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I became an indoor cycling instructor to maintain riding fitness during the increasingly brutal DC winters. When I take a class, I ride with purpose … with a plan in mind. Don’t get me wrong, I hit up Wayne at Soul Cycle, Kristen at Zengo, Megan at Sculpt or CoCo at FlyWheel to rock out every now and then. But once winter hits, I slide to the back of the room and get into a zone.
As an instructor, my goal is to see as many of my riders as possible go outside and experience the real thing. As winter approaches, you can really prepare your body for that challenge. It likely means going above and beyond what the instructor asks. It's always better to suffer now, so you can excel later.
Below are some tips I employ when riding indoors:
Train Your Weakness
It’s important to know why you are riding and to ‘train your weakness.’ If you’re good at sprints, add more resistance and start knocking out some hills. If you love being out of the saddle, try staying in the saddle longer.
There are three main variables when you're on an indoor bike: cadence, resistance, and time. The ability to increase your effort (cadence x resistance) and holding it for longer durations is a healthy cycling goal. Start with the weakest area to see the greatest improvement.
Perfect Your Pedal Stroke
Endurance cycling is about finding the perfect marriage between cadence and resistance. Slight improvements in either pays dividends as you increase your distances. Finishing a four hour ride 20 minutes faster is a hell of an accomplishment!
Most cyclists pedal at a cadence between 80 and 95, using their gears (we have resistance) to adjust the amount of effort needed to turn the pedal based on terrain (hill or flat). The object is to find the sweet spot where your body is exerting effort but you're not 'in the red' and approaching fatigue.
It’s quite easy to coast through a spin class. The pedals are flying, sweat dripping, but your legs are simply following the pedals, not actually pushing them. You've not invited your leg muscles, via resistance, to join the 'cardio party' [view muscles used when cycling]. If you want to excel outside of spin class, finding resistance which forces your legs to consistently exert force on the pedals is important.
I like to think of my pedal stroke like a clock. I primarily focus on the range from 12 o'clock through 9 o'clock. 2 – 6 is the most powerful part of the stroke. With 3 to 9 becoming my prime range when climbing. On heavy efforts 6-10 can give you that added oooommmppphhh but will tax your hamstrings if you overdo it. As a rule of thumb, I always like to ‘feel’ 2-5. When feel that part of my stroke, I know I am working.
Don't be afraid to sit and spin
It doesn't matter if you are riding 25 miles or 125 miles, you will spend 90% of your time in the saddle. Studies show riding out of the saddle results in a breathing increase of about 10%, though effort and efficiency is largely unchanged.
When riding outdoors, the penalty for excessive riding out of the saddle is premature fatigue. As you go up the hill, you run out of breath and then you’re walking with your bike next to you. Indoors, most avoid shame by turning down the resistance. If we only had that option outdoors!
If the goal is to become a better cyclist, don't be afraid to sit in a corner and sneak in some saddle time while everyone else is standing. I find many indoor riders stand to escape the discomfort of climbing in the saddle. Instead, experiment with alternate riding positions. When climbing, slide your hips forward on the saddle. The slight angle change pronounces your ability to pull up on the back pedal, while providing a bit more leverage on the downstroke. Alternatively, slide back in the saddle and overuse your hamstrings on the downstroke allowing your quads recover
Resist the Sway
Ok, so you REALLY want to get out of the saddle, FINE. Let's discuss how to effectively work out of the saddle. The biggest miscue is excessive sway...or the pendulum effect. You are out of the saddle and leaning left and right to push the pedals down. Looks cool when done to the beat, but it robs your legs of the workout.
A recent Instagram post shows two of the worlds best cyclists out of the saddle. Though the bikes are leaning, their center of gravity remains directly over the crank. The sway is for that last 10% of the climb after you’ve exhausted all recognizable semblance of a pedal stroke. As the right leg goes down, cyclists grip the left side of the handlebar to assist in pulling the opposite leg up. Their bodies, as should yours, stays vertical.
One of my favorite cues while out of the saddle is to “think of your legs as pistons”, pumping up and down. You want energy to go directly onto the pedals. The left and right motion adds little to the process. Don’t be the big kid on the see-saw, let your legs do the work.
Light on the Handlebars
‘Light on the handlebars like you’re playing the piano,’ is reminder I give each class. Higher handlebars mean less stress on the lower back. Your weight is pressed forward, easing the core. Riders often prefer this setup and the relief a more upright position offers. Riding outside, this turns you into a sail, introducing excessive wind resistance and slowing you down. Setting your handlebars in a position that mimics your bike setup will make your workout more transferable to the outdoor environment.
Once lowered, you’ll immediately notice your core is now being asked to do more. The only way to stay light on the handlebars is to ask your core to hold you up. I usually run through the following checklist to check my form:
drop your shoulders
relaxing the forearms
remove the deathgrip from the handlebars
If done correctly your weight will sink into the pedals, creating greater force on the crank versus the handlebar. If you’re lucky enough to ride a bike that measures power, you’ll notice the difference. Speed is not intensity. Anytime you lean on the handlebars, you’re removing some intensity from the workout.
Push Yourself to Fatigue
Pushing yourself to exhaustion is critical to improving as a cyclist. One of my favorite cycling books is Time Crunched Cyclist. It espouses the use of intervals as the fastest way to see gains on the bike. That means you push beyond your limit for a period of time, recover, and then do it again.
You MUST earn the recovery. So take sprints seriously. Take out of the saddle surges seriously. Take recovery seriously. Training with a heart rate monitor is one way to gauge effort. Once you figure out your heart rate zones, you can use the feedback to measure effort. Many bikes will pair with a monitor and show your results on the screen.
If your goal is to be a better cyclist, be sure to set goals and focus on them during your indoor rides. As the great John Wooden said, “Never confuse activity with achievement.” Think of those short and long term goals as you ride. That's the activity part. The achievement is seen in your improvement.
For women riders, check out the Washington Area Bicyclists Association’s Women and Bicycles Initiative. A great way to get acclimated to the joys of riding outdoors.
If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it… jump on my Facebook page drop me a note. My goal is to see more indoor riders on the road. Let's make it happen! Catch me on Instagram/Twitter @drucycles or drop by a class at Biker Barre, Mint DC or Sculpt DC.