tied to a weighted wheel, and you have a lever to alter resistance. Typically about eight cyclists line up in a semi-circle around the instructor who will take the class through a routine. While routines and instructors vary hugely, music tends to play a big part in any session to set the pace and speed, and create the right atmosphere to motivate people.

A class can accommodate a variety of fitness levels because you work as hard as you want to. “You can have an Olympic athlete in the same class as a beginner and if the instructor is good they should all be able to work at a perfect level because they are in charge of leg strength and speed,” says indoor cycling trainer Debbie Kneale.

Replicating outdoor cycling

Because indoor cycling was developed to replicate outdoor cycling, it uses the same muscles — namely the quads, glutes and hamstrings to apply downward pressure, and the hamstrings and calf to flex the knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke, to pull the foot back.

Hip flexors are also used to help raise the leg so the opposite leg can push down on the pedal. At the top, the quads are used to extend the knee and push the foot forward.

As Jennifer Sage, a master instructor for Spinning since 1998, says: “By focusing on proper synchronisation of the muscles used in the entire 360-degree pedal stroke when training indoors, a cyclist can help perfect their pedal stroke outdoors.”

Indoor cycling allows you to spend a lot of time in the aerobic endurance zones in the winter

Competitive outdoor cyclists also use indoor cycling to focus on their inner game, as it enables them to concentrate on a specific route or a particularly challenging part of a route without the distraction of traffic or other external factors.

Some instructors will use visualisation as part of the session, telling you to close your eyes and go where your mind takes you, perhaps using more monotonous music to encourage the sense of escapism as you cycle.

Types of spin classes

Classes can range from endurance classes for developing the aerobic system to strength classes to train for hill climbing, while Race Day classes aim to simulate time trials. Other classes tend to be based on variety and having fun while you train, incorporating a little of everything.

Make sure you find a spin class that’s geared specifically towards outdoor cyclists, because some more general aerobics-style classes will incorporate other exercises such as pedalling backwards and push-ups on the handlebars — something frowned upon by many indoor spinning instructors and traditionalists.

Like any fitness regime, intensity and frequency depends on your individual health, fitness, motivation and objectives. Indoor cycling allows you to spend a lot of time in the aerobic endurance zones in the winter and, as Sage says, sessions are good for interval training because it’s harder to motivate yourself to do high intensity training alone.

But she advises cyclists to follow hard days with easy days: “You don’t have to do what the instructor is asking — you can sit at the back and ride easy at a low heart rate when it’s time for you to recover.”

Increasingly, instructors are advising that participants wear heart rate monitors during sessions to ensure effective training rather than just going hard and fast and burning out too quickly. Maintaining your heart rate within various training ‘zones’ allows you to reach individual endurance-based or strength-based goals more easily.

Spinning sessions

Indoor cycling has diversified since the original Spinning concept, but most classes are based on one of four formats:

1. Pre-choreographed

Where set moves are repeated to each music track. These classes tend to be more fun and choreography focused with upper body moves sometimes used and other ‘creative’ non traditional cycling elements.

2. Rhythm-based

Classes where participants are encouraged to keep to the speed of the music; music may also be used to define choreography. As with pre-choreographed sessions, these tend to include non-cycling moves too.

3. Heart rate based

Where participants are encouraged to alter workload and cadence to remain in the desired heart rate training zone for that session. Tend to be more training focused with more traditional cycling moves.

4. Visualisation

Mainly used by instructors to direct participants along an imaginary route, but can be more powerfully used to attain mind-body coherence — what athletes often call ‘the zone’ for enhanced performance, pleasure and positive mind-body health.

(Source: Debbie Kneale, international indoor cycling trainer and mind-body specialist, www.debbiekneale.co.uk)

Top spinning tips

  • Try several different classes and bikes where possible to find which suits you best
  • The instructor should explain about the fixed gear and how to set up the bike. You may wish to adjust this closer to your usual riding position. In indoor cycling there is no wind resistance so you tend to ride with higher bars and also encourage greater knee extension at the bottom of the pedal stroke than you may be used to
  • Wear your cycling shorts, always take water to class and drink at least 1 litre per 45-minute session
  • Work on a smooth pedal stroke, use resistance that really feels like the road outside, whether it’s a flat road or a climb, and pedal at your preferred outdoor cadence (it’s okay to do cadence drills to try to train the neuromuscular abilities of the legs, but remember that indoors it’s so much easier to pedal faster than outdoors)
  • Train with a heart rate monitor (HRM)  to ensure you have an effective workout tailored to meet your own goals

The moves

  1. Seated flat, which is good for endurance building
  2. Standing climb, which challenges balance and core stability (and therefore trains these) as well as working more towards strength
  3. Jumping, moving smoothly from seated to standing and back again. This can be done on a hill or flat, and challenges coordination, balance and core stability while cycling

Updated 4 October 2017