“Endurance” Classes…Are They Really All That Important for Indoor Cycling?

In the cycling world, the concept of base training is being turned on its head. If this is being questioned for outdoor cyclists, how on earth would it apply for indoor cyclists to spend hours at low intensities? If you’ve ever questioned whether you should be teaching your 45- or 60-minute classes in Zone 2 (65%–75% MHR), then keep reading…

This Training Peaks article, written by Jim Rutberg of Carmichael Training Systems, says what many have already long suspected—that traditional base training is a “myth.”

This is not a new concept—it’s just taken a while for mainstream cycling to catch on. Chris Carmichael has been saying this for a long time. It is highlighted in his “Time-Crunched Cyclist” approach to training, incorporating much more high-intensity training over fewer total training hours during the off-season than traditional training methodologies. Joe Friel has adopted a higher intensity/lower volume approach to winter training as well. 

Here is a quote from the Training Peaks article:

As an endurance athlete you have already habituated to a certain volume of weekly training hours, likely because that’s all you have available. Training the same number of weekly hours (because you don’t have the time to add more) at lower intensities produces a lower total workload than you have already adapted to. As a result, it won’t stress your aerobic system enough to stimulate a positive adaptation.

When base training works, it only works because increased training volume contributes to greater total workload (or at least greater focused workload) despite reduced intensity. These longer rides are slower because of the inverse relationship between intensity and duration. You can go harder for shorter durations, but as rides get longer sustainable intensity naturally decreases. When volume is held basically constant by your training availability, reduced intensity only results in reduced workload, and therefore reduced training stimulus.

However, only two years ago, Bicycling magazine published this article by Selene Yeager, which touted the benefits of traditional base training, even supported by Hunter Allen. 

“Base training is the foundation upon which everything else rests,” says Danny­ Suter, USA Cycling Level 2 coach and founder of the Boulder Performance ­Network. When you build endurance, eventually you can get more out of higher-­intensity riding and a heavier training load. “Riders who go straight into speed work can get fast on the bike,” says Hunter Allen, coauthor of Training and Racing with a Power Meter. “But they won’t have aerobic endurance, so their fitness lasts just a few weeks before they slow down.”

(Note that base training in the Bicycling article is defined as rides of two hours or longer.)

This debate about the pros and cons of “base training” has been raging for many years, but it seems more and more are jumping on the higher-intensity bandwagon.

What about Indoor Cycling?

So which is it? Should you stop teaching your “endurance” classes? Most indoor cycling classes are 45 to 60 minutes long. Does it do any good to ride at such a low intensity for that short period of time? If so, what are the benefits? 

The traditional Spinning® Endurance Energy Zone ride is taught at 65%–80% of max heart rate. Years ago Spinning espoused an upper limit of only 75% MHR but thankfully have raised it to 80%. They also used to describe an “endurance” ride as only a seated flat road but have (again, thankfully) expanded an “endurance ride” to include other terrain and positions. 

They are one of the few indoor cycling programs who teach a specific class at such a low intensity (in addition to their Recovery Energy Zone). It continues to be taught, even though the vast majority of indoor cycling students are not training for endurance events. 

I am currently leading a “base-building program” at my facility, but to be honest, it is not traditional in the sense that I do not keep them in Zone 2—I stopped doing that years ago. Much of our work is in Zone 3, with forays into Zone 4, and short pushes up to threshold (FTP). During this time, we work on skill acquisition, such as pedal stroke, relaxation, breathing, etc. 

This is a very important topic to the indoor cycling community because many instructors are downright confused as to what they should do. Instructors need to know when to apply the current thoughts on endurance training for athletes to their own population (many of whom are not outdoor cyclists). On the other hand, too often the fitness and indoor cycling communities swing too far to the opposite end of the spectrum and end up teaching far too many interval classes at too high an intensity. 

Keep your eyes on this space! Here at the Indoor Cycling Association, we’ve already been exploring this subject, and we will continue to explore the science and provide tips on how to find balance in your class offerings.  

Jennifer Snow Ashbrook’s two recent articles have begun to examine the question of high intensity. She will be getting much deeper into the topic as she explores power training in the future. 
Steady State Cardio vs. High-Intensity Interval Training [Free article]
Understanding the HIIT Hype [Premium Members]

My recent profile called Progressive High-Cadence Tempo Intervals can be used as an “endurance” replacement profile. It’s still sub-threshold, but no one could call it “easy”!

If rides longer than one hour are a possibility at your facility, a time frame that allows you to target real endurance training, this article on how to teach a 90-minute class is very helpful.  

Tell us in the comments below, do you teach “endurance” rides? How are they received?

Have you been taught that you should teach “endurance,” but are confused about the benefits or about the intensity?

Do you struggle with keeping your riders engaged?

What else would you like to know about this topic? 

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  1. I do a 90 minute “endurance” ride on Sunday mornings-we stay in the low 80% of max heart rate the whole time-no recovery pretty much in the orange zone-we use the IQniter (old Suunto) system with HR on a big screen tv. I would say half of the 20 person class uses the heart rate straps.

  2. Hot topic!

    I think the question is ‘how do you define high volume/low intensity?
    I agree with Jim Rutberg that riding slowly makes you slow.
    However, slow and tempo IMO is relative only to FTP.

    1. Author

      As you know I teach based on FTP when teaching on bikes with power, and based on LTHR when teaching on bikes without power.

      But for those without a HRM, you can still teach a “tempo” ride using only RPE. It’s a subthreshold sustainable pace, higher than the typical “endurance” rides. Good cueing based onperception of difficulty (via breath, sensations in muscles, lungs, heart, etc) is all you need.

      Don’t you think?

  3. One of the ways that I pitch an *endurance ride* without actually giving it the kiss of death by calling it one is to do a bit of a ramp up from to find something that’s fairly comfy in the short term (very few of my riders use HRMs, unfortunately…..even the ones I’ve given away!) and resolve to not let intensity drop below this.

    I think I was at the tail end of 75% Max HR defining the upper limit of endurance zone classes when I did my cert. because conferences and workshops I did shortly afterwards it was expanded to the 80% limit. In reality, even for a regular 60 minute class, this isn’t an easy intensity range to hold for 100% of the time. It requires mental as well as physical stamina……and is a valuable skill to learn along with everything else that a *class* is supposed to teach.

    What I’ve found fairly consistently is that just as many folk sit up, back off, pretend to need to stretch etc. as as frequently as when I’m cuing higher intensity, “interval” rides….. I fancy that one reason a good many folk like “intervals” so much is that there’s so much recovery built in.

    One immediate value for a lower intensity ride is that, when you’re not focussing on high intensity, it provides the opportunity to concentrate on technique and skill building. Cadence building skills, cadence checks, pedal stroke drills, slight variations in intensity, easy “jumps on a hill” to practise transitions from seated to standing and whatnot.

  4. Ah ok I forgot to tell you this too!

    Yes I teach Aerobic Classes (after leaving the Spinning program as a Master Instructor for MDA that is what I call them).

    They are well received if I teach them. They are better received when people have a heartrate monitor on. I mean: keep it real hey?

    I teach instructors to use the whole heartrate zone when teaching Aerobic classes. Make a true interval out of it. So move up and down in the zone a couple of times.

    Do not use too much climbs in those aerobic profiles because it might limit you. As we at HITcycling set the lowest heartrate for a climb on 75% of mhr. A lot of instructors like to climb a lot in their classes (also the music for that is easier to find?) but it can be a pitfall for little variation in the classprofile. (Which is not wrong, but for the average participant can become a bit boring?)

    Also important to apply a mix of instrumental and vocal songs and watch the bpm of your music if you ride on the beat (as we do). Faster pace means less resistance on their flywheel and the other way around…

    Let me know what you think.

    1. Author

      Hi Nancy,
      How’s it going my friend?! =)

      I am curious, how do you assess MHR?
      Do you teach field testing to assess (estimate) lactate threshold?

  5. Hi y’all,

    In the Netherlands I have my own cycling program called HIT CYCLING that teaches instructors various trainingframes.

    We have:
    Base Building (BB) at 55-75%MHR with limited movements on the bike.
    Aerobic Intervals (AI) at 60-80%mhr everything except the PowerSprint is possible
    Full Intervals (FI) at 65-95% all movements can be used
    Full Power (FP) at 65-95% core of class all hills/mountains no flat roads in between.

    I am convinced that for indoor cycling a rotation shedule works. And I see 3 trainingframes on that shedule: AI, FI and FP.
    As still a lot of instructors and participants are not working on heartrate it is crucial to provide variation in classes and look at perceived intensity.

    I believe that 1 week of Aerobic intensity training (AI) per 4 weeks is the least the normal (non competitive) participant should do.
    The HITcycling Trainer education really gets that message across.

    There indeed is too much high intensity training going around. But that is mainly because instructors are hyped (?) but do not have enough knowledge about what the effects are for recreational indoor cyclists. Also I believe that there are still a lot of instructors out there that are doing their own workout, while they are teaching! We need to realize that the participants will do EVERYTHING we ask from them! So you need to stop and think about it…. Respect the health and wellbeing of your clients/participants.

    Well….. I see indoor cycling not as a workout, but as a training. That’s me…

    It is my mission, at least here in the Netherlands to bring the heartrate monitor to our cyclingclasses (because really, ‘feeling’ what they are doing does not work…) and the knowledge about less is more. ;-))
    At HITcycling we say: Train on the bike with your heart and brains.

    Enjoy your day. And your groups!
    Nancy Hasselbaink

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