The Biggest Mistakes That Beginner Indoor Cyclists Make

The Biggest Mistakes That Beginner Indoor Cyclists Make

My spin bike is one of those purchases that felt frivolous at the time, but has become one of my best-loved pieces of exercise equipment. I use it for easy cardio, for intense sprints, and just to get my body moving on rest days when it’s too rainy or cold for a nice walk. But there are some definite pitfalls to indoor cycling when you’re a beginner. Here’s how to bypass the beginner mistakes and get comfortable in the saddle.

Being intimidated by the shoe/cleat situation

If you were expecting to just hop on the bike in running shoes, I’m going to stop you right there. While it’s fine to pedal that way your first time or two, getting real cycling shoes is going to seriously pay off.

Cycling shoes have cleats on the bottom that click in to special pedals on the bike. Your bike may have come this way, or maybe you got a basic bike that has flat pedals. Do yourself a favor and find out what kind of pedals you have, or choose some pedals. (SPD are common on many bikes; Peloton uses LOOK Delta, so that’s another option.)

Then buy cycling shoes, and install cleats on them that match your pedals. We have a guide to navigating the shoe and cleat market here. It’s not that complicated, I promise.

Once you’ve installed the cleats and you’re pedaling with the right shoes, you’ll get so much more power into the bike, and so much more out of your workouts.

Trying to do strength training on the bike

Yes, your legs are working, and after a hard ride on the bike you’ll feel it in your quads. But cardio does not count as leg day. You still need to strength train your lower body if you want to be an all-around strong person. As a bonus, you’ll find that strength training helps your legs to withstand harder workouts without that burning feeling.

What about upper body? Same deal: You’re not going to be able to do it on the bike. Yes, I know that a lot of spin classes have a song or two where you wave tiny dumbbells or weighted bars in the air. This is better than nothing, but it’s no substitute for proper weight training. You’re making your muscles tired more than you’re making them stronger. Invest in a set of dumbbells that actually weigh something, and do a more traditional strength routine after you hop off the bike—or consider learning to do moves like pushups and bodyweight rows.

Worrying about the leaderboard

If you take a studio spin class, or if you log on to a platform like Peloton, you’ll see your output ranked against others who are taking the same class. If you find that fun and motivating, cool. But there are two things your brain can do that turn the leaderboard against you.

The first is that you might end up viewing the leaderboard as the only metric that matters. You’ll push yourself to get farther up toward the top every time, or you’ll aim to break your old PRs. The problem with that is that training days are not to be confused with race days. Sure, throw in a race or a good ol’ time trial every now and then. They’re fun, and the challenge will be good for you. But the training that actually makes you better is unglamorous. It’s putting in hours and hours of medium-intensity work, even low-intensity work, like putting coins into a piggy bank. If you’re gunning for PRs every workout, you’re missing out on one of the types of training that actually gives you the most benefit.

The other pitfall of the leaderboard is you may start to feel resentful about the people who score higher than you. Anybody below you on the leaderboard, you clearly beat them fair and square. But anybody above you is probably cheating, right?

Body size has a lot to do with cycling output. With more muscle mass to turn the pedals, and more everything-mass available to push down on the pedals when you’re standing, bigger people will end up higher on the leaderboard than smaller people who are equally fit. (Cyclists will talk about power per kilogram of body weight, but spin class leaderboards don’t usually make this adjustment.) There are other factors, too: Bikes can be calibrated differently from each other, and there probably are people who have managed to cheat the system somehow.

None of that matters for your own workout, though. Focus on putting in the time and the work to make yourself better, and soon you’ll be enjoying those rides for their own sake.

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