Will an indoor cycling class at my local gym or cycling studio help me in the winter?
Every fitness club has some form of indoor cycling class, and during the winter it’s very tempting for outdoor cyclists to jump in rather than slave away on an indoor trainer all by themselves. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with indoor cycling classes in gyms and health clubs, cycling studios like SoulCycle and Cyclebar, and even live and on-demand classes like Peloton, but if you are a cyclist or triathlete it is important to find one that’s actually going to improve your performance on the bike.
For an informative look at the range of experiences you will find as you go to different indoor cycling classes, read this article CTS Contributing Editor, Mara Abbott, wrote for The Denver Post. I encourage athletes to evaluate indoor cycling classes based on how well they address the core principles of training: Overload-and-Recovery, Specificity, Individuality, and Progression.
Indoor cycling classes generally fall into two categories: Sweatfests and Structured Workouts. Both have their merits, and I understand the psychology of the Sweatfest fan’s desire to reach the end of a class thoroughly exhausted, but as a coach I prefer the Structured Workout approach. Many times the Sweatfest feels excruciatingly difficult, but due to inadequate recovery periods, your perceived exertion level is through the roof but your actual power output is too low to lead to improved fitness. 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’re actually going to get out of it, find a different class.
The fact you’re pedaling is a step in the right direction, but some indoor cycling classes seem to have very little to do with actual cycling performance. And that’s OK – I’m all for classes that aim to burn calories and get people sweating – but if you’re looking to a class 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 pedaling out of the saddle, no cycling-specific class will have you doing pushups on the handlebars…
This is where technology comes into play. The absolute best indoor cycling classes use power meters, whether that’s in the form of smart trainers, power-equipped stationary bikes, or personal bikes with power meters. The best among those 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 OK, but certainly not optimal.
Indoor training classes that are progressive are pretty rare, and to find one you’ll most likely need to go to a cycling performance center instead of the local gym. To address the progression principle, a class needs to be designed with the idea that the same people will come back week after week, and that the workout and workload will consequently take into account the participants’ developing fitness. In the standard health club model, where classes need to be accessible to anyone at anytime, the programming tends to be more static. This is also part of the reason standard health club classes often focus on being Sweatfests instead of Structured Workouts. In a progressive class, some of the workouts may actually be pretty moderate in intensity; and while that may be good from a long-term training perspective, it’s not as appealing to the intermittent cycling class user.
Incorporating indoor cycling classes into your winter training program doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional – or even weekly – Sweatfest. It’s fun, just like going to the Tuesday Night World Championship group ride during the summer. If you are doing the vast majority of your riding indoors for the next few months, you might be following a structured plan or doing your coaches structured workouts on Zwift, Sufferfest, or TrainerRoad; yet even well-structured, scientifically-based, progression-driven indoor cycling programs sometimes need to forget about the numbers and just open the throttle. Like everything else, it’s a matter of balance. If all you do for the entire winter is pummel yourself, you’re actual progress will be blunted. If riding indoors on your own for too long crushes your motivation, you won’t ride. The best option, especially for people in the northern, snowy States, is to follow a scientifically-based indoor training program, but incorporate some “hard for the sake of being hard” classes for the fun and social aspects they provide.