I love learning new things and discovering new resources when it comes to science behind indoor cycling (and cycling in general). Books and articles are great for it but sometimes it’s hard to absorb everything from a written piece. That’s where podcasts come extremely handy.
I have become a great fan of podcasts in the last month. I now subscribe to a few and listen to them on my daily commute. The lovely Karyn Silenzi introduced me to one called Fast Talk. It’s a fantastic podcast on all things cycling.
They do get quite deep into science and these guys know what they are talking about, but because they get these amazing guests they talk with, like Dr Andrew Coggan, Hunter Allen, Dr. Stephen Seiler as well as other high-level cycling coaches and professional cyclists, all the golden nuggets of information become more real and easy to absorb than they would be written on a page – at least for me.
The last episodes I listened to were episodes 91. Beyond the Data. Training is not only about numbers and episode 101. Zones are a range, not a specific number. I would recommend it to any instructor who teaches with power. Particularly if you have people who compete in various races outdoors come to your class as part of their training.
I have also been reading a fascinating book called “Endure. Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance”. Thank you again Karyn for making sure I keep expanding my horizons. Again, I would recommend that all instructors and anyone fascinated with endurance sports read it. It’s unputdownable.
I am not a cycling coach. When I grow up, I would love to know as much about science behind sport as Karyn, Ceasar or Coach Chops but I don’t even have a sports degree to my name. All I have are those incredible resources that allow me to learn as I go along. Four years ago, I would have no idea what the things discussed in these podcasts were about.
An average indoor cycling instructor is not a coach. A usual indoor cycling class participant is not an athlete. I understand it’s impossible to write a training programme for a general population group that varies every class, where one person rides with you 3 times a week and another just once.
That should not stop you from learning about these things. If your gym doesn’t have bikes with power meters, you can still start learning about teaching with power, reading on physiology etc so when they do bring these bikes in – and let’s face it, they will even if it’s a year down the line – you will be ahead of everyone else.
Please do not brush everyone with the same brush by saying that your riders are not cyclists therefore not interested in tracking their progress – these days everyone is hence the obsession with Fitbit etc.
When I first qualified, I had no idea about power. I was not teaching on bikes with any kind of data monitors for a good couple of years. However, the moment IC7 bikes came into my life, everything changed. First, for the worst – I didn’t understand the concept, could not interpret the data, I saw no point in having any data in a regular gym class.
But I was determined to learn, and it took me over a year to get my head around it. Then it changed completely the way I teach and the instructor I have become.
Good old RPE
The biggest learning curve over the years of teaching with power and coach by colour system, was that RPE (rate of perceived exertion) which used to be our ONLY tool before power (as not many riders I had used HR monitors 4-5 years ago), still remains the number one tool even with all the data feedback we get from the consoles or apps.
Teaching on a great bike with a console or a display system that gives you all the numbers you may wish for and even interprets them for you by showing you a power zone you are in by using a colour system, is only a useful tool if your communicate with your riders.
Communicating the intensity
To do that you as an instructor must have a thorough understanding of what the bike measures or shows, and how the reading correlates with what is actually happening in the rider’s body. You must have a good understanding of physiology, energy systems (even basic), and how body reacts to work at a given power zone which is a given intensity. Do not randomly call out: Give me 6 out of 10! Without following up with what 6 looks like in terms of the body’s response. The same applies to: Go into the green zone! Without explaining what that is.
If you are not able to convey an explanation of an intensity to your riders in simple terms, those colours on the console or display screen are only this – pretty colours. As a consequence you end up with confused riders who are either killing themselves by working too hard, others who feel like they have to hold back to conform with the colour zone, others still have no idea what they are supposed to be doing as their console tells them they are in red zone from the moment they turn their pedal around.
Test or guess?
Testing riders in every single class is not always practical or possible. Guesstimating using the console or app prediction system in my opinion is a better idea than inflicting a 5min FTP on a first timer.
Many of my mentors will disagree with this statement but I have seen over the years that someone who has come to the class for the first time, or maybe is used to the more dance style class, will not be able to pace themselves or even understand what riding as hard as you can for 5min (which is an awfully long time) actually means. And even if I explain exactly what their body should feel, they still will not get to the right level of awful. In consequence, their 5 or 3min results are much lower than a predicted FTP would be. That means that for the remaining part of the class they will most probably go easier that they would otherwise, if they follow the colour system. And if their colours are off and they are in red (or purple on Stages) most of the time, they lose interest as they just don’t get it.
When using a predicted value, you take out the stress of having to do a test in the first few minutes of their first class ever. I also watch them even as they are warming up in case the colours imply that they are way above the intensity their body conveys. We may adjust the value there and then. Or even during the class if I am asking for hard effort at Zone 4 and I can see that their data shows zone 4 but their body is telling me that they are in Zone 2 or Zone 5, I would approach them and ask them to ignore the colours for the remainder of a session and go with the RPE. Then at the end of the class we will look at the results and adjust the values for the next session. It will still be a guesstimate but much more accurate. It usually takes a couple of classes max – depending on the profile – to get that number pretty accurately.
My point here is that old school tool, RPE, is not to be forgotten regardless of how fancy your bike is or how advanced your computer on it.
What’s the point of learning about power zones if we have no monitors?
The biggest advantage of teaching with power and power zones, paradoxically, was me becoming much better at coaching on bikes without data. When you learn what response each intensity zone elicits in a rider, you can get them there on a bike with no data as well. Granted, you may need sufficiently long intervals, but it is achievable. Repeatability remains a problem here – with no way of knowing your resistance level or your power output, how do you go back to the exact same intensity after a recovery? But that’s another topic.
Now, to bring all those musings to the above-mentioned podcast episodes. Data feedback is great. I love it. I can’t imagine riding a session on my own on a bike without data. It acts as a distraction. It’s a motivation tool and it gives your sessions a direction. But have we become too fixated on it? Has it taken away from the experience? Spinning as a programme in big event rides still sticks to the mind body connection and the feel of a ride.
After years of teaching without power and years of teaching with it, I find myself turning slightly back to the roots. If you listen to the podcast it explains that when you get too hung up on the numbers, you start to train or ride your class trying to achieve a certain number you think you should be on, rather than listening to your body and how you feel today. They used this great phrase – you start to train the metrics rather than the body. Sometimes I can see a rider who has clearly done a good job looking at them but is unhappy as they didn’t hit average watts for the interval that they were aiming for.
That FTP number that you got in your test last week or last month may not be applicable today because of your training load or other factors.
This may be a contentious subject. Some say that your FTP is your FTP. By all means it’s not a number for life and it will most probably change next time you test but as much as your HR (your body’s response to the load) may be greatly affected by your lack of sleep, stress, or fatigue your FTP will not change that easily or by a massive margin within a few weeks.
Others emphasise, that FTP is a constantly moving target that will change depending on your training load and if you compete, where you are in your season. In the podcast they state that you should adjust your number expectations based on how you feel on the day.
Granted, they are talking about professional cyclists which is not your average Joe Gym; however, in my regular classes I do have some seriously strong riders who compete outdoors and I always strive to ensure that my sessions are inclusive and effective for both a beginner and an outdoor competitor.
To adjust or not to adjust?
So where does it leave our indoor cycling class rider? I have had riders approach me before the class asking: What is the plan today so I can adjust my FTP accordingly? I would always be baffled at that and would respond saying that they should keep that FTP the same until they test again and not to change it every class so their display lights up in the colour they are asked for even though there are not riding at the intensity requested. Were they correct?
I would even say to someone feeling under the weather or coming back after an injury that they should still enter the FTP value they were using before (or use the prediction) and see how they react. If they need to ride a zone lower than planned, go lower, take breaks when needed but at least you will see what you can achieve when all is not well rather than your bike showing you that you are in Zone 5 when you know and feel you are in Zone 3.
The pro rider in the podcast has a different view. He says that you should listen to your body and adjust accordingly. They also highlight a very important thing. Power zones, or as they call it power ranges, are ranges not fixed numbers so you should focus on a power range and not be chasing a specific % or number. Harder is not always better. Bottom of the range, middle of the range, top of the range. If you sit right at the top of a range, you will probably go over quite a lot. Power zones correspond with specific physiological changes in your body and utilisation of different energy systems. (More applicable to people training rather than exercising but good to know this to advise the ones who are training using your class).
Again, we cannot really compare pros and our Mary who does spin twice a week. Why? For one, because if an elite cyclist has an FTP of 340Watts, his zone 3 will be between 258 and 306 watts. That’s a big range of 50 watts. The ranges get narrower the lower the FTP. Mary’s FTP may be 150 so her zone 3 will be between 114 and 135 which is only 21 watts so targeting a particular place within a range gets trickier so just allow people to sit anywhere within the range.
Why harder is not always better.
Another issue brought up is the importance of specificity. You can help those who are preparing for a race and want to train using your class, if you know what they are training for and what the race course is going to look like, by creating sessions that would facilitate it. If they have a multiple climbs they are getting ready for, harder is not always better – what about repeatability?
Most people can do one climb of 8 min. But not many can do it twice or three times in a class. Instead of changing intensity of the intervals in every session, which would change the energy system trained, and would not be very helpful for anyone training for a race with multiple climbs, why not to keep the same intensity but include more intervals or shorten the recoveries?
Mind and body connection – it’s about how you feel
My takeaway from the book and the podcast is bringing people’s focus more onto their bodies.
How do I feel? Where do I feel that effort? What is my favourite thing about this interval? What do I struggle with here – legs or lungs? Do I need to train one more than the other? What do I want to get out of this class? What is my most efficient RPM? Do I want/need to get faster legs, or do I want to be able to push more power at my preferred cadence?
I love asking people open questions that they can answer themselves in their own heads. It’s making them present and responsible for their own training. I encourage them to connect with their body – enjoy the discomfort so they finish proud of themselves.
I often ask riders to get to the prescribed intensity or RPM range, get settled and then close their eyes or look away from the console for 10-20 seconds. When they look back – are they still maintaining the effort or RPM? Has it drifted? Which direction? Why?
Learn to love longer intervals. You cannot appreciate zone 3 unless you are in it for 10-15 min or longer. These days we always rush everywhere. Our life is one big HIIT so allow your riders to zone out at zone 3, empty their mind or go through their shopping list (whatever keeps them happy) as long as their breathing corresponds to the description of the RPE at zone 3.
To sum up
Numbers are great. They should be a help and not a hindrance. They should motivate, not discourage.
Learn as much as you can so you can explain it clearly to your riders and they will love it, but they need to understand it.
Do not obsess over data. When we ride a cadence drill class and at the end I say your power – maximum or average – doesn’t matter as today was about finding out your RPM limits and the intensity was optional, there is often a collective gasp: What do you MEAN the power DOESN’T matter!? Yes, I am guilty of bringing too much focus onto numbers, so I need to get rid of a few bad habits myself.
Finally, most amateur riders do not ride outdoors with a power meter. If they spend bulk of their time training on a bike with power and then on the race day they do not have that data available, it may make them feel as if they are riding half blind – they will normally have their RPM and gradient but there was no gradient date indoors so WHAT NOW!? If you taught them to build the connection between intensity zones and their RPE and what each intensity feels like in terms of breathing, legs etc they will be able to gauge quite nicely where they are. And if they have been using their HR monitor throughout, even better. Therefore equip them with this skill and they will appreciate it and come back for more.