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Are spin classes beneficial for cyclists? To spin or not to spin, that is the question

Spinning is a great cardiovascular workout but not a substitute for the real thing

Emma Cole
23 Nov 2021

With drizzly days a major feature of our climate, spin classes are an option for cyclists looking to maintain fitness without having to ride in the rain or for those who just want to switch up their training regime whatever the weather.

Like all great things in life, spin classes generate a healthy debate about their efficacy and training function.

For some cyclists, clipping into a stationary bike next to people you can't actually race, and where there is no dynamic handling or gear selection, lacks as much in appeal as it does in functionality.

For others, the thrill of the music and an enthusiastic (verging on deranged in my experience) instructor make for a sweaty, upbeat, celebratory workout.

What is a spin class?

A spin class involves hopping onto a stationary bike, clipping in or using cages, and following an instructor who tells you when to add intensity and generally shouts motivational things.

This all usually happens in a dark room with music and lights, somewhat like a bike disco, or you can install a stationary bike such as a Peloton in your own home and join virtual classes. 

Some classes have leaderboards beamed up for everyone to see which show every rider's efforts.

The benefits of spin classes for cyclists

A spin class provides an intense aerobic workout and can be good for balancing out training.

'A spin class provides a great cardiovascular workout and offers social stimulation as it is something you can do with a friend who doesn't necessarily ride outdoors,' explains Nate Wilson, former pro cyclist, EF performance manager and head coach of Catalyst Coaching.

'Whilst there might be some specific training to do in the off season, there's something to be said for taking a break from cycling but still being active in a way that is less stressful so going to a spin class with a friend could be good.

'An athlete's goals, and how much they enjoy spinning should dictate how often they do it, if they really love it, maybe it's something that they do once a week.'

PDQ coaching head coach Jason Streather adds that the sense of competition and the level of accountability in a spin class can make a rider train harder and aid motivation in turn boosting the effects of the session.

'Some riders struggle to motivate themselves to train indoors by themselves, and in the winter months', says Streather.

'When there is less chance to get out mid-week to train outside, spin classes can be a great motivational tool.'

For track cyclist and Peloton instructor Christine D'Ercole, riding inside is great for focussing on the demands of an effort without distraction.

'You do not need to be wary of traffic or stop for lights or dangerous and unpredictable terrain or weather,' says D'Ercole. 'You can even close your eyes, which is a powerful training tool that helps one to tap into where you are physically and psychologically.'

For D'Ercole, riding with music is another benefit of spin classes.

'Music has the power to push us beyond what we otherwise may have done at times,' she says.

'And then when I need to have a lower intensity recovery ride, I can adjust the music which helps me stay focussed and not give in to ego-urges to push harder than I should.'

Will spin classes interfere with my regular training?

For cyclists who follow a strict training regime, spin classes can be problematic as the rider doesn’t know what the spin class workout will be as this is up to the instructor.

'When you go to a spin class you don’t know exactly what the workout will be and you don't have any control over it,' says Wilson.

'If an athlete is preparing for a competition season that goes from March to October, and they go to lots of spin classes in winter, it might actually be too intense at some points and make the athlete more susceptible to injuries.

'The key with spin classes is that you should have good communication between a coach and an athlete, as if the spin class is quite intense, then there needs to be pretty easy days built around that.'

Streather echoes this sentiment and adds: 'Spin classes are not targeted towards a specific cyclist's goals and can be hard for a coach to incorporate into a bespoke training plan.

'These sessions can be very intense, so doing multiple sessions per week will start to leave the cyclist fatigued and too many spin classes in the off season could lead to a cyclist being burnt out before race season even starts.'

However, for D'Ercole the answer is that a rider can adapt the session to suit them.

'If a teacher is spending more time out of the saddle than you want or need, for example, you are empowered to own your ride,' she says.

Spin classes and bike fit: is there a risk of injury?

Another quandary around spin classes is that the bike is not be set up as your normal bike, which can add the risk of injury.

'A spin bike is rarely set up in an ideal position for a cyclist and will be very different to the position the rider would have on their own bike,' explains Streather.

'What's more, the flywheel on the spin bike can cause injuries to cyclists' knees if used incorrectly.'

Wilson advises taking some measurements of your bike at home in order to mirror that set up.

'Even though you probably can't get exactly the same setup, I would advise taking some of the main measurements, such as saddle height and how far back the saddle is, as adjusting the spin bike to suit the rider will probably make things a little bit better.'

The bottom line: spin classes are not a cycling substitute, but can be valuable in their own right

Spin classes are not a substitute for riding your bike, nor are they going to be easily integrated into a cyclist training plan, and the loud music might not be to everyone’s taste.

But, with the right goals in mind, spin classes can be great for social stimulation, motivation and an intense aerobic workout.

Plus if you are after a workout with a passionate instructor, heart pumping music, with some strobe lights thrown in, look no further.

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