Are You Cheating in Cycle Class?

Here are five ways to tell . . .

It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense that you’re working hard in an indoor cycling class, as you keep the pedals turning. What you may not realize is: You could be cheating during your ride. For starters, if there isn’t resistance on the bike, once that weighted flywheel is set into motion, it will stay in motion—true to Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion—regardless of whether you push against the pedals.

This is one reason why it’s important to have sufficient resistance on the bike, so that you’re actually causing it to move.

Don’t just take my word for it. Try this experiment: Take all the resistance off the bike and stand next to it. Grab the closest pedal with one hand and make it turn as fast as you can for 8 to 10 revolutions; release the pedal (be careful to stay out of the way of the moving pedal) and watch how long it takes to slow down. As you can see, once it gains a certain momentum, the flywheel basically drives itself, which means that if you’re riding with low resistance, your legs are essentially being taken for a ride.

Of course, sometimes it’s okay to dog it—like when you’re feeling slightly under the weather or you’re coming off an injury, or you just feel worn out and want to take it easy. But often people don’t realize they’re not working as hard as they should to reap the benefits they want from their cycling workouts; in these instances, they’re inadvertently shortchanging themselves.

To get a reality check on whether you’re cheating in a cycle class, ask yourself the following questions:

Are you riding with too little resistance on the bike? If your pedal strokes feel too loose and easy, they probably are. Even when you’re on a “flat road”, there should be resistance. Think of it this way: Taking all the resistance off is equivalent to riding downhill, meaning you won’t even need to pedal to keep the flywheel moving.

When an instructor says to take a certain amount of resistance off after climbing a hill or while riding an active recovery interval, sometimes people take off too much. You should always feel like you’re pushing against something as you pedal, even light resistance during recoveries. 

Are you offloading your weight? If you’re leaning on the handlebars while seated, you’re throwing your posture out of its proper alignment, which could lead to injury. If you’re doing it while riding in a standing position, you’re cheating yourself of the chance to challenge your leg muscles optimally and build core strength.

Are you adding ample resistance during the ride? Sometimes when riders are instructed to turn up their resistance, they barely nudge the knob or lever in an upward direction. It’s true that different bikes carry different amounts of tension so a small change on one bike may be equivalent to a full turn of the knob, or even a few turns, on another. But you and your instructor can tell how much resistance you've added by how it affects your cadence and the power you need to exert to keep your pace steady.

Are you bouncing in the saddle? Usually you can sense if you’re bouncing but if you’re unsure, check yourself out in the mirror (if there is one) or ask a fellow rider to observe you (if there isn’t). If you’re bouncing, you probably don’t have enough resistance on the bike or you’re pedaling too fast. Either way, you’re doing yourself a disservice and you could end up with a whopping case of saddle soreness.

Can you feel the effort in your leg muscles? They shouldn’t be straining to keep the pedals turning (a sure sign: it’s a struggle to keep your pedal strokes smooth). But you should feel like your leg muscles are engaged and working reasonably hard to exert power and sustain RPMs of 50 or higher. To gauge how hard your legs are working, use the ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) scale or if the bike has a power meter, rely on it as a gauge.

Ultimately, you’re the one who can best tell if you’re cheating. Be honest with yourself by asking and answering these questions truthfully. You’re doing the work and you’re the one who stands to gain from it. There’s really no point in cheating yourself!

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