Riding inside is a good way to stay fit and keep active in the winter months. Most athletes are slaves to the trainer in the winter and for most of us there is no way to avoid stationary training. But we all know how boring and how hard it can be to stay motivated training alone in the basement. Spin classes are a good way to break up the monotony, add a social element to your training, and stay motivated through a tough training session. But how do you decide where to spin and what types of classes you want to join?

Classically spin classes are the realm of people looking to burn calories to the beat of high tempo music. We’ve all been to those classes at the local rec centre, the enthusiastic instructor screaming commands into a headset while techno music blasts through a loudspeaker. Sure we end up sweaty and exhausted but do they really give us any fitness benefit or improve our riding at all? And how do we know if the class is good or not?

Things to Look For In a Spin Class

What makes a good spin class and what makes a bad spin class? The first thing you want to consider is how your instructor assigns effort. You want to make sure that your instructor is using some sort of system that allows you to work within your own ability level. If the bikes have preset resistance levels and your instructor is telling everyone in the class to set it to the same level for a given effort, then you might be working at above or below the effort level required for the interval to be useful. Using perceived effort (a scale based on how hard you perceive yourself to be working) is a good start and many instructors are able to effectively communicate what different intensity levels should feel like. A better option is something more objective like heart rate or power based zones. Some spin bikes come equipped with power meters that will relay your effort in watts. A short test can determine what power output is required for an endurance effort, a threshold effort, a sprint effort, etc. based on your level of ability and fitness.

The next thing to consider is how your instructor uses variable levels of effort and intensity to build their class. Do they have you working hard and at your limit for the entire duration? Do they offer a reason for why you’re working at a given intensity and how it will benefit your health, fitness and ability? Are they just making you work for the sake of making you work?

For cyclists and triathletes you want to make sure that your spin classes will have you working at efforts and intensities that will benefit your riding ability and compound your fitness over a period of weeks and months. Doing the same workouts every week all winter won’t make you a better rider. Look for a class that has a defined program length and progression or cycles through different types of efforts and intensities each week.

For individual classes you want to look for things like recovery time between intervals and length of intervals. Lower intensities require longer intervals and less recovery time. Higher intensities require shorter intervals and more recovery time. Repeatedly hitting you with tough short intervals is sometimes a good thing but to get maximum benefit there should be enough recovery time between intervals so that you can maintain a constant output throughout the duration of the workout. If you get to the end of a spin class and your legs feel like jello and you’re walking bow-legged, you’ve overdone it. You don’t need to be on the edge of heart attack to get an effective workout. Avoid spin classes that look like boot camps and sufferfests. You should work hard and you should accumulate fatigue, but you should stay within your own limitations and feel good after a workout; not like you want to puke after every class. Your first class is going to be hard and you might have all these feelings but given what you’ve learned here, you should be able to determine whether the class is too much, or you’re just a little out of practice.

Does your instructor understand cycling mechanics? This is an important question because many spin classes incorporate movements and actions that may be detrimental, offer no benefit, or at worst cause injury. Things like pedalling backwards, hovering over the seat, shifting your weight well over the handlebars or lifting weights while riding are poor spin practices. Some are just gimmicky, others do harm to your body. Your instructor should be instructing you on things like proper form, technique and cadence. It can be easy to develop bad habits on stationary bikes so it’s important that your instructor offers advice and instruction on how to improve pedal stroke, how to stand up and pedal, and help you with bike fit. Cadence and standing drills are good warm up practices and help set the standard for the rest of the workout. For those who are not cyclists or triathletes it is still important to develop good habits so you can get the most out of your efforts and prevent injury.

For those in the Ottawa area check out Cyclelogik’s Ride Inside program, they offer a series of classes and programs that appeal to a broad range of ability, fitness, goals and schedules. Do your research and ask questions. Don’t just walk in to any spin class and start pedalling. Find one that works for you and allows you to get what you want from the class.