Keeping Indoor Cycling Fun While Keeping it Real

Today’s article is very timely since I taught the “Why Should I Keep it Real?” workshop twice while in Europe this past month. I sincerely wish every instructor could take this workshop; there is so much important information in how to do exactly what Mark is discussing in this article. He gives his take on how to keep the class fun while still staying true to cycling. He calls it “Learn While You Burn”. Here is the article written by Mark Bedel:

I’ve been a USA Cycling coach for over six years and prior to this held Johnny G Spinning and Fitness Training certifications. I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside a good friend and colleague, Ryan Rizor, owner of Focus Human Performance, who specializes in strength and speed conditioning. I’ve also been a competitive amateur cyclist for over fifteen years.

Many, myself included, who have been teaching indoor cycling for some time have often been painfully aware of how unregulated the fitness industry is, especially the group fitness industry. It is not uncommon to observe classes being conducted by so-called instructors who dramatically deviate from sound, safe protocols in search of something “new” and “unusual. I like to term these individuals and their followers as fad chasers. This is the same demographic who have to be the first on their block to have the latest <insert gadget here> to hit the market. Their need to be first to try something new outweighs the real need to embrace a healthy lifestyle to which scientifically proven exercise protocols, along with complementary cross-training and diet, become ingrained.

In the search for always having something new to push out to their classes, the outrageous is deemed acceptable even if it is fundamentally flawed from a fitness development point of view and potentially unsafe for participants. The real tragedy is that many well-meaning fitness facilities are complicit in this process and willingly permit these types of classes to be held.

So how does an indoor cycling instructor keep a returning class of clients from being bored while instituting a graduated, periodized program that accomplishes most everyone’s goals? I’ve got my own solution. I like to refer to my approach as “learn while you burn.  My classes—from my one-hour weekday evening sessions to my two-hour weekend sessions—are populated by a mix of avid to competitive cyclists, as well as folks who only ride indoors. Now I will say that I do try to gently convert my indoor-only clients to outdoor…but gently.

Music choice is always important to keep students from becoming bored. As an instructor it very easy to skew your music selections to what you personally enjoy. There is nothing wrong with this approach in preparing the bulk of your library-after all, this is one area where an instructor can truly have fun with self-expression. You should, however, experiment from time to time with other genres to try and match music selections to the demographics and preferences of your classes, being sensitive to their tastes and familiarities.

But the main method I use to keep my students engaged is to immerse the class in cycling culture by introducing them to cycling tactics and strategies. For example, they learn what a paceline is and how this cycling method can become a way of doing interval training. We break into teams and work hard for the benefit of our teammates.

I explain why we’re doing what we’re doing and put it into perspective as it relates to previous and future classes so that there is always an understanding of and an appreciation for the fitness-building process. I stress the importance of pedal stroke and breathing technique and why they are worthwhile to master, even if my students do not ride outdoors. I also teach them the techniques that cyclists use to recover. During the cool-down, I will emphasize how essential recovery is after a challenging session, how a healthy diet can aid in this process, or why strengthening the immune system is so beneficial to overall fitness.

Each class should have an element of fun, with the primary goal always being to reach just that little bit further, or push a little bit harder. I inject humor into my classes regularly as a temporary distraction from a long or particularly taxing session. Sometimes I even quiz the class on certain topics that I have repeated often in my classes; this is another form of distraction as well as an opportunity for learning.

I conduct all my classes as a type of road ride. For my longer classes (up to two hours) we focus on specific energy system development, such as the aerobic system or muscular endurance. These sessions become more focused as we move toward the later winter months and into early spring. These longer classes contain a larger population of competitive and avid outdoor cyclists looking to build race or ride-specific fitness for the upcoming cycling season. I do still have a surprisingly high number of indoor-only clients who enjoy the challenge of a longer, more focused class. These folks started in the one-hour class format, but over time felt the need for the additional challenge. Because I spent the time to teach them the proper way to ride, they easily migrated to the longer classes and understood that we didn’t need external distraction to stay focused.

Tempering our society’s “want-it-now” attitude is certainly a challenge, but when you educate folks about how their bodies respond to exercise stress, and remind them how long it took for them to gain those extra pounds and how they can safely and permanently remove them, you can see them develop an appreciation for and an understanding of how their bodies work. In the process you teach them that they have to work with their bodies…not against them.

Of course to be able to have this type of dialogue, one must thoroughly understand these principles and be comfortable translating them into a format that is easily relatable to and retainable by the population you are engaging. As an instructor, you must have a depth of knowledge in many areas and understand how to effectively apply that knowledge, while always keeping it fun.

As a responsible instructor or coach, the number one thing to focus on is sound fundamentals. In the end, these will always trump a fad or gimmick and provide the results your clients are seeking in a safe and effective manner. The “learn while you burn” approach is my way of engaging and retaining clients year after year. Forget the fads-they come and go. In the end, what’s proven will win.


What do you think? Do you agree with Mark? How do you make sure your class is fun, while at the same time keeping your students engaged, while also still staying authentic to cycling?

1 Comment

  1. Great article Mark. It is so strange to read this….in someone else’ words! I’m sure I’m not the only one claiming to be “Just Like Mark” but I do all of this, literally word for word! 😉 “Keeping it Real” is the idea, and our philosophy. I can’t change the industry and its fads and gimmicks, but I am pretty darned set in “educating” every single rider that walks into my rides. And my badge of honor is a following that does not dwindle, first timers getting on bikes outdoors, and coming back for more indoors. What works is our approach to “real work, real results” (I claim this phrase! hehe!). I have my mentor (Tom Scotto)’s permission to use his term”Cycling Indoors” for my rides. I think it says it simply, beautifully, completely.
    Great article Mark. Thanks for saying it for all of us. Thanks Jennifer for your tireless work in Keeping it Real. YOU are getting real results in educating the instructors 🙂

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