Spinning Drills Taken Outdoors

I want to share with you a wonderful experience my indoor riders had as we moved our training to the outdoors the past few weeks. A couple of them had a revelation as they realized the tremendous impact of what we had been doing this winter on our Keiser bikes. More specifically, I’m talking about the spinning drills.

I love drills in my indoor cycling classes. Here at ICA we try to teach you how to do technical drills of all kinds—cadence drills, pedal stroke drills to improve technique, intensity drills, outdoor simulation drills (like pacelines), etc. At times the structure of drills is perfect for your profiles; other times you don’t want as much structure and try to couch the learning in fun or playful techniques, such as the Fartlek drills I recently wrote about.

Leg speed drills help increase your ability to spin your legs faster. Spinning® is a branded style of indoor cycling, but the term itself is taken from the cycling technique of spinning the legs at a higher cadence with a lower gear. The opposite of “spinning” is “mashing,” pushing a bigger gear or resistance at a slower cadence. Spinning is a less mechanically stressful pedaling style, and can ultimately lead to less fatigue and higher power outputs when you’ve trained your neuromuscular abilities to pedal smoothly against a higher resistance.

But before you add the resistance (gear), you must have the mechanics of pedaling fast—the spinning—mastered.

This past winter I led two 12-week periodized cycling programs that were very structured. Most of the students in my classes were cyclists, some more serious than others (some relatively new to cycling as well). I did a lot of high-cadence drills, and without fail, every rider told me they found that by the end of the 12 weeks, they felt they were more comfortable at the higher cadence than when we started. We had a late spring here in the ski area where I live, so most of us were on bikes a bit later than usual, but the ones that did get out and ride told me they also felt a difference on their bikes.

Here in the mountains, the month of May and early June is what we call “mud season” or the “off season.” The snow is melting, it can rain a lot, the shops and restaurants close down. Many locals (especially those with seasonal jobs, or those who are retired) go away for this period. In late June, I will be starting an outdoor cycling clinic, but during this mud season, I had a few riders from my group who wanted to continue training together. We did some of the rides indoors during the first, chillier part of May, but the past few weeks as the weather got nicer, there have been 3–4 of us who have met outdoors to ride after work (yes, I got paid just like my regular class! Pretty cool!).

Last week, we did spinning, or high-cadence drills, on our outdoor ride. It was really hard to do, but by the end of an hour, the difference we all experienced was substantial.

After we warmed up (at a relatively high cadence of 90–100 rpm), I asked them to find their “bounce threshold.” This is actually a drill I learned from Joe Friel. The goal is to ride at the highest cadence you can muster until you start bouncing. Then you back off just a little bit until you are no longer bouncing. That is your “bounce threshold.” We rode here for about 15 minutes over gently rolling terrain. Obviously, when it was going up our cadence dropped a little, but on the slight downhills and on the flats, we were probably easily reaching 120 rpm, perhaps even higher at times.

At first, it raised our heart rates more than usual, because faster cadences generally impact the cardiovascular system more than lower cadence/higher gear pedaling. We were huffing and puffing, and not really going that fast. One of my riders, Lisa, said, “But I would never ride like this on a regular ride!” The reason is, at least until you become more skilled, you can go faster if you shift to a higher gear at a lower cadence. But therein lies the trap in which so many cyclists find themselves…they typically select one gear too much and pedal a little slower than they should.

Of course we wouldn’t normally ride this fast in a group ride, but this is a drill. You don’t “play” tennis by hitting against a wall, but you do drills to practice certain aspects of your backhand or forehand against that wall until you get it right. I told her, “Can you imagine that if you learn to pedal smoothly without bouncing at 120 rpm, how well you will pedal at 95 or 100 rpm?”

Bingo. A lightbulb went off over her head right there.

After that particular drill, we transitioned to a classic indoor drill of breaking down the pedal stroke into quadrants. I had them focus only on the top quadrant of the pedal stroke for 10–15 minutes, from about 10:00 to 2:00 (with 12:00 being straight up). The cue is to push your toes towards the front of the shoe as you come over the top of the pedal stroke. You will be very aware of the quadriceps muscle.

Then we switched to the bottom quadrant, from 4:00 to 8:00 (with 6:00 being straight down), also for 10–15 minutes. The cue for this one is to pull the heel back at the bottom, or scrape mud off the bottom of the shoe. You will feel the hamstrings engage.

Then we focused on the upstroke, with the idea of throwing the knee over the handlebars as it comes up. At this point, we were climbing a bit more, about 4%–5% grade, so our cadence had fallen, but they were extremely aware of the involvement of the hip flexor on this upstroke. I made sure they rode in a low gear up this slight grade so they wouldn’t over-involve the hip flexor, a very small muscle.

It started to rain during the ride back, so at that point I told them to wrap all the drills we had done together, keep their pedal strokes smooth and round, and let’s get home fast! (It can quickly get cold up here in May when it rains in the evening!)

I have to say, this was one of the most productive training rides I think I’ve ever had on an outdoor bike. All four of us were amazed at how much smoother our pedaling felt at the end of the ride. Also, our legs were fatigued in a very different way than they had been in the previous week’s ride, on which we rode a 5-mile climb (at “higher” climbing cadences of 75–85 rpm).

I occasionally practice this on my own when I ride, but this was the first time I’ve done it in a structured way with outdoor clients. In a group, we spent longer at each drill. What a revelation for me it turned out to be!

Would you do this often on an outdoor ride? Not when there are lots of miles to cover or friends to race up the hills, but remember these when you are out riding by yourself. Better yet, get a friend to do them with you, because it’s hard to force yourself to do drills when you are solo.

All of my riders said they were really grateful for the time we had already spent this winter working on these drills.

Never underestimate the value of what you are doing in your indoor classes!

So, what if you don’t ride outside, or your students aren’t outdoor riders? Remember, when you train the neuromuscular ability of your muscles to fire more quickly, and smooth out your pedal stroke, you are subsequently able to take on more resistance at those leg speeds. That can translate to a much greater power output, which as you know, means a greater caloric expenditure.

So yes, even the non-cyclists benefit!


  1. This is a very interesting drill. how would you apply this drill in and indoor Spinning class.How much resistance would be necessary for safety?

    1. Author

      This is an example of taking an indoor drill and moving it outside. High cadence drills indoors are very effective training for leg speed and efficiency.

      Here is a good drill to establish how fast someone should be riding. Remember, how fast they can ride effectively is dependent on how much resistance they have on. If you don’t have enough resistance, they will bounce. https://indoorcyclingassociation.com/ocd-the-bounce-test/

      Check out the higher cadence profiles on ICA as well. There is some good coaching cues in them.

      Also, the app Cuez has excellent cues specific to coaching cadence and adding resistance.

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