I’m going to guess that most of my readers have, at some point, taken a spinning class. If not, you might want to consider doing so, and the sooner the better. As a coach, I love spinning for runners, but I didn’t always love it.
I’ll give you an overview; then, I’ll tell you about my inauspicious early spinning days. Don’t laugh! Finally, I’ll explain the benefits of spinning for every runner. Oh, and I’ll even go over gear and spinning class etiquette.
First, you should not think of ‘spinning’ as biking because, while both provide excellent cross training, the two are vastly different.
Spinning, as you probably already know, is performed on specially designed spinning bikes, indoors, usually in a group, with music, and led by a motivational and, hopefully, certified instructor, who chooses music specifically selected for that day’s class. This is a general description, and I am referring to classes that are offered along with a gym membership or at a local Y. There are spinning franchises that may have a different arrangement, but the huge benefits for runners would generally be about the same.
Classes normally last 45 minutes to an hour, but at some gyms hard-core spinners may take two or even three classes back to back. Yeah, three, and no, I’m not kidding.
Oh, one more thing, a spinning class is normally quite intense. So, if you’re comparing it to a leisurely bike ride around the neighborhood, think again. It’s more like a strenuous, high-speed 20 to 25-mile ride on varying terrain.
When I first tried it, many years ago, it didn’t go well. At the time, my husband and I frequently rode our mountain bikes for two hours or more on off road trails. We thought we were working hard. It seemed like it, and my significant hamstrings and quads were impressive proof; so, when Wendy and I joined a spinning class at the gym, I was confident it would be a breeze. Ha! I lasted about ten minutes and never felt like I got the hang of it.
“I recall my feet flying off the pedals and my pride dashing out the door only moments before my physical self made a sheepish exit.”
Three years later – yes, it took me that long to get over the injury to my pride – after hearing many people drop the spinning word, I decided to try again. The experience was a little better, but when the instructor asked us to stand and pedal while hovering several inches above the seat, for a prolonged period, I knew I couldn’t last, and after thirty minutes, I ducked out again, my pride, once again, sorely wounded.
Now, keep in mind I’m no wimp. Back then I wasn’t running as much as I have in the last few years, but I was running 30 miles a week and frequently competing in half marathons. I was also swimming regularly. Most people would think I was in excellent condition, and I did, too, but obviously, there was room for improvement.
That experience taught me that despite the running and racing I was doing, my leg muscles could be much stronger. I think most runners assume they don’t need to strength train their lower body because those muscles get adequate training while running. That is far from the case.
Helpful hint: A year later, determined, I signed up for a beginning spinning class, which turned out to be a great idea. Also, by this time, my friends had pointed out that just because the instructor says to increase the resistance, which is accomplished by turning a knob on the bike, doesn’t mean you have to do it. You are in control, and you can turn it as much or as little as you want. Duh! Why didn’t I think of that? So simple!
Since then, I’ve heard many spin instructors explain as much. After all, they really do want all members of their class to succeed and return next time. They know people may need to take a few classes before they can keep up.
Another tip: This time I spent a few minutes with the instructor before class. First, she showed me how to determine the correct seat and handlebar adjustment, which is critical; then she explained the three hand positions she would refer to during class. This provided me with some confidence. Of course, it also helped that the class was less intense because it was a beginner class.
I survived, and that was the first of many, many weekly spinning classes. In fact, our Y had a Tour de Y challenge during the Tour de France, which required participants to take two spinning classes a week. I did, and discovered an amazing result: Spinning is g-r-e-a-t cross training for running. There are many reasons why I recommend spinning for runners.
Benefits of Spinning for Runners
- It builds strength. Spinning is an intense leg exercise that utilizes virtually every leg muscle, at least if you do it correctly. You’ll know that, because you’ll feel it by the end of the class and even more the next day. A good instructor will remind you to use your muscles to push the pedal down, then toward the back and then to pull it up and pull it forward. In other words, you should be moving your foot in a rotation, working all the way around the circle. In order to do this, though, you must be clipped in or use what are called cages, which are metal frames, attached to pedals, into which you place your foot.
- Spinning moves the legs in a completely natural circular motion, and although it is intense, there is no pounding as there is in running. A good instructor will have participants standing some of the time, spinning with lower resistance part of the time, and spinning with higher resistance at other times, also known as pushing a high gear, providing a very complete workout.
- Spinning mimics the desired movement of the legs when running. You always want to think of your legs as moving in a circular pattern while running, and spinning reinforces that.
- Helps prevent running injuries by strengthening the weaker muscles, thereby helping to prevent/correct muscle imbalance, which is a common cause of running injuries.
- It’s an intense cardio workout, easily as intense as speed work. Most people will leave class, dripping. If that grosses you out, don’t go.
- The high cadence – 90 rpm or higher most of the time – is a great way to increase leg turnover for running. For many runners, increasing turnover is the single best way to improve race times. If you haven’t listened to my podcast about cadence, you can listen to it here.
- It’s an ideal workout when the weather prohibits outdoor training.
- You can count on the instructor to motivate the group; every instructor is different, so visit several classes. You’re bound to find an instructor you particularly like.
- You will get to know the other people in the class; that always makes it more fun.
- You can take the class with friends who run or bike faster or slower than you, but you’ll all stay together when you’re on stationary bikes. Hehe!
- It’s a great way to burn a lot of calories in a short time; of course, running does this, too.
- Because you are in a class, you are less likely to back off; this is good, for the most part, but as always, if you are not feeling up to par, it’s important to listen to your body and back off. And if you ran hard the day before, it may not be a good idea. It’s okay to do it after a hard running day, sometimes, but you wouldn’t want to do that every week because that would cut into your recovery. It would be better to do it on the same day as your hard run, which, granted, will be harder, but then your body gets to really rest and recover the next day. You’ve got to let it recover, or you’re asking for trouble.
A Word About Gear
If you have biking shoes to clip into the pedals, wear them. Spinning bikes have caged pedals on one side, but they are made so that if you have clips, you can clip in on the other side of the pedal. This is preferable because it makes you more efficient, and it’s easier to rotate your foot deliberately, in a circular fashion, thus utilizing more muscle groups. If you don’t have biking shoes, then just be sure to tighten the clips.
Tuck the laces in your shoes to keep them from getting caught anywhere on the bike.
Always bring a full water bottle. All spinning bikes are setup to accommodate this, and you will drink the whole bottle during class.
Always bring a towel if your gym doesn’t supply them. You’ll need at least one. Did I mention that spinning is intense?
If you have bike shorts, wear them. Those seats are not comfortable. I’ve seen some people bring cushy seat covers; that’s an option. If you don’t have bike shorts, at least try to find some stretchy shorts that fit close to the leg. They will help you slide on the seat and facilitate getting into and out of the saddle.
A few things to remember that will make your experience better, and equally important, will make the experience better for other class participants.
- It’s polite to arrive a few minutes before class to make sure you have time to get your bike adjusted.
- Try to arrive 20 minutes early if it is your first time, and inform the instructor that it is your first class.
- Turn your phone off.
- If you have children in the building, ask them not to interrupt the class.
- Bring water. Even if you think you don’t need it, others will feel stressed if they see that you don’t have water.
- Bring a towel and use it rather than dripping all over the floor.
- Wipe down your bike after class. Most gyms provide sanitary wipes for this purpose.
- Try to resist having conversations with others during class.
- Do not leave early, as this is disruptive. If it can’t be avoided, explain to the instructor ahead of time, choose a bike in the back of the room, and remember to wipe down the bike.
- Follow along. If you just want to sit and spin, do it some other time or on a stationary bike that is not in a spin class.
- People sometimes get attached to particular bikes. The standard rule is first come, first served. If you get to class, and someone is on the bike you like, just choose another bike. I’ve seen some ugliness when a ‘regular’ arrives and discovers someone else on ‘her’ bike. Really?
- Do not ask the instructor not to turn on the fans. If you don’t want the fan, don’t get a bike close to it. Most people love the fans as it gets quite hot in a spinning class. I’ve seen some ugliness here, too. I suspect these are the same people who yell at the coaches of their kids’ little league team.
To recap: Spinning will help with your running form, help to strengthen other muscles that may be weak, provide a great cardio workout without any pounding, improve your running cadence, and add variety to your training.
I am so glad to have finally become successful at this excellent activity.