I took my first spin class years ago, when I was living in New York City. It was 2001, when spin classes were just starting to get popular, and the promise of all the benefits of riding a bike — minus the risks of navigating Manhattan traffic — was very appealing.
One hour-long ride in the safe confines of a spin studio later, and I was hooked. While I would go on to buy a road bike (and even brave riding along 5th Avenue to get to car-free Central Park), I’ve never given up spinning. In fact, my indoor cycling workouts have improved my fitness so much, I can push myself harder and longer when I ride outside.
Here, Kristen Hislop, a USA Cycling Level 3 and USAT Level 1 certified triathlon coach, shares her thoughts on why, like me, cyclists often get so much from stationary bike workouts. Even better, Hislop dishes some insider advice on how to take your spin session to the next level.
From learning how to clip in and out of the pedals to getting used to time spent in the saddle (and the ensuing inevitable bum discomfort), riding a stationary bike is a great way to get started, says Hislop. “Stationary bikes tend to be more comfortable than riding an outdoor bike, so it can be a great way to ease into the sport,” she says.
When you’re on your road or mountain bike, you’ve got to keep safety in mind at all times — which means that while you can play with training strategies like intervals and hill repeats, you’ll have to slow down if, say, a car cuts you off. “On a stationary bike, you can do drills designed to make you stronger and faster,” says Hislop. “When you’re riding outside, you’re at the whim of what the roads give you.”
No matter how many pieces of fluorescent clothing you put on and other precautionary measures you take when riding on traffic-filled roads, the bottom line is there is a chance of having an accident. Even if you’re riding on trails or gravel roads without cars, there’s always the risk of crashing — or of inclement weather rolling in and presenting safety threats. “When you’re riding inside, these risks just don’t exist,” says Hislop.
In an ideal world, you’d head out on your bike for hours. In the real world, there are likely days when the 30 minutes you have for a bike workout means logging fewer miles than your training plan calls for and riding on less-than-desirable roads. An indoor trainer or stationary bike fixes this problem, helping you maximize the time you have for a workout on days when those hours-long rides just can’t happen.
Let’s say you’re training for a race, like a triathlon, and it’s important to log miles on your bike — but you want all of these benefits of riding indoors every so often. There’s a great solution, says Hislop: Put your bike on an indoor trainer, which essentially transforms your own ride into a stationary bike. “The beauty of this is that you can do very specific workouts on a trainer, but do them on your bike so you’re comfortable in your saddle or in an aerodynamic position,” she says. “Even if you’re not training for a race, getting used to your bike indoors, on a trainer, is a huge benefit when it comes to feeling more comfortable when you take it outside.”
Want to make the most of your indoor rides? Follow these five tips:
DON’T ONLY TRAIN INSIDE
Sure, there are some spin class devotees who have no desire to ride outside. And that’s fine! But if you’re a cyclist who enjoys riding outside, try not to let a sweet stationary bike or fun spin class prevent you from actually hitting the open road and honing those bike-handling skills. “If you only train inside, you’re not getting the sun, wind and undulating road that’s ever-changing with puddles and potholes,” says Hislop. “If you’re going to ride outside, and especially if you’re going to race, you want to train outside to get used to it and so you’re well able to handle whatever comes your way.”
BE WARY OF “DRILLS” THAT DON’T MAKE SENSE ON THE BIKE
These days, there are so many different indoor cycling classes available — both in gyms and spin studios as well as streaming on fitness apps. If you find yourself taking a class and the instructor is asking you to do things like pushups off the handlebars or dance while you’re out of the saddle, be wary says Hislop. “You can really injure yourself doing things like this,” she says. “If you want to do pushups, it’s much safer to get off the bike and do some pushups.”
VARY YOUR DRILLS
High-intensity interval training may be all the rage these days, but if you’re only doing HIIT intervals, you’re missing out, says Hislop. “Ideally, you’ll have a day when you do some tempo work by holding a particular cadence or power, another day where you focus on speed, and another day where you tackle hills,” she says. “If you don’t work all the ends of the spectrum, you won’t see real changes.”
IT’S OK TO SEEK PASSIVE ENTERTAINMENT FOR LONG RIDES
If you’re training for any endurance activity, your training plan likely calls for at least one day a week where you’re covering lots of distance at a low heart rate. On those days when time in the saddle matters most, go ahead and watch a movie or TV show while you’re on the bike, or listen to podcasts as you ride. “These can be great ways to really help you pass the time on rides where you don’t have to focus,” says Hislop.
Whatever you do, don’t let stationary bike rides make you complacent. “It can be really easy and tempting to live in the middle ground on a stationary bike where you feel like you’re working hard but your heart rate never really spikes,” Hislop says. Remember, if you want to use your indoor rides as a chance to build your aerobic fitness, you have to push yourself. This is where a spin class can be great as the instructor can cue intervals. You can also make yourself an inspiring playlist that includes a few well-placed songs that really motivate you to go harder.