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Updated 07 June 2013

Spinning vs training on the bike

Spinning is an alternative to bike training if weather or time doesn't permit, but you will most likely deviate from the structure of your programme so keep it to a minimum.

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Spinning is a definite alternative to training on the bike if weather or time doesn't permit, but you will most likely deviate from the structure of your programme so keep these to a minimum. by CHRIS CARMICHAEL


When the weather is lousy outside (too windy, too wet, too hot) it's tempting to do a spinning class rather than face the elements or slave away on a trainer alone at home. There's nothing inherently wrong with a spinning class, but it's important to find one that will actually improve your cycling training overall.

I encourage athletes to evaluate classes based on how well they address the core principles of training: overload and recovery, specificity, individuality and progression. I address each of these below.

Overload and Recovery
Classes generally fall into two categories: sufferfests and structured workouts. Both have their merits, and I understand the psychology of the sufferfest fan's desire to reach the end of a class exhausted, but as a coach I prefer the latter approach.

Though a sufferfest might feel excruciatingly difficult, your actual power output may be too low to improve your fitness due to inadequate recovery periods.

Check in with the instructor: If the primary feature of the workout is that it's ridiculously intense, but he or she can't identify what you'll get out of it, find a different class.

Specificity
The fact that you're pedalling is a step in the right direction, but some classes have very little to do with actual cycling performance. And that's okay. I'm all for classes that burn kilojoules and get people sweating.

But if you're looking to improve your performance on the road or trail, you need workouts that target the energy systems and power demands of actual cycling. These classes can be harder to find because effective interval sets are often not the most entertaining, crowd-pleasing kind.

The intensities are consistent and repetitive instead of all over the map, and while you may do some pedalling out of the saddle, no cycling-specific class will have you doing push-ups on the handlebar.

Individuality
This is where technology comes into play. The absolute best indoor cycling classes use power metres, whether that's in the form of CompuTrainers, power- equipped stationary bikes or personal bikes with power metres. And the best ones also set individual power-training ranges for each athlete.

The next-best scenario is a class that uses heart-rate monitors and individual training intensities. The self-selected "turn the knob to the right" method is fine, but not optimal.

Progression
Progressive classes are pretty rare, and to find one you'll most likely need to go to a cycling performance center.
To address the progression principle, a class needs to be designed with the idea that the same people will be coming back week after week, and that the workload will thus take into account the developing fitness of these participants.

In the standard gym model, in which classes are accessible to anyone anytime, the programming tends to be static. (This is also partly why these classes often are sufferfests.) In a progressive class, some of the workouts may well be more moderate in intensity, and while that's good from a long-term training perspective, it's not as appealing to the intermittent class user.

So incorporating indoor spinning classes into your training is fine once in a while - just be warned, the intensity is likely to be higher than is suggested in your training programme. But even cyclists following well-structured, scientifically based programmes sometimes should forget the numbers and just open the throttle.

But if all you do is pummel yourself on the spinning bike, your progress will be blunted.

The best option: Follow a scientifically based programme with most of your time spent on a bicycle outdoors, but incorporate some "hard for the sake of being hard" spinning classes, just for fun. It will keep things interesting, keep you on the bike when it's too miserable outside and it's great for overall fitness.
 

Visit Bicycling Magazine to sign up for a customised Argus training programme.

 Courtesy Bicycling Magazine.

 

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