When I started teaching indoor cycling in the early 2000s, my playlists, mostly composed of songs I downloaded from Napster, were on CDs. While I'm thrilled that technology has advanced (Spotify! Smartphones!), sadly, the myths surrounding cycling class remain unchanged.
1. Indoor cycling class is only for hardcore athletes
Indoor cycling is, in fact, the perfect workout for beginners. It's non-impact, requires little to no hand-eye coordination, and lets you go at your own pace.
"Indoor cycling is actually one of the best activities for exercisers of all shapes, sizes and fitness levels," says national award-winning fitness instructor Shannon Fable. Each bike has a resistance dial that you can easily and quickly adjust to make your workout "infinitely harder or infinitely easier," depending on your fitness and/or energy levels.
Because all ability levels are welcome, explains Marisa Michael, certified cycling instructor and author of "Bike Shorts: Your Complete Guide to Indoor Cycling," you get to experience camaraderie with people you wouldn't necessarily ride with outdoors. It's true; my Monday lunchtime class regulars have included a former Olympian, a rabbi, a retired aerobics instructor and a new mom.
2. The workout is designed to leave you exhausted
Your instructor should create a class that allows you to vary your effort, including easy spinning between hard intervals. Working at your maximum capacity for the entire class is a recipe for burnout.
"Getting a good workout is not dependent on being breathless the entire time," says Fable. "Each drill should have a clear goal (what will you be doing), feeling (what should you be feeling) and time (how long will it last)." Once you're clear on these three aspects, you can use the resistance dial to achieve your desired effort level. If you're concerned about keeping up, let your instructor know beforehand. If the instructor doesn't suggest modifications, such as shortening hard efforts or dialing back the intensity, there's nothing wrong with doing so on your own.
3. You're competing against the rest of the class
Your biggest competition is actually yourself - if you choose to compete at all. To measure your own progress, note whether your metrics (such as heart rate, distance, speed and wattage) are changing and whether you feel the workout is getting easier.
What if your studio uses a leader board? This technology displays every rider's stats for the whole class to see. While it can be motivating for some, it can be a major turnoff for others.
Fable recommends taking the leader board "with a grain of salt." Many leader boards measure heart rate or power output (wattage) to determine your place, but these metrics alone aren't always meaningful. "Just because you can get your heart rate higher than the person next to you does not mean that you are 'winning.' " Also, power measurements may be misleading if they fail to consider your size. Fable gives the example of a 115-pound woman versus a 215-pound man. "Regardless of her effort level or fitness level, [she'll] very rarely overpower a 215-pound man due to muscle mass. . . . If you determined the leader board based on power-to-mass ratio, she'd be in the fight."
If you want to keep your data to yourself, "your privacy should be respected," says Michael. She advises asking the instructor to hide it or opting out on your app or online account if the system allows it.
4. It's a pain in the butt (and the back and knees)
It's normal to leave your first few classes with a sore derriere, but that should subside after three to five classes, according to Fable. At that point, coming to class a minimum of once a week is usually sufficient to keep the discomfort at bay.
That said, most regulars invest in padded bike shorts to maximize comfort. A gel seat cover can also be a quick fix. If all else fails, you can always pedal out of the saddle. "Please don't let an instructor tell you standing is the 'advanced' move and only to do it if you're comfortable," warns Fable. "It's actually a perfectly safe move and easy for anyone to do with the right resistance and leg speed."
Nothing enhances your overall comfort and reduces your risk of injury like a proper bike fit. Arrive early for your first class so your instructor can help adjust your bike. Once your settings are dialed in, jot them down in your phone or snap a photo to avoid going back to square one at your next workout. Michael says a good instructor will notice the saddle height and fore-aft position, the position and angle of your knee throughout the pedal stroke, and the handlebar height and fore-aft position. Barring any preexisting conditions, "If these things are correct, you should not feel any knee or back pain." (If you do have issues such as arthritis or back pain, always check with your doctor before attending a class.)
Even with the perfect bike fit, says Jennifer Sage, master spinning instructor and founder of the Indoor Cycling Association, riders should be wary of "nontraditional" choreography (anything you wouldn't do on a bike outdoors). This includes performing pushups, crunches or weightlifting on the bike, cycling at a very high cadence with little or no resistance, pedaling backward and tap-backs (where you pedal while standing, centering your body over the pedals and then lean forward and send your hips back, hovering just over the saddle). At worst, some of these techniques present immediate danger. (Sage recalls incidents involving sliced calves and crushed ankles after riders lost control of fast-moving pedals and an on-bike pushup that resulted in chipped teeth.) At best, says Sage, these moves are "a massive waste of time" and reduce the effectiveness of the workout. If they're part of your instructor's repertoire, and you enjoy them, proceed with caution. But if you experience aches and pains, Sage says, these techniques may be the culprit.
5. You need special shoes for cycling class
While wearing bike shoes that clip directly into the pedals allows you to transfer your effort more efficiently to the bike, it's absolutely not a requirement. There's nothing wrong with wearing sneakers, especially if you have yet to make cycling class a habit. The stiffer the sole, the better. "Cycling shoes are not a prerequisite for a great workout," says Fable.
That said, you'll get a lot more out of your workout with cycling shoes. Their extremely stiff soles facilitate an efficient power transfer from your foot to the pedals. That stiffness also protects your feet from injuries such as plantar fasciitis, according to Michael. Fable recommends investing in cycling shoes if you plan to attend classes consistently two to three times a week.
Ever since its inception in the early '90s, indoor cycling has been a fun, safe workout that's designed to meet you wherever you are. As we usher in a new decade, let's allow the myths that have plagued this workout to go the way of the CD player.