Group Cycling classes are awesome for beginners.
I know you’re thinking that’s crazy. When you picture a group cycle, or spin class, you probably conjure up images of hardcore athletes drenched in sweat, feet flying on the petals, pushing themselves to utter exhaustion. Yes, these classes can give you one of the most challenging workouts that you’ve ever had. However group cycling is ideal for beginners, because ultimately you decide how hard you’re going to work, and only you know how much you’re pushing yourself.
Group fitness classes in general allow a great way to try something new and venture outside your comfort zone, while making friends and commiserating about the workout. Group classes have been popular since the era of Jazzercise, however, in big classes like aerobics and dancing, it can be easy to be self-conscious and wonder if you’re “doing it right” (Rest assured, no one else is paying attention to you, they’re all too focused on their own workout). These doubts can plague even the fittest, albeit coordinationaly challenged, of us.
The beautiful thing about a spin class, is that no one wonders if you’re doing it right: you can’t do it wrong. Only you know how much resistance is on the bike, and how hard you’re working. There is no coordination needed, no fancy aerobic footwork to remember, and no need to mentally compare yourself to other people in the class. Even if you’ve never ridden a bike in your life, you still have the technical mastery to petal a stationary bike. I promise. The payoff from trying something new? Becoming a faster, more fit runner. It’s win-win.
What is it?
Group Cycle classes are based around the premise that an instructor leads a group of people through a “ride” together. You follow along as you’re instructed to add or take resistance off the bike, change the speed or cadence of how quickly you’re pedaling, and ride in various positions in and out of the saddle. These movements are designed to mimic conditions you’d encounter while you ride a bike on the road (like hills), as well as movements designed to get you into great shape. Together, the class gives you a great way to cross train, push yourself, and get a great workout in. Plus, an instructor is there to help you make sure your bike is set up correctly, that you’re doing the correct movements, and that all your questions are answered.
Each spin instructor is different, and each class has a different goal. When I teach, I like to break the ride into sets of drills, each set consisting of repeating a 1 to 5 minute drill several times with a short recovery in between. Some days we’ll spend 15 or 20 minutes climbing one hill, some days we’ll focus on intense bursts of speed; the goal is to make it fun, challenging, and interesting. Participants never know exactly what to expect, they just know they’ll get a good workout in the 45 or 60 minutes of class, and that as an instructor, I’ll try my hardest to motivate and inspire.
If you’re ready to step outside of your comfort zone and try a spin class, look at local gyms or sports complexes. Some cycling classes are based off the Spinning® brand, while others are marketed as “Group Cycle” classes. Give yourself permission to try several locations and instructors until you find a style that makes you feel awesome, and makes you look forward to going to class.
What to expect
When you show up for your first class, wear breathable gym clothes (I would recommend against short loose shorts, as they can bunch and provide an unwanted view up-inseam), bring a waterbottle and small hand towel to wipe off your sweat. You can wear normal athletic shoes, and this is one instance where you don’t want flexible minimalist shoes. You want something with a relatively stiff sole that will allow good power transfer when you stand up on the petals (or climb a hill “out of the saddle”). Most bikes are compatible with some cycling shoes (typically SPD cleats), but check with the gym to be sure.
You’ll want to arrive relatively early to your first class, introduce yourself to the instructor, and have them help you set up your bike. A great bike fit is the key to making sure you’re comfortable and can give the class your all. Once you learn how to add on resistance to the bike, start to pedal and enjoy the ride! Give yourself permission to take it down a notch or two and don’t feel as if you have to compete with the other people around you.
One word of warning: if you’re not used to riding a bike, your butt will be sore after the first spin class. This is because your legs aren’t used to holding you up, and you’re probably sitting too far back on the saddle. As you go on, your legs will get stronger, and keep you on the right spot. It will get better. I promise. In the mean time, feel free to wear padded bike shorts or bring a gel seat pad to sit on.
The physiological benefits of incorporating cycling as cross training are immense. It provides a way to add additional exercise, without stressing the joints and tendons that can get cranky when you start to pile on the mileage. Cycling classes are designed to provide a great workout, while at the same time giving you the freedom to take down the gear a notch or two if you need to. The major lower body muscles worked in cycling, your quads, hamstrings, and calves, are going to get stronger as you work through spin classes, allowing you to build up power in your legs, providing you with an aerobic base that will make the miles fly by when you’re running. Plus, living in Wisconsin, these give you a nice break from the winter treadmill doldrums, when even if you do like to road bike, the weather might not be cooperating.
Be warned, you will probably get hooked. I was once “only a runner”, then I became a “runner who loves spin classes”, then a spin instructor. Now I’m a triathlete and still love working out. As I said, it’s a win-win.
Liz is a grad student who loves science, triathlons, dinosaurs, geomicrobiology and cake. She can frequently be found teaching spin classes or doing science outreach. Over the past five years, she has run almost a dozen half marathons (PR 1:54), and is now breaking into the triathlon scene with her University’s Tri team.