What if they don’t get it?

What if your student doesn’t get it? Even after telling him or her over and over about something having to do with riding or intensity or power or cadence, and they just don’t understand…. what do you do? What can you do? If you have not met this student yet, you will one day! You will want to learn to be more empathetic and understanding.Nurturing the student who just doesn’t get it

Every now and then you will encounter a student who just doesn’t seem to get your cues or your explanations. There are also some students who choose to ignore your cues and explanations, but let’s not focus on them right now (we’ll leave that for a future article)! The student who just doesn’t get it might be new to group exercise, and to fitness in general. They may not ever really have ridden a bike so the pedaling and its effect on their heart rate may be foreign to them. It may be that he or she is just not athletic at all, and never has been.

These students may need their hands held, they are the ones you risk losing. How you approach them and integrate them into your class may be the difference in establishing a commitment to fitness (or at least indoor cycling), or never coming back.

I have a very specific situation in one of my classes that I want to share with you. In doing so you may recognize a student you’ve had in the past, or it might give you some ideas in case you encounter one like her in the future. Although this is in a paid cycling clinic, it can also apply to a general class schedule in which you

I am currently finishing a 12-week periodized cycling clinic at a facility with an older population (50-75 years or so). Participants paid $300 to be a part of this cycling clinic, so it’s not on the regular class schedule. There are 10 bikes and the program sold out. All but one of my participants are recreational cyclists, a few are pretty solid cyclists. This is the Rocky Mountains, so it can get a little intimidating for those who are fearful of those scary things we call hills around here (very few of these hills take less than 30 minutes to summit, often double or triple that).

One woman wants to learn to ride better and wants to keep up with her husband. But it has become apparent that what she means is that she wants to learn to ride outside at all. She has needed my guidance throughout the entire program. I’ve taken her on as a project. Mind you, she is very committed and has not missed a single class over the past 12 weeks. She says she has done the “homework” (I give them homework to do on the bikes throughout the week, either in other classes, or on their own). But sometimes I wonder, since she hasn’t improved nearly as much as everyone else has.

Before I talk about what is so confusing for her, let me first say that she is a darling woman and I really like her. After class, she is always so appreciative, and in the locker room with the other women, we chat about family and cooking and travel (as well as fitness). If she cannot grasp the concepts of cycling, especially when we are talking about power (even though I’ve simplified it) I want to emphasize that she is not a dummy! It’s just not her forte!

Her current functional threshold power is 65 watts (estimated through two field tests, the second showed no improvement). Yes, to most of us that would feel like we are barely riding along, but to her, it almost sends her over the edge. They are Keiser M3s, so I take it as a grain of salt, since on another bike it might be higher, but I always make them ride the same bikes so that we can measure improvement over time. Still, even if it truly were a little higher, you can see that her bicycling power is pretty low. She is not a strong person.

To Maryanne, the concept of combining cadence and a gear, and having it dictate how hard she will work, is entirely foreign. Β It doesn’t come naturally. Also, the concept of not giving up at the first sign of challenge is foreign to her, so we have been working on finding out what she can and cannot handle – and discovering that she is usually able to go a little longer, a little harder than she thought she could. This is always a revelation, and this is definitely something that she has improved at, if not her actual FTP.

We did our second field test 5 weeks ago – two 8-min efforts, as hard as possible with a cadence of around 80 (my songs were 80-ish rpm. For this group, the slightly slower cadence is more in line with what they can handle). I asked them to try to keep their power outputs above their previously tested FTP, and to try not to drop below it at any point. Every one has a laminated card with their power zones on one side and HR zones on the other, and they keep those cards on their handlebars.

Maryanne has a very hard time getting going on these tests – she almost always turns her gears on way too high and therefore, pedals way too slowly. After about a minute into the test, I saw she was riding at a cadence in the low 40’s, obviously in some distress. So I stood next to her and coached her to raise her cadence. “But I’ll have to move this down” (pointing to the gear). “Yup,” I say, holding back a little bit. Admittedly I was a bit frustrated that she didn’t remember my many explanations of how to fine tune cadence and resistance to achieve her power output, and hence, intensity. So I reminded her, “Remember, you can achieve any given power output, such as 65watts, either with a high gear and low cadence or with a higher cadence and a lower gear. It’s up to you to find that combination by fine-tuning your gear.” It took her about two minutes into the test before she finally found a combination of a gear at that cadence that worked. But she needed my constant guidance – I was running back and forth from her to the front of the class so I could direct and motivate everyone.

As a result, her average power in these tests is really low, because she takes that two minutes of low power before she can stabilize it and that pulls down the average. Even so, I don’t think it’s entirely off, because I haven’t noticed her being able to handle a power output much higher than 70 for any length of time, even short efforts!

Although I’ve explained power to the group many times, she just doesn’t get it. And I get that it’s not easy to get! This has forced me to come up with some creative ways to talk about it. For Maryanne, I usually have to point to her training zone card when telling the class what intensity to ride, that is, which power zone she needs to be in.

Here’s a couple of examples of how I try to hold Maryann’s hand, nurturing her on this unfamiliar path, while also trying to avoid having her feel insecure or singled out, or most important, feeling dumb. I do much of my coaching off-the-bike in this class.

On one instance, I asked for a cadence in the mid 80’s, at a power output in Zone 3. At first she thought I meant gear 3 instead of Zone 3, which meant her power was really low. That made me realize that what seemed so obvious to me, the instructor who does this all the time, may not be obvious to all the students. So now I am more careful about explaining exactly what I am talking about.

On the Keiser computers, the cadence is at the top, second is the power reading (which toggles with calories – I wish you could turn that off!) The third set of numbers is heart rate. She has constantly gotten the various numbers confused, especially cadence and the power reading, even though I’ve explained it a dozen times. We will be in the middle of an effort, say at a cadence of 90, and I want them to be at threshold, which as I said for her is 65 watts. I always give her very specific numbers to shoot for; the others know when I say FTP what I am talking about and they all know the cadence and what gear gets them there so for them I can be more general.

But for the last field test, I saw her pedaling really slow, so I stood next to her and pointed to the cadence and said “can you bring this up to 90?” She looked at me and said, “but I thought you said 65?”

“No, cadence needs to be at 90, to the beat of this song”, I repeat, “it’s this one, your power that I want you to get to 65 watts – that’s your FTP on your card here. But you need to do it at a higher cadence, which is this number,” as I point to the top of the computer again. “So to do that, you need to bring this down” as I point to the gear, “so your legs can go faster.”

Believe me, I have never been so challenged myself. Like I said, I know this is complicated stuff to some people and I’ve done my best to try to simplify it, but this may be one person who might just never quite get it. And I’m realizing that I have to be OK with that. I think I am quite good at being empathetic and nurturing (all those years of teaching skiing!), and I really try hard to keep my voice from sounding frustrated. But, believe me, it is not easy when we are on the 12th week of this!

It’s a small room with 10 bikes (plus the instructor bike), and the group already knows each other very well, both socially and in class. Because of this, they will notice the attention I give to Maryann, and perhaps hear some of what I say to her. Nevertheless, when I talk with her, I turn off or turn away the mic and lower my voice. That is, except when I’m excited for her success.

I have one more week of this program, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the completion of this particular program! We have our final field test coming up. I’ll let you know if she has improved at all.

Have you ever had a student that just doesn’t seem to get it, even when everyone else in the room does? What have you done? How have you handled it? Have you ever lost your cool?


  1. Moritz, she does ski and hike, but not aggressively like many other people who live here. Being a ski area, (and in fact, this is a club OWNED by the ski resort!) that is why so many people live here! So I dont think she has any musculoskeltal or cardiovascular issues. At least, not that she put on her original form that asked for medical issues I should know about.

    This Wed – the final class in this 12-week series – we are doing 2-minute power intervals, where I will record their average power for 4 sets of 2 minutes. I will compare them to the first time we did that test.

    What I think I might do this Wednesday is have her ride her specific bike for most of the power tests, then put her on a bike that I know generally reads a lot higher power for a given gear/cadence combination. I know I can’t compare the numbers, but if it is significantly higher, as I suspect, at least she will leave with some satisfaction that her numbers would have been higher on another bike. I will still be left with the frustration that her FTP numbers did not improve over the 12 weeks (well, the last 6 weeks at least – the first 6 weeks was devoted to base building and technique – and wouldn’t impact LT/FTP much).
    I’ll keep you guys posted.

  2. We call these participants “immune to advice” or “feedback resistant” πŸ˜‰

    As for simplifying the display for her I would go with the approach described by Sandy: just take some tape and cover all of the display except the part that is relevant (power in this case).

    As for really very low FTP: unless this person is very small and slim or the pure opposite of that, I would have her checked by a sports doctor to make sure she is not affected by a medical (cardiovascular, muscular or other) problem.

  3. It’s interesting to hear how you deal with this situation. I have to admit I’ve been told I have the patience of Noah (but I think I am just too stubborn and refuse to give up!haha!) πŸ˜‰
    I am, however, most irritated by another group. I have had two riders (only?!) that I’ve been irritated by. Those sat on the bike with the most horrible set up, rode-no excuse me-bounced all over the place at 140rpm and no resistance, and when I approached them to help with their set up or diplomatically mention what their RPE should be at that segment, they just refused and told me they are fine where they are! Really! Oh Lord, how it pained me to smile, as I mentioned my credentials (only to give them assurance in my suggestions), and explained why they would be better off making those adjustments. I finished by telling them that was my job to offer help and offer set up adjustment,…..and (still with a smile) told them that ultimately, it was their body and therefore absolutely their choice to wreck it-I mean- ride the way they wished ;-)I have to add, one of them, mid ride changed his position and his cadence, he has been back to the rides since. The other rider chose to stay oblivious!! Has that happened to you? If so, how did you handle it?

  4. Jennifer,

    Thanks again for another “timely” topic! You always seem to be reading my mind as I am working with a long time rider right now who has resisted me in trying to get her cadence up, she is one of my only remaining “mashers” and is the the one who still just doesn’t quite “get it.” Sandy I love your suggestion about covering up the numbers you don’t want them concerned with.

    I will be looking forward to your follow ups to this Jennifer!


  5. Thanks Jennifer for this article, I enjoyed reading it & let us know how the 12th week go with your students.

    I started teaching at a private facility 2 weeks ago where they have normal spinning bikes. This makes me appreciate the Keiser M3 even more and how you can do more with your participants when you have access to power.

    Many members at this new facility refuse to listen to me and start doing their own things during class so I would be really interested in an article about how to deal with a member who refuses to listen.


    Moot πŸ™‚

  6. Hey, that’s not a bad idea. She can follow the other riders for cadence and I’ll cover that up so she doesn’t get it mixed up with power! Thanks!
    I’m going to follow this article up with another discussion on when do we just move on and accept it. Not give up, but realize that some things we think are so important may not be as important to our students. Now, really bad form that will hurt them or doing CI moves while we’re just riding along – that I wouldn’t “accept”, but over the years I’ve been teaching there were some things I just stopped harping on. For example, years ago at a different club, one guy always hung his head no matter what we were doing. Like, seriously hung it down to his chest. I made suggestions till I was blue in the face, using all different analogies and creative cues, and blatant hands on “GET YOUR HEAD UP!” How many times past 100 could I keep asking him to change? (I don’t know if it was 100 or 50, just making a point!) Finally I just said to myself it isn’t worth it. He’s not going to injure himself or others unless he does that outside on his bike!

  7. How frustrating for an instructor when certain individuals “don’t get it” even after the most basic and many explainations. I have a similiar age bracket and a few women who can never raise their cadence. ( I don’t have power). I have tried to make them my special projects but as soon as I divert my attention off of them they go back to their ways. Now these are not outdoor riders and probably will never be so they don not have a goal to accomplice aside from coming to the gym to “work out” so I have resolved myself to give reminders to them but not obsess. They also are not paying me $300 to improve their cycling skills.
    But one idea I had as I was reading your post was, can you put something in the form of a small piece of masking tape over the numbers on the console that you want her to not focus on that day and just work on the number she sees displayed? Meaning tape off every number BUT cadence so she can’t get mixed up.

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