Monday 11 August 2014

Spin to Win? Using a Spin Class to Train

I'm not a fair weather cyclist. I rather enjoy riding in the rain. In fact, I much prefer racing in the rain, as many others don't seem to like it as much. I guess this is what comes of hailing from Rochdale! However, yesterday I shamelessly avoided riding in the rain. There were a combination of factors: 13C weather with rain and gales courtesy of Hurricane Bertha after returning on Saturday from a fortnight in 33C sun, with no waterproof or baselayer to boot, I elected to give riding a miss. Instead, I decided to go to a spinning class to get the legs moving. 

I've done spinning classes periodically - usually when the weather is similarly terrible, or it's too dark - with varied satisfaction. Usually I've found them to be very dependent on the instructor, with one proper interval session in maybe 30 classes. It seems the classes are either based on random music tracks, or follow a 'ride' with climbs, flats and sprints etc. I realise that spinning isn't designed to be a training session for a competitive cyclist, and is in fact designed to keep the fitness enthusiast (or un-enthusiast in some/many cases...) entertained. Any fitness is good fitness sort of mentality.

Of course there is no problem with this, as it suits the purpose, and indeed my purpose in the instances of wanting to spin the legs and earn some cake! However, this is the first class I've done since becoming interested in/researching the science of cycling/physiology/training, so I thought I would examine it from this perspective. As a brief caveat, I am referring to general spinning classes one may find in a gym, rather than some of the specialist studios that have begun to spring up.

Most people see spinning as interval training, and to some extent it is, as there are intervals of harder work interspersed with lighter recovery. However, they may not be the kind of useful intervals that competitive cyclists are used to. I realise there are many, if not infinite variations of interval training, but all seek to train one part of the physiology specifically. For example, 2 x 20 is a popular variation, whereby after a warm up, 2 x 20 minutes are ridden around a threshold* intensity with a low intensity recovery between. This helps to train aerobic fitness. On the other end of the scale are sprint type intervals, which train the anaerobic system. Examples of this include 20 seconds of maximum effort followed by 20 seconds recovery, with a set number of blocks, and a set number of repeats per block.

One of the 'problems' I have with spin classes is the lack of specification within them. Take, for example, a class whereby the activity type is based on song choice, be this at random or planned. It is feasible, and likely, that 4 minutes of sprinting may be followed by 4 minutes of low cadence, high resistance, and then 4 minutes out of the saddle. Instead of training a specific area, this is essentially a sure fire way to fatigue all aspects without making particular gains for any of them. The only instance in which I could possibly imagine a training session is on a highly specialised training camp, such as a pro tour team, with the variety thrown in over 4 or so hours with long periods in between.

Also, there is not enough structure within the sessions. I appreciate that a 45 minute session is not a lot of time, but more structure is more efficient and effective. For example, below is my heart rate trace from the session. The first point is the lack of warm up included in the session. In my case it wasn't a problem, as I had been playing squash previously, but for those starting, there was little to behold. This isn't the main issue I have though; it is the lack of peaks and troughs. It is clear that although my heart rate raises and falls, it very rarely falls below 170BPM, which would maybe count as recovery in a crit race, it in inadequate for an interval session with frequent forays into 190BPM+ territory.

In fact I estimate my average HR to be about 182-184BPM warm up and cool down excluded! To put it into perspective, this is the kind of HR I would expect to achieve over a similar length of TT, circa. 20 miles in my case. For these I would aim to average 180, with a realistic average of just over. The point being, to get this average from intervals, either the intervals have been prolonged and off the scale, the recovery inadequate - non-existent, or - as I suspect - a combination of all.

In summary, there is no way you can possibly carry out each interval with maximum effort, as there is simply not enough time to recover before the next. It's a sure fire way to burn out within minutes, as the body simply cannot process the lactate in that time frame. If you persist, it's also a sure fire way to throw up... The answer may seem obvious - go easy to fit the period of recovery. However, in terms of training this is useless, as you don't get the stimulus required for improvement. It's like a hybrid bike: whereas marketing says it's a bike for all terrains, really it's crap at both.

All is not lost though. It is possible to make the most of the benefits of the spin class (warmth, company etc.) whilst still getting a good training session. It will become clear rather quickly how the instructor will run the session. Once you figure this out, you can adapt their idea to your own. For example, for a sprint session, you could take twice the recovery time, doing every other interval. Or, for the spinning class favourite of constant alternation between standing and sitting, imagine a stream of attacks whereby you sit for 2 or 3 X (X = time or revolutions), and stand for 1 X, i.e. chasing the attack. 

From a practical point of view, there are also several considerations when using spinning for training:

- Spin bikes vary greatly in adjustability from the best part of nothing to very little. Ok, pessimistic view, but it's not easy. Regardless, it's almost impossible to replicate your position on your bike, especially in the 5 minutes or so you have to do it pre-class, so be careful. Be wary of training slightly different muscles, or worst case scenario, picking up an injury.

- On a similar note, the Q-factor (width between pedals) tends to be larger than on a regular bike, and has the potential to cause a little knee irritation if you are prone to it. That said, I've never had too much of a problem, and I'm most certainly prone to knee issues!

- Saddle sores can be more likely from a spin bike for 2 reasons, the first of which is simply that the saddles tend to be on the wide side compared to what us roadies would usually use. The second is slightly more gruesome, and is the simple fact that lots of people use the bike and sweat profusely, meaning many unsavoury bacteria can linger. Some establishments have a disinfectant spray which I recommend use of before the class! Otherwise, antibacterial chamois cream is the way forward.

- Less basic spin bikes have facilities with clipless pedals, but none but the best will have anything other than mountain bike SPD pedals, which can be a disadvantage for roadies. Otherwise it's toe clips, which do the job fine, but try to get them ultra-tight, as it's easy to slip out at 150rpm+!

- Finally, as a courtesy, make sure you give the spin bike a good wipe down afterwards. Although some of your fellow spinners may not sweat - I'm not sure how, but many manage it...- if you're using it to train, you'll accumulate a lovely puddle underneath the bike!

Although this may seem overly critical of spinning, I'm not trying to put anyone off, I'm simply highlighting the issues for a serious cyclist looking to use it as a training session. If it's a case of this or doing nothing, then I highly recommend it! Any riding is better than none at all!