Cycling Class Communication: It’s a Four-Lane Highway, Not a One-Way Street!

When we think about communication in a typical indoor cycling class, we often picture the instructor leading the class with great music, perhaps a visual display or leaderboard, and, of course, their voice. It appears as though the instructor in the front is doing all the communicating because, well, they are doing all the talking, right? 

In reality, there is much more communication happening, and understanding how to utilize these “pathways” of communication is key to delivering an effective and fun indoor cycling class.

Why is communication so important in our classes? Our goal as instructors is to foster an environment of connection, motivation, and success. We want to encourage performance improvement in a group exercise experience. To achieve these aims, it isn’t just a one-way street; there is actually much more going on.

Let’s take a look at four pathways of communication within a typical group cycling class. We’ll discuss some tools and strategies to foster clear and effective communication that keeps participants engaged and coming back for more.

Pathway #1: Instructor to Riders

As I mentioned, this appears to be the most obvious line of communication. There are many different styles of instructors. Some may focus more on data and metrics. Some are more music- and beat-driven. Some are a combination of both. Participants will gravitate toward an instructor that speaks to them not just verbally but intrinsically.

Either way, in order to deliver a successful class experience, we must be able to speak multiple languages. And by that I don’t mean German, French, and Greek; I mean the languages of RPE, power, and heart rate from an intensity perspective, and comparison and analogy from an instructional point of view. 

Because we are in an environment without terrain (yes, that floor is flat and only flat!) we need to be particularly clear with our cueing. It’s important that we be able to describe the profile, drill, or interval in many ways. 

Make sure to clearly define the target intensity of your drill or interval using power zones, RPE, or heart rate (better yet, a combination of these). Describe in a clear and effective manner how it should feel. Draw a picture of it on a whiteboard or mirror, if possible. 

Then, let riders know what the duration of the drill or segment is. Providing this information about a section of the profile or class clearly and honestly will foster an environment of trust. It also allows a rider to visualize the task at hand to correctly manage their intensity. Failing to set riders up this way can lead to students feeling like failures because they may have gone too hard too early and didn’t know how long they’d have to push.

Another aspect of instructor-to-rider communication is being aware of the intention of our words or cueing and the impact they may have on our riders. For example, showing up to class and loudly exclaiming, “Where is everyone?” can have a negative impact on the riders that actually showed up. Honor the individuals who arrived on time for the 5:30 a.m. class or braved the elements to be there. That small expression of gratitude goes a long way!

And remember, silence is still golden. You do not need to fill every second of a class with your voice. Let a cue land on the class, give them time to process it, and just be present in the moment. Perhaps you have a song with lyrics that happen to align with your verbal cues—let it happen through the music! 

And lastly, how you communicate by what you don’t say is very important. In other words, the way you carry yourself, your demeanor, and your attitude can make a difference to a rider’s experience.

Communication begins by who we are—our actions can and do speak louder than our words. Arrive early. Have your tech in check (music source, mic, sound system, etc.) so you don’t appear flustered. Be open to suggestions and constructive criticism. Stay a few minutes after class to show you are open and available to answer questions. And smile. A lot. This is one of the best jobs on the planet. Enjoy the opportunity you’ve been granted!

Pathway #2: Rider to Instructor

Your riders are speaking to you in many ways beyond the physical act of talking. As an instructor, you need to be able to read the room. This goes beyond simply noticing their form and alignment on the bike; it’s about being aware of important body language of your riders—both positive and negative. This can include how they show that they are satisfied, inspired, struggling, confused, indifferent, or unfocused. Being able to react to what they are telling you through their body language allows you to quickly make adjustments in your profile or cueing; it may inspire you to get off the bike for a bit of motivation or acknowledge someone who may need your attention.

Use cueing in the form of questions, such as, “What do YOU need to do to increase your average wattage by 5 watts in the next 2 minutes?” See if you can get feedback from them in the way of actual answers. “I’m going to add a little more resistance!” Or “I’m going to increase my rpm by 5!” 

This type of cueing gives riders specific ways to be successful by utilizing actions they can take ownership of.

Getting riders to speak or communicate back to you is also a great way to monitor intensity. Remember the “talk test” we used to (and still!) use?

Get off the bike occasionally and work the room. Talk to participants individually. Have them communicate back to you what they are feeling. Instructing off the bike is an effective way to coach your riders.

Pathway #3: Riders to Themselves

Positive self-talk is one of the most important things a rider can utilize to get them through a challenging drill or profile. Belief in the fact they can accomplish, for example, a 20-minute functional threshold power (FTP) assessment or six 30-second all-out sprints is key. 

How can we inspire riders to do this? 

  1. Ask them to choose a personal mantra that is authentic and repeatable. Keep it simple. “I can do this” or “I am stronger than this storm.”
  2. Practice it so it is automatic. “I have done this before, I will do it again!” or “Today, I am a bike racer!”
  3. Visualize it happening. Athletes review course maps for weeks before a race. They visualize every turn, every hill, and even every aid station. They visualize themselves out on the course, completing a specific section that may be incredibly challenging (such as Heartbreak Hill at the Boston Marathon). Have participants visualize their goal and repeat it; for example, “I will complete this mile 10 seconds faster than my first one!” 

Remember we’ve discussed the importance of being clear and precise with your cueing of the profile, drill, or interval—doing so will help riders to visualize the task at hand.

A great quote by Henry Ford I like to use as a cue for positive self-talk is “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right!” Choose which one you are today!”

Pathway #4: Riders to Riders

Follow any social media site for instructors (not just indoor cycling!) and you’ll find a plethora of questions asking, “How do I deal with the chatter between participants?”

First, may I offer professionally what not to do. Don’t turn up the volume or try and scream over them. They probably will just talk louder and you are risking alienating or making other participants uncomfortable. 

Try speaking to them after class. Explain why this behavior can affect the entire class experience. If you feel they are looking for attention (as some do), consider offering them a position in the class as “Ambassador of the Day” meaning, let them help with room setup, bike fit, or welcoming a new participant. 

Remember, some if not most people attend group exercise because of the social aspect! Try giving built-in talk breaks throughout class (1 to 2 minutes long) for them to go ahead and converse. Recovery segments are a good time to do this. Try to keep it specific so it doesn’t become a free-for-all. “You have 1 minute to tell your neighbor the BEST thing that happened to you today!”  

When that time is over, they know the focus goes back to the profile.

You can also channel their desire to communicate into some supportive teamwork. Be creative and develop drills that foster team camaraderie, either in pairs or small groups. Some group display systems let you stage mini team competitions or races. Or, see how fast they can collectively complete a small racecourse together. The next class, try and shave a few seconds off of the overall time, together

Here’s an example of another drill that creates supportive teamwork in your classes and encourages the wanted kind of intra-rider communication. Pair your class into teams of two or ask them to introduce themselves to the rider next to them. If any rider is left without a teammate, then you will be on their team. Alternate efforts between the two riders, pushing to a level of “very hard.” (Zone 5 or 6 power, not a sprint.) 

Switch riders every 20 to 30 seconds and have the non-working rider cheer on their teammate in between. The goal is to meet or beat their previous wattage (if you have power) or to achieve the same perceived effort level throughout the entire set, making sure they can endure it for five to eight sets. Encourage them to fist bump or high five when passing off the effort to their teammate. (If you are on the instructor bike and are riding with a teammate who is not near you, use a lot of hand signals and call out to them along with everyone else.) Continue for 5 to 8 minutes with several minutes of recovery afterward. During recovery, encourage celebration and a discussion of how it felt.  

To quote John Maxwell: “Educators can take something simple and make it complex. Communicators can take something complex and make it simple.”  Strive to be a great communicator!

Next time you teach a class, be aware of the many pathways of communication that are going on inside your classroom or studio. Ask yourself: Is my class a multi-lane highway or a one-way street? Are the lines of communication open and flowing in all directions? Work on those areas that need improvement, and you will see your members coming back for more! 

Pam Benchley is a master educator for Stages Indoor Cycling. She and her teammates Ben Kohler and Kimball Theoret have developed a workshop on effective communication for indoor cycling classes and the four pathways of communication titled “The Power of Cue-munication.” This session is currently available at conferences. 


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