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Indoor cycling serves multiple purposes for the rider. For some, it's escapism -- a way to leave worries behind and zone out to some beats. Others, go to feed their ego and bodies, workout junkies who enjoy the sweat and just maybe revile in seeing themselves in the mirror. I'll defer to the classic article on the types of people you will see in spin class, for a thorough rundown of all riders. The growing popularity of data laden, technology-driven cycling studios (see Flywheel and Peloton cycling), have birthed a new phenotype: the number cruncher.
The number-cruncher worships statistics over style. Favors power output over pretty outfits and absolutely obsesses over personal bests. These are the folks with fitness trackers who wait with baited breath for the post-ride summary email and live for the unveiling of the final leaderboard.
Though indoor results are not totally transferable outdoors, when compared to prior indoor efforts, trends and patterns hold validity. Most outdoor riders identify, and then train, their weak spots. With statistics used to measure progress. If you want to see results, taking a data-driven approach is a highly recommended approach.
In general, outdoor cyclists are data geeks. Using apps like Strava, Garmin Connect or MapMy Ride to track their performances on the road. The ability to statistically witness increases in speed and/or cadence, combined with a lowering of average heart rate is a goal you can track with post-ride data. Focusing on each metric separately, some call it training, is a necessary precursor to meeting such a multi-faceted goal.
Here are a few stats seen on most bike consoles on a standard indoor bike.
1 Speed: Speed is not how fast you turn the pedals (see cadence below), but rather the rate at which you are “moving.” Speed varies based on cadence and resistance. High cadence and heavy resistance will generate a higher number than low cadence and low resistance. Apologies if that was overly simplistic.
Your speed should peak on a sprint or during an interval. And naturally be a bit lower during a climb. I typically offer 12 MPH as the lowest speed one should go. Using the calculation that one mile running is 3 to 4 miles on a bike and walking pace is deemed 3 miles per hour 12 MPH seems right. It’s also the number Google Maps uses when giving bike time estimates within their directions. Once you find your average speed, use that number to gauge your sprints and other hard efforts.
2. Cadence or Revolutions per minute (RPM) -- Outdoor cyclists generally pedal between 80 and 95 RPMs, slightly faster indoors. But cadence alone, doesn't really tell a story. Think of a sprint where you are pedaling 110+ RPM but barely exerting energy on the pedals; versus a climb where your quads and hamstrings are contributing to a torrid uphill effort, at lower RPMs. The number doesn’t really tell the story. World hour record holder, Sir Bradley Wiggins used to pedal up to 105 rpms. In training for the record, he was advised to pedal in a larger gear (adding resistance), decreasing RPMs while increasing output.
As demonstrated above, correlating cadence and speed provides a good barometer of effort. Though not an exact science, the ability to generate speed at varying cadences is an asset outdoors. When the road inclines, spinning 90-100 RPMs is sometime impractical or simply impossible. Finding a strong and steady cadence, allows cyclists to enter a zen-like state, or flow (as coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi), where the discomfort required to really push the pedals is lost in the fluidity of the effort. Additionally, higher cadence generally eases the strain on your muscles, saving them for climbs and sprints.
3. Distance. How far you went in class does matter. It’s not a direct indicator of how far you can ride outdoors. It does provide a consistent measure to compare to past performances. Ride three or four times and take the average, essentially creating a benchmark to strive and surpass. According to Spinning.com “[distance covered in ]… an average 40-minute class at a cadence of 80–110 rpm is equivalent to approximately 15–20 miles on the road.” Set a goal to ride outside and see if you can prove them right!
4. Heart Rate – “Legs and lungs,” the basic needs of a cyclist. Your lungs provide oxygen to your leg muscles so you can continue to pedal. No oxygen, no pedaling. Continuous oxygen = continuous pedaling. As breathing hastens, the anaerobic zone is encountered. Increasing levels of energy are spent to keep the pedals moving—this is sometimes referred to ‘being in the red’. This is expected during a sprint or climb, where such effort is required. Similarly, the ability to work efficiently at lower heart rate zones, maintaining effort without being in the red, is equally important.
Heart rates stats from www.strava.com
Understanding the five heart rate zones is essential to understanding the correlation to effort. Remember, the goal is not to stay in the red, but to appropriately push in various zones. Heart rate straps, fitness trackers and some watches provide heart rate data. Some (typically ANT+) will even show the data on your bike console. If not, you can use your smartphone (via bluetooth) to track heart rate,. Be sure to check your studio’s on cell phones in the spin room.
5. Watts/Power – Hard core cyclists see power as the holy grail when it comes to performance indicators. Chris Froome, two time winner of the tour de France (starts July 2nd‼!), looks at his power numbers so much, a website emerged capturing his best moments. Indoors, Watts (or power) is similar to horsepower and cars -- The higher the number, the more energy the engine (or in your case legs) are emitting -- and the faster you go.
High watts aren’t often maintained over long periods, yet these short bursts train fast twitch muscles, often neglected by endurance athletes. The Wall St Journal published an interesting article on NFL players who cycle. They preferred sharp ascents to long 100 mile rides, one focuses on fast twitch muscles needed in their quick moving sport, versus the endurance required for the latter. On the other hand, pitcher, Jose Hernandez of the Miami Marlins rides centuries (100 mile rides) during the off-season to build his legs. Athletes, as should you, want to know if their efforts are improving. Watts, are the best indicator of that.
Essential to understanding watts is keeping one's weight in mind. A 200 pound man and a 120 pound woman may generate similar watts, but the power of the smaller rider is far greater. This is called power to weight ratio (explained). Power to weight ratio is particular evident on outdoor climbs where a heavier rides needs to generate far more watts as gravity I pulling a greater weight downward. Conversely, on a downhill, the situation inverts. Providing less mass for gravity to assist during the descent, the lighter rider generates less downhill speed and the heavier rider generates more.
Strava tracks multiple metrics, viewable on their mobile app and website
A word on Calories
One of the greatest allures of spin class is the supposed calorie burn. After class last week, a rider was adamant their bike was broken. “I normally burn 1000-1200 calories in a class, this only says 650.” It was his first time in the studio and I politely suggested he try another bike next time and I shared my advice that 650 calories burned is closer to reality than 1200. According to Businessinsider.com, A Tour de France rider burns about 1200 calories an hour during a 110 mile race alongside the best riders in the world. The 1200 calories in 45 minutes is a bit absurd.
When comparing statistics, always compare apples to apples. If studio A has one brand bike and studio B another, compare only the numbers on similar bikes. Also, don't compare a morning workout to an evening workout. A morning workout on an empty stomach (called fasted training) can yield more fat burning than the same effort once you've eaten. Measure like time of day, even by instructor is not unheard of.
What Might You Learn from Understanding your Rides?
Take the story of Evelyn Stevens. A 26 year old Wall St. associate who quit her job to pursue professional cycling. In February 2106, Ms. Stevens, the two time U.S. track champion, broke the women's world one hour record, pedaling farther, over one hour, than any other woman prior. A 2009 Wall St Journal article chronicling her initial rise, highlights her natural (untrained) leg power and lung capacity as initial indicators of pending success. Cycling, especially among women, is rarely the primary sport of their youth. When given a try, hidden two-wheeled talent, quickly becomes evident. Not everyone is Evelyn Stevens, but you never know! Your body only answers the question you ask.