Recently, I received an email from a fellow cycling instructor in Australia asking me for advice on how to put together an Advanced Cycling class on a stationary bike (or spin bike). It’s a question I’ve gotten before from athletes who want to recreate my class on their own time, and from other instructors learning to coach an experience somewhere between “aerobic workout class” and “hardcore triathlon training session.” With five years of “advanced cycling” experience behind me, and dozens of happy, strong athletes to vouch for the success of my classes, I feel qualified to answer this and thought I would share it on my blog for anyone who wants a few tips on how to put a new spin on their indoor cycling workout.
I’d like to preface this by saying that the terminology “advanced cycling” does not mean that my classes are intended for only very fit people or established athletes. The classes are “advanced” because they go beyond the ideas of simply burning calories and completing a workout. The classes are designed to build endurance for athletes, but also for people who want to reach a bit further in their workouts—to exercise body and mind. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the attendance of Ironman finishers, newbie triathletes, senior-citizens, stay-at-home moms, recovering cancer patients, Biggest Loser challengers, thrill-seeking fitness junkies, amputees, first-time cyclists, and teenagers in my classes. There is no “certain type” for an Advanced Cycling class.
It’s about a mindset, not a fitness level.
OUTSIDE WE HAVE ROADS, INSIDE WE HAVE MUSIC.
Putting together a successful spin class requires a motivational playlist. This is not a news flash. However, when you’re trying to make the class emulate an outdoor ride, you need to think of more than just the sound of the music. When I listen to potential songs for my class, I’m listening for “topography.” I can hear hills, straight-aways, brutal climbs and false flats. As a coach, my job is to weave together songs in a way that makes my athletes feel as though they’re covering miles in one continuous movement, just as they would outside on the road. When we approach a hill from a flat road, we don’t stop the bike and get a drink, we “blend” the efforts together seamlessly. We shift the bike into a higher gear and begin to spin the legs to tackle the hill, and when we crest the peak, we resume a slower cadence in a harder gear. In a typical spin class, the focus is on the effort within each song, and the instructor will usually tee up the experience to begin and end with the start and finish of the song.
TIP: To recreate the outdoor riding experience, you must focus on the moments between the songs to emulate the flow of a long, continuous ride.
WE HAVE TO GET THROUGH THE WALL. ALL FOUR OF THEM!
Endurance athletes talk about the “wall.” It’s the term used to describe the point in the workout where we struggle to keep moving forward. It’s the place where many give up, or greatly compromise their expectations. Overcoming the wall is a very mental experience—it’s a game of chicken between what you think you can do, and what you can actually do. The more confidence you have as an athlete, the easier it is to break through what you perceive to be your limit. When you take a “long ride” inside, you’ll often have a tougher time executing it. This is because boredom sets in, and boredom can breed unproductive thinking (or “negative self talk” in coaching terms). Great music is part of the remedy for pushing limits, but it can only take us so far. When you log a few hours on a stationary bike with four walls as your only scenery, you’re bound to figure out a few excuses for cutting the workout short. As a coach, my job is to help athletes “see” beyond the four walls to stay the course. Using the music, I play off the tones and texture of the sound to help people feel (and therefore see in their minds) the miles we’re covering. I like to think of myself as a catalyst…I don’t want to see the road for them, I want to give them enough inspiration and motivation to start to see it for themselves. In this way, I use the class as an opportunity to teach visualization technique.
TIP: Ask athletes to come to class with a few specific roads in mind. When you begin to cue certain tracks in the workout, coach them through the process of using the music to visualize the hills or flats they’ve filed to memory.
YOU HAVE TO PUT PASSION IN THE PEDALS.
It’s not enough to have the right music, and say the right things in front of your class. I could put together the best playlist and draft a perfect script for any instructor to deploy in class, but it will not guarantee a successful experience. In my years of experience as a fitness instructor, coach, athlete and class attendee, I have seen that passion is without a doubt the single most important motivator for people to attend a class. I’m lucky enough to be part of a gym that has always had a strong team of engaging and motivating fitness instructors. Many of us have been coaching and leading classes for five or more years. One of the core beliefs of any fitness instructor is that we have to be more exciting than the StairMaster and the treadmill. That’s how we get people to go from their solitary workouts on machines to a camaraderie-driven atmosphere of cardio party fun. On a treadmill, you push the buttons. In a class environment, we push the buttons. That requires KNOWING who you are, what you’re all about, and what makes you tick.
People are drawn to people with passion because it gives them an opportunity to open up their minds to the idea of their own potential. The treadmill can make you feel good about a workout. The right class can make you feel good about life. The best instructors are the ones who so clearly love what they’re doing, that you can’t help but love what you’re doing when you’re with them.
How else would it be possible for me to lead a group of people through two straight hours on a spin bike on a Friday night? I love what I do, and it shows in the way I coach my class. It’s a passion that I cannot fake and cannot teach any other instructor to have. There are times when we have to navigate unforeseen obstacles in class—the stereo system will suddenly stop working, the mic breaks, etc. We’ve done two-hour advanced cycling classes with no music before. When you’re the coach, you make it work. You pull from your passion, and you lead.
TIP: Figure out what drives you as an instructor/coach, and weave that into your class experience. Coach athletes to see the class experience as a life-changing event rather than “just another workout.”
DON’T TEACH MY CLASS, TEACH YOUR CLASS.
“Passion” is a good segue to my final piece of advice, which is that you have to make the class authentically “yours.” We are all driven to fitness classes and athletic challenges for different reasons. At the heart of every person who raises their heart rate during a workout, there is raw emotion at work.
We turn to fitness to fix our health. So we do not die.
We turn to fitness to fix our feelings. So we can be happy when something crappy happens.
We turn to fitness to fit into clothes. Because we want to look and feel a certain way.
Fitness is tied to who we are and what we want to be as people. As a coach, if you can channel YOUR core emotions into building blocks that help your athletes find what they’re looking for in their own workouts, you’ll be successful.
TIP: You know how you tend to “confess” things to the person you work out with? That’s because when we’re working out, we’re churning the waters in our soul. Things loosen, surface and flow out of us when we start to sweat. Share a bit of that with your class—show them who you are as a person, not just a coach. In life, we are inspired by anecdotes. Don’t make your class all “business,” be sure to share some of the “personal” too.