Planning and structuring indoor cycling classes

Part III: Continuous

In part II of this series I discussed my approach to planning and structuring interval-based sessions for indoor cycling classes in a health and fitness setting. In this post I will discuss some of the approaches I have used when opting for a continuous session, instead of an interval-based session.

A continuous session has no rest periods, and typically involves maintaining a constant intensity throughout the session. This is in contrast to the interval-based sessions (periods of high intensity work interspersed with rest periods) often used for indoor cycling classes. Depending on duration and intensity continuous sessions could be considered as long, slow distance (LSD; durations > 30 minutes at low to moderate intensity) or tempo (20 – 30 minutes at high to very high intensity) training. For the purpose of planning I also use the term continuous to refer to sessions where there are no rest periods, but elements of fartlek training are included (e.g., variations in intensity). Therefore, whilst fartlek training is not necessarily continuous (as intensity varies), for the participants in my classes the term continuous primarily indicates that the session will contain no rest periods.

The main goal of the first continuous sessions I introduced was for participants to maintain as fast a cadence as possible for the duration of the class (typically 45 minute classes with approximately 15 minutes used for warm-up and cool down). Participants were instructed to find a cadence that would allow them to cover as much ‘distance’ as possible in the time available. However, in my experience, participants in a health and fitness setting tend to expect some variety (in pace, resistance, cycling position etc.) during indoor cycling classes, therefore I incorporated some resistance changes into these sessions. Participants were provided with details of what changes in resistance to expect, and to accept that cadence may drop when resistance increases, but that it can be regained when resistance decreases.

After some positive feedback on continuous sessions, I began to try and be more specific in my approach by identifying a focus for these sessions. For this, I would identify a particular resistance (or ‘terrain’ – see part II for information about resistance and ‘terrain’ terms) where participants were required to ‘push the pace’ (i.e., increase cadence to increase intensity). For example, the emphasis could be on ‘pushing the pace’ on the ‘flat’ (moderate resistance), whilst on the ‘hills’ (heavier resistances) participants could ‘back off the pace’ (i.e., reduce cadence to try and reduce intensity whilst ‘climbing’). The purpose of allowing a reduction of intensity on the ‘hills’ was to ensure that participants, upon returning to the ‘flat’, were able to ‘push the pace’ as soon as possible. Whilst participants could ‘back off’ on the hills, they would be instructed to avoid a very slow cadence (i.e., a cadence used for a rest period).

Whilst switching the focus (e.g., ‘push the pace’ on the ‘hills’ and ‘backing off’ on the on the ‘flat’) provided some further variety for my continuous sessions, I did try to introduce some other aspects. For instance, I would inform participants that all ‘small hills’ (moderate to heavy resistance) during the session would be a maximum of 60 seconds, and that as well as ‘pushing the pace’ on the ‘flat’, they should aim to maintain their pace ‘up and over’ these ‘small hills’. An opportunity to ‘back off’ on ‘big hills’ (heavy resistance) was still provided. Participants who took part in other forms of cycling (e.g., road, mountain) often commented that they enjoyed these type of sessions as they felt similar to a ride on the road or trails.

For my next variation, I began to introduce sessions where the resistance remained constant, but the cadence varied throughout the session. A resistance would be selected for the session (e.g., ‘big hill’ or heavy resistance), and participants would have to switch between three cadences. These cadences would be established during the warm-up period, and termed ‘pace 1’ (slowest cadence but at least above cadence used for a rest period), ‘pace 2’ (intermediate cadence), and ‘pace 3’ (fastest cadence). As part of establishing the paces during the warm-up period participants would be informed how long each pace would have to be maintained for, and that changes between paces should be ‘smooth’ (i.e., no big accelerations or decelerations).

An example of part of a session using different paces, each for 3 minutes with heavy resistance, would be: pace 1 > pace 2 > pace 1 > pace 2 > pace 3 > pace 2 > pace 3. Due to the greater effort needed to generate faster cadences against heavier resistances, it is possible that in this instance the cadence for ‘pace 1’ might be quite slow in order to allow increases from this pace during the session. Feedback from this type of session was positive, with participants stating that switching between paces helped them to learn to manage their pace, and that this has had some transfer to the other forms of cycling they took part in. 

With regard to cycling position for continuous sessions, I typically allow participants to select their position (e.g., seated or standing – see part II for information about cycling positions), and to switch between them, in order to maintain intensity/pace and be comfortable. However, for ‘flat’ sections I will typically specify a seated position (for safety reasons), with an option to stand at a specified time for comfort. Other than for safety, during continuous sessions I try to provide as much freedom regarding position as possible, so that participants can make decisions in a manner similar to the way they would do when taking part in other forms of cycling. 

In summary, I now use a variety of continuous sessions regularly, often alternating between continuous and interval-based sessions with my regular participants. Despite (in my experience) most indoor cycling classes being based around intervals, I have found that participants enjoy continuous sessions, particularly those looking for classes that replicate (to some extent) other forms of cycling. In the final part of this series I will introduce and discuss another approach to indoor cycling that has become a regular part of my schedule – the 2 hour class!

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