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Am I Pedaling Hard Enough? Measuring Effort in an Indoor Cycling Class

Am I Pedaling Hard Enough? Measuring Effort in an Indoor Cycling Class

by: Dru Ryan
Sunday, March 11, 2018 - 6:53pm

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“Am I Pedalling Hard Enough?”: Measuring Effort in an Indoor Cycling Class

“That class kicked my ass.” The hackneyed sentence heard outside indoor cycling studio across the D.C. area. Over-confidence theory prevails, with the appearance of sweat converted into level of exertion. Pedaling fast elevates your heart rate, and in a hot room, one is bound to sweat. Stages Indoor Cycling Master Instructor Caesar Russell comments: “It’s not about how fast you ride, but how hard you ride.” But how do you define hard? This article discusses three methods for measuring effort, Rate of Perceived Effort, heart rate and power.

Rate of Perceived Effort

Developed by Swedish scientist Robert Borg, fitness instructors frequently employ RPE to assist attendees in gauging exertion -- read more about exertion from the Center for Disease Control . Borg’s Scale goes from 1 -20 and he later created a scale from six to 20, eliminating the lowest efforts. Most fitness instructors use some adaptation of Borg’s CR-10 scale, seen below:

When teaching indoor cycling class, I shrink RPE into three zones. One of my favorite indoor cycling cues, “If you were to have a conversation right now, could you respond in paragraphs, sentences or words?” Paragraphs would be a leisurely pace (RPE 2-4). Sentences represent a concerted effort (RPE 5-7). I consider Breathless as the stage beyond Words. Challenging your body to exert at each stage, and not only breathless, is key to cardiovascular development. As contradictory as it may sound, training at lower exertion levels may help you become a faster rider.


Indoor Cycling and Heart Rate

Cyclists often train with heart rate. Borg’s scale easily converts to heart beats per minute (bpm), with 6 = 60 bpm and 20 = 200 bpm. Most prefer to use heart rate monitors to quantitatively measure exertion. Two Washington, D.C. indoor cycling studios, Mint DC and Vida , track heart rate in their cycling offerings. Both sell heart rate monitors and Mint DC provides a rental option. Consoles on indoor cycling bikes can display heart rate info if you’re wearing a compatible device. Investing in a heart rate monitor is investing in yourself.

It’s important not to confuse exertion with cadence. Cadence, or revolutions per minute (rpm), measures how fast you are turning the pedals. An RPM of 110 does not reveal anything about effort. Research reveals a single minute of very intense exercise may be as effective as 5 minutes of exercise at a lower intensity. Considering indoor cycling is less than an hour, intensity definitely counts.


A study published by the Journal of Preventative Cardiology revealed cyclists who pedaled with more intensity lived 1.7 to 2.4 years longer than those who pedalled with average intensity. The table above, developed by Dr. Ed Coyle correlates cycling speed to calories burned. His investigation focused on outdoor performance. Indoors, the calorie burn will be somewhat lower.


Indoor Cycling and Power/Watts

Watts, or power, is a measure of cadence and resistance. It is a truer metric of intensity. Indoors, power is based on cadence and resistance. Weight is a also a key variable. There’s a difference between the watts generated by a 200 pound rider versus a 125 pound rider. OffRoad DC uses an advanced tracking system, called Stages Flight (shown below), which creates a personalized power profile. Upon completion, a rider’s effort can be shown in relation to the baseline watts.

A professional cyclist can generate 200 - 300 watts on a four hour ride. According to Bicycling magazine , this number balloons on sprints with a professional cyclist pushing 1200 - 1400 watts, compared to 600 - 800 watts for a recreational cyclist. Generally, I advise watts equal to your body weight as an honorable goal. Power to weight ratio is the golden metric for cyclists.

Several D.C. studios employ bikes that show Watts on the bike consoles.Cycled,Equinox,Wired Cycling,Vidaand CycleBar are among the D.C, studios whose bikes display watts. Flywheel uses a concept called ‘torq ’ which is similar to watts. Regardless of the measure, if you stay consistent with the type of bike you ride, you’ll be able to track your results.

Lastly, you can always do your own workouts using watts. Bikes in several gym chains display watts. You’ll have to pay close attention to the console to ensure you aren’t slacking.

For the loners, new technology by Zwift,TrainerRoad and bkool allow you to connect to a trainer and race others online. Then there’s the ever ubiquitous Peloton bike,which allows you to measure power and race others while watching an instructor on the flat screen monitor. The choice is yours!


Are You the Next Evelyn Stevens?

At age 26, American cyclist Evelyn Stevens, left a Wall St job on Wall Street to try her hand in bike racing. After early promise, she was eventually tested by doctors to determine her cardiovascular capabilities, among other things.

In describing the results, doctors said, “She is capable of producing a huge amount of leg power—measured in watts—for someone her weight and with her training history. With less than a year on the bike, Ms. Stevens could put out 310 watts of power for five minutes” Professional women cyclists will produce between 180 and 300 watts on a multi-hour ride. Before retiring this year, the 5' 5", 123-pound Stevens set the one hour women’s record for furthest distance ridden on a bike at 27.8 miles. She also competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Cycling is often a second or third sport for athletes. Weekends in D.C. make a 3 hour ride a possibility. A Wall St Journal article comments, “The exceptional attributes of cyclists and other endurance athletes are less obvious—they’re hidden in their blood and their lungs. For this reason, it’s not uncommon, especially in women’s cycling, for athletes to discover their hidden talents late in life.” Test your limits indoors, using the Borg method, heart rate or watts. Then take it outside -- the Washington Area Bicyclists Association can help. You could be the next Evelyn Stevens!


Related Articles:

Measure Your Performance in a DC Cycling Studio

Best Activity Trackers for Indoor Cycling

5 Washington DC Area Bike Trails for the Indoor Cyclist Who Wants To Ride Outside

Understanding Your Performance in Spin Class

About the Author

Dru Ryan is a daily bike commuter, indoor cycling coach (EquinoxCrunch, Mint DC) and road cyclist who averages 200 miles a week. Follow Dru on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook or visit his website