I dim the lights, turn on the fans and pump up the volume on the stereo. I can feel the energy of the other riders in the room adding some extra motivation to my class. The music picks up intensity and everyone gives the resistance knob one turn up as they really start to get into the groove of the workout. The rhythm, flow and movement of the class are more akin to a dance on the bike rather than a true cycling workout. Most of the time spinning is a workout that is more focused on music and choreography then actual cycling. I started my cycling career as an avid spinner and have been a certified spinning instructor for the past six years. I love spinning. However, most of the people in spinning classes are not cyclists, but gym goers who are looking for a tough yet fun workout on the bike.
I am sweating, suffering, and trying to motivate myself to make it through one more interval. I click up into the next harder gear and ramp up my intensity. I try to sustain that effort for five, ten or sometimes even twenty minutes. It is hard both mentally and physically to keep pushing myself. Ten minutes can sometimes seem like ten hours. I get through each session by reminding myself of the payoff that comes from completing my lonely and tough workout on the stationary trainer.
With the changing weather many cyclists are now turning their thoughts to indoor training. Lately I have been asked more and more frequently by other cyclists if I believe spinning during the off season will help with their cycling. My answer to that question is yes and no.
Spinning is definitely a good workout and a good change of pace during the off season. It will help maintain general fitness and will definitely not hurt your cycling. Nevertheless, if you are relying solely on spinning for training during the colder months you will probably be disappointed. Once the large thirty to forty pound flywheel on the spin bike picks up momentum it assists you a good deal with turning the pedals. This means it requires less physical power from your legs to keep the pedals going around. This same heavy flywheel also forces the rider to make nice smooth circles with their pedal stroke. This is great for injury prevention for spinners. However, this means that on a spin bike you don’t really have to focus on the full pedal stroke and making smooth circles. You could be flopping your legs around like two wet noodles and this bike would still pretty much ensure that your pedal stroke was nice and smooth. The off season is a great time to work on form and part of that is the smoothness and efficiency of your pedal stroke. Training on the spin bike will not allow you to truly work on improving your pedaling form.
On the trainer, once the resistance is dialed in properly, it is all about your own personal strength. You are making all of the power yourself and it’s all about the friction between your rear tire and the flywheel. Instead of helping to push your legs around and around, you are working against the friction of this flywheel the same way you would work against the friction of the road. In addition, the flywheel on a trainer is significantly smaller than the one on a spin bike, and less weight means less momentum. When using the trainer you need to focus on keeping your pedal strokes smooth and consistent, pulling up, pushing down, and sweeping back and through the bottom of the stroke. Trainer riding during the winter, while sometimes mind numbing, is a good time to work on pedaling technique. You can do things like single leg drills and actually be able to strictly focus on your pedal stroke. It is harder to have this same focus out on the road while you are also on the lookout for cars, other riders, potholes, or just admiring the scenery. Indoor trainer workouts are also great for structured intervals, again without the distractions of the road or having to stop mid interval when you come upon an intersection or traffic light. I know several people who do most of their structured training indoors on the trainer year round, for some of these very reasons.
So how do you find a balance between the fun of spin and the torture of solitary trainer workouts? There are pieces of equipment and programs created to try to help make trainer riding less boring. Things like Computrainers and Wahoo KICKRs® are designed to help simulate riding on the road and turn trainer riding into something more entertaining (although these are expensive pieces of equipment). Programs like Zwift or even free trainer workout videos on the internet are cheaper alternatives that will help provide a bit of distraction during a trainer session. Another suggestion to add in some of the fun of a spin class to these workouts, is to get a group to do trainer ride together or seek out group trainer rides at a local bike shop. This way you can get the camaraderie and motivation of riding with others (like in a spin class) while still getting in that tough cycling workout.
So, long story short, spinning can help with general fitness and that is something you need to maintain during the colder months. Taking a spin class once in a while is a great change of pace and a fun thing to do. However, if you are training for serious cycling and looking to make gains during the off season, you need to add some structured trainer workouts into your weekly routine as well.