Dealing With an In-Your-Face Cycling Instructor

When instructors go too far, here's how to handle it


It's no secret that different exercise instructors have different styles, and indoor cycling is no exception. Over the years, I have taken classes with rah-rah cheerleader types who push you to “Go, go, go!”, instructors who talk technically about hitting your anaerobic threshold, and outdoor cyclists turned indoor instructors who are focused on simulating a challenging outdoor ride. Then there are the Glinda-the-Good witch types who convince riders that we’re stronger than we realize and can achieve more than we thought, while others really just want people to have a good time while getting their sweat on.

They all have their place—that’s the beauty of having choices—and there are bound to be styles that rub each of us the wrong way. For me, these are instructors who micromanage your form (down to which hand you use to grab your water bottle) and those who are snarky and insulting and frequently make comments like, “Really? Is this you going fast?!” when you’re pedaling madly. It’s one thing if an instructor corrects your form to help you get more out of the ride or prevent injuries—that’s helpful! But if the instructor is just showing off his or her power, that’s another thing entirely.     

Along these lines, there’s the in-your-face, drill-instructor type who routinely gets off the bike and makes the rounds to inspect riders’ effort with a critical eye that verges on disdain. Sometimes they hurl accusations of laziness or berate specific members of the class—there are plenty of horror stories about this on the Internet—which borders on bullying, in my opinion.

Others stand in front of people’s bikes and yell, “Pick it up! Pump it, pump it, pump it!” while they’re running with heavy resistance. Once, an instructor with this style climbed onto the vacant bike next to mine and challenged me to race her, saying, “Beat me! Beat me!” (This was especially odd because she knew that I am an indoor cycling instructor.)

The upside of these in-your-face tactics is they really can motivate you to give your best effort and push your limits. But at what cost? To some people, experiences like these can feel stressful. I’ve had people tell me they left some classes feeling like they’d had a killer workout but their nerves felt frayed. Instead of feeling high on endorphins, they felt edgy and unsettled, perhaps from overdosing on stress hormones, after the class.

It's all a matter of personal preference. The regulars in my indoor cycling classes often tell me they find my positive, encouraging style motivating but I once had a young woman tell me after class that she missed Nate, the instructor I took over for. “He’d yell at us,” she explained, wistfully. Apparently, she liked that. I told her I appreciated the feedback but it wasn’t my style to get in people’s faces and yell.

Nevertheless, she did the right thing: It’s good to give instructors feedback, especially if it’s constructive. The best way to do that is privately after the class ends: Introduce yourself, say something positive (that you liked the music or a particular hill-climb, for example), and then tactfully point out what you didn’t like.

If you didn’t appreciate it when an instructor got in your face, urging you to ride harder, you might say something like, “I know some people respond well to that kind of one-on-one encouragement but I don’t.” Similarly, if you know that a particular instructor has that confrontational style ahead of time, you might tell him or her before the class that you’re going to take it easy or you want to ride at your own pace because you’re under the weather or some such, and ask to be left alone.

Remember: Even though it’s group exercise, ultimately it’s your workout so you should get what you want out of it. If you don’t, you might stop going, which wouldn’t be good for anyone. After all, research has found that an instructor’s qualities and the group dynamic play a role in whether adults stick with exercise classes. So speak up, tune the instructor out and focus on motivating yourself or find an instructor’s style that resonates with you and keep riding!

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