Stuck in a writing rut? Try freewriting.

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‘Writing is an exercise in sculpture, chipping away at the rock until you find the nose.’

Stanley Elkin (American novelist)

If you go to university you are going to have to write — there are no two ways about it! As previously discussed, writing is a skill and must be practiced. But even the most accomplished writers get stuck in a rut, struggle to get words on the page and get bogged down seeking perfection. One approach for getting past these barriers and moving forward is freewriting. This approach allows you to get words on the page, clarify your ideas and not get caught up trying to perfect a sentence or paragraph before moving on.

Freewriting involves writing non-stop for a set time (usually no more than 20 minutes). During this time, the writer does not pay attention to spelling, grammar, referencing and other aspects that may slow writing down. A specific prompt, idea, topic or section (such as an introduction or conclusion) may be the focus for a free writing session. The amount of preparation needed for a free writing session will vary. In some areas — creative writing for example — the prompt may require you to use your own experience or imagination and therefore need little preparation. However, in other areas — such as sport and exercise science — you may need to spend some time reading and researching to have some ideas to inform your freewriting. Once you have completed any required preparation, you are ready to begin your freewriting session.

During your freewriting session, you should aim to keep writing for all of the allotted time. If your writing begins to stall or you run out of ideas, it is often recommended that you should keep writing things like ‘I am stalling’, ‘I’ve run out of ideas’ or just random words until something comes to you and you can get back on track.

When you have completed your freewriting session, you should read and re-read the words you have written — not to correct spelling and grammar or insert references — but to find the ideas that may be useful to develop and include in your work. Once you have found these ideas, you can clarify and expand upon them (undertaking further reading and research if needed) before integrating them into your work.

If you think that freewriting is an approach that may help you, here are some guidelines for your first freewriting session:

  1. Identify the focus for your freewriting session — what is the prompt, topic, idea or section?
  2. Make sure you have done enough preparation — do you need to do any more reading or research before your freewriting session?
  3. Decide how long your freewriting session will be — it is up to you, but sessions are usually no longer than 20 minutes.
  4. Decide if you are going to use a computer or pen/pencil and paper for your freewriting session — pen/pencil and paper may be better for flow and turning off the monitor if you are using a computer will make sure you are not distracted by spelling and grammar checkers highlighting errors.
  5. Write continuously for the duration of your freewriting session — do not worry about spelling, grammar, referencing and other things that may slow you down; if you are stalling, write anything to keep going — something will come to you!
  6. Once you have finished your freewriting session, read and re-read what you have written and identify the bits that may be useful to include in your work and if you need to do any further reading and research.

Should you use a proofreader for your dissertation or thesis?

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You have worked hard and written thousands of words! These words may determine your final classification of if you get your PhD and you want to make sure they are just right! So, should you hire a proofreader to give your work the final once over before submission?

Whilst the answer may seem simple – yes, of course getting somebody to check your work is a good idea – there are a few things to consider before putting your hand in your pocket and hiring that proofreader!

First and foremost, you should find out if your university allows the use of third-party proofreading services and, if so, to what extent. In the UK, rules regarding the use of third-party proofreading services vary from university to university. Rules may also vary within a university – for example, rules may differ between departments or may be different for undergraduate and postgraduate students. You want to be certain that hiring a proofreader is permitted and you should be able to tell a prospective proofreader what your university’s rules are so that none get broken! Some proofreaders may even ask for a copy of your university’s policy or confirmation from your supervisor that proofreading is allowed.

Once you know if you are allowed to hire a proofreader, it is worth finding out a bit more about what proofreading is and what a proofreader does. Proofreading can be considered as the final check for errors before a piece of writing is submitted (for marking or publication). But what errors will a proofreader check for?

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (https://www.ciep.uk/) identify the following as errors that a proofreader should identify:

  • spelling errors (where different spellings are acceptable, the word should be spelt consistently within a document)
  • serious, unarguable errors of punctuation, especially where they allow ambiguity or obscure the meaning
  • inconsistently spelt or hyphenated names
  • bad word breaks that make reading the text difficult
  • incorrect text headings and page headers/footers (checked against the contents list if there is one)
  • incorrect page numbers and cross-references
  • missing text
  • repeated text
  • wrongly placed or incorrect captions and annotations.

Whether the proofreader is permitted to identify all of the errors identified above will depend on your university’s rules, as will whether the proofreader can identify and correct errors or identify errors only.  

The final thing to remember when thinking about using a proofreader is that they may help you improve aspects of your work and find some errors you have missed but they will not make it perfect and you will remain responsible for the work that you submit.

So, whilst hiring a proofreader to check your dissertation or thesis is a good idea, you should check your university’s rules and make sure you understand the service that they provide. If you would like to speak to a proofreader about how they can help with your dissertation or thesis click below.

Academic skills coaching or private tutoring?

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If you have been looking for support with your studies you may have come across the terms academic skills coaching and private tutoring and wondered if there is a difference. The difference – although not ‘official’ and sometimes subtle – is based on the differing aims of coaching and tutoring.

Academic skills coaching helps students to develop skills that underpin their subject-specific studies and to become independent learners – something that is important at university, whilst private tutoring tends to be subject-specific, possibly with a focus on exam performance or achieving a particular grade.

However, there is the possibility of crossover – some coaches may tutor, some tutors may coach and some may do both! Speaking to a potential coach or tutor is the first step. Most coaches and tutors will be happy to discuss what you need and if they can help, and many will offer the first session free or at a reduced cost.

As an academic skills coach, I can help you develop those underpinning skills that you need to succeed with your subject-specific studies. Get in touch to discuss how I can help you.

What is an independent learner?

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As a university student, you will often hear the term ‘independent learner’ and how you need to become one! As a new student, such a term might make you think that you are on your own, but that is not the case.

An independent learner is not a student who does everything on their own. Rather, an independent learner is a student who takes responsibility for their learning but knows how to effectively use resources and support to help address their weaknesses and solve problems. Other aspects often included in definitions of an independent learner include time management, goal setting, planning, curiosity, criticality and reflection.

Becoming an independent learner takes time and you should not expect to develop all the necessary skills in your first few weeks at university. It may be your first experience of an environment that encourages independent learning and you should take some time to identify your strengths and weaknesses, familiarise yourself with the services, support and resources available to help you and plan how you are going to develop as an independent learner.

However, during those first few weeks at university, it is likely that you will receive a lot of information about different aspects of university life. Getting started on the process of becoming an independent learner before you start university can give you some direction and help you manage those first few busy weeks at university. If you would like to get started on becoming an independent learner please get in touch.

What are academic skills?

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Academic skills underpin your subject-specific studies. Any list of academic skills will typically include critical thinking, presenting, reading, referencing, reflection, researching, time management and writing. In my experience, first-year undergraduate students can find grasping the importance of these skills and starting to develop them challenging – particularly if they have been out of education for a while. But what exactly are these academic skills and why are they are so important?

Critical thinking

Throughout your time at university, you will be continually developing your critical thinking skills. As a new student, asking questions about the sources that you are using for your studies is a good first step. Not taking information at face value and attempting to establish the quality of the information can help you decide how to use it in your work. To do this effectively, you need to be able to ask the right questions and know what good quality information is. As you progress through your time at university, you will learn about approaches and tools to help you ask the right questions and assess the quality of information.

Presenting

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Like writing, presentations are unavoidable at university. Presentations can take different forms such as individual, group, live, recorded or poster and you may have to present to the assessors only or larger groups consisting of other staff, students or people from outside your university. Presentations will often require you to utilise visual aids to help you illustrate and explain the points you are trying to put across. Getting the balance between what information you provide verbally and how you use your visual aids to support this is an important skill to develop. Again, like writing, presenting requires practice with the added challenge of having to stand up in front of a group of people and speak. Taking opportunities to speak in front of people will help you develop confidence and rehearsing your presentations will allow you to hone your pacing, timing and use of technology and visual aids.   

Reading 

You may have heard people say that they are ‘reading for a degree’. Whilst it may be a phrase sometimes associated with traditional old universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, it does emphasise the importance of reading when studying for a degree. You will need to read widely to develop your understanding of your subject, and you will need to learn different strategies for reading different types of sources. Knowing what information is in the different sections of textbooks and journal articles and when to scan, skim and read in-depth will help you become more effective in your reading. You will not always need to read a source from ‘cover to cover’!

Reflection

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At university, you are expected to become an independent learner. Rather than meaning you have to do everything on your own, being an independent learner means you can identify your strengths and weaknesses, plan your development needs, and know when and where to go for assistance. This is part of the reflective process. There are various definitions and models of reflection, but one consistent aspect is trying to learn from past experiences. Courses will include reflection in different ways and may require you to write reflective essays, complete other reflection-based assessments or reflect on your professional practice and competencies.

Referencing

Referencing indicates the sources you have used to inform your academic work. Typically you will be required to reference ‘in-text’ and to produce a reference page. ‘In-text’ referencing refers to acknowledging sources within your work and the reference page is a list of these sources provided at the end of your work. Your university will require you to use a specified style of referencing and will provide you with a guide for this style. 

There are several reasons why you need to reference the sources used to inform your work. Referencing indicates the quality and appropriateness of sources (to the piece of work and level of study) and allows you to provide support for the points that you are making in your work; this also helps to show your understanding of the topic. Referencing also allows the sources you have used to be retrieved; for example, a lecturer may wish to check the appropriateness of a source and how you have interpreted it in your work. Finally, referencing can help you avoid plagiarism by indicating the points and ideas you have put forward and the points and ideas of others.  

Researching

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Research is an important part of what goes on at a lot of universities. As a first-year undergraduate student your research will more than likely be about locating and identifying appropriate sources to inform your assignments and learning how to critique these sources. There will be reading lists and recommended textbooks, and in most subject areas, you will be guided towards using academic journals.

Whilst academic journals can be found using search engines you are probably familiar with (Google etc.), academic search engines and databases provide a more tailored approach for finding academic journals. These search engines and databases are generally subject area specific. PubMed, for example, focuses on biomedical and life sciences literature, whilst the ACSE Library focuses on civil engineering. Learning to use these search engines and databases will allow you to locate and access journals appropriate for your studies. The extent of access to academic search engines, databases and journals will depend on the subscriptions your university has in place.

Time management

Deadlines are part of university life. Alongside these deadlines, you may also have a job, family and other commitments to manage and you will probably want a social life and time to relax. There are numerous approaches to time management, and what works for one person may not work for another. Working out a system that allows you to plan, prioritise and organise your work and other commitments is crucial – even if it’s just you that understands the system! Identifying when and where you are most productive – coffee shop in the morning, library in the evening, at home in the afternoon – is another important aspect. You may arrive at university knowing when and where you work best or you may need to spend some time working it out. Knowing when and where you are most productive will help you develop your system for planning, prioritising and organising your time.

Writing

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From taking notes to writing a thesis, writing is unavoidable at university. Whilst subject areas will have different styles and requirements for producing written work, clarity is important and will help to communicate your ideas and show your understanding. You will also need to develop your ability to write concisely, as you will often have to work to what seem like restrictive word counts. This is where editing comes in – aim to become confident in writing freely and to get your ideas on the page and allow enough time to edit your work before the deadline. Like any skill, your writing will get better with practice, but as any experienced writer will tell you, reading will also help your writing. Reading subject-specific textbooks and journal articles will help you get a feel for the style of writing used in your subject area and reading more widely – biographies, fiction, newspapers etc. – will expose you to other approaches to writing that might help you.

Writing is a skill…and you need to practise it!

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Writing is a skill, and like any skill — if you want to get better at it — you must practise it. To become a better writer at university, you must find opportunities to practise and not only write when you have to (such as when you have to do an assignment). Your first step in finding opportunities to practise writing is to see what your university offers — they may offer a writing course to complement your subject-specific studies or have an academic skills support service. Next, take any opportunity that your lecturers provide to submit drafts. Submitting a draft means that you are not only writing and getting your initial ideas on the page, but that you will receive feedback to help you revise and improve your work.

Other opportunities to practise writing at university may also be available — you could write for the student newspaper or write a blog for a student society. Keeping a daily journal is also a good idea and will help you get into the habit of consistent writing practise whilst providing an opportunity for you to explore ideas that may help with your studies.

The more you practise writing, the more automatic parts of the writing process will become for you. For instance, as your typing improves, you will be able to focus more on making sure your writing says what you mean and less on the physical act of typing. As your writing continues to develop, you will be able to focus more on the reader and ensure that your work is as easy as possible for them to read and interpret. And you never know, you may start to enjoy it!

Judo strength + conditioning revisited


As covid-19 lockdown measures begin to ease, and judo clubs are making the gradual return to full training, I thought it a good time to consider some of the demands of contest judo, and what judoka (those who compete) are preparing for.

As mentioned in a previous post, during 2009 and 2010 I contributed to three publications on the topic of strength and conditioning for judo. Whether it is for judo, or other sports, effective strength and conditioning programmes should aim to improve performance, and reduce the risk of injury. To achieve these aims, strength and conditioning programmes should specifically address the demands of the sport, as established using a needs analysis. Once the demands have been established, suitable training activities can then be programmed to prepare the athlete for the demands that will be placed upon them.

One factor that influences the demands of a sport, are the competition or contest rules. Since my co-author and I produced our work on strength and conditioning for judo, there have been some changes in judo contest rules (e.g., removal of leg grabs in tachi-waza, reduction of contest time for males), and re-interpretations of aspects such as time allowed holding an unorthodox grip in tachi-waza. Consequently, it is possible that such changes and re-interpretations may have had an effect on the demands judo contests place on judoka.

In 2009 my co-author and I concluded that competing in a judo contest…

“…is primarily a high-intensity, intermittent anaerobic activity…”

(Robertson and Lahart, 2009)

This conclusion was based upon the work-to-rest ratios (3: 1), high heart rates (> 90% maximum heart rate), and high blood lactate levels (~ 10 mmol/L-1) reported for judo contests in the literature we reviewed. Additionally, the literature suggested that the ability to produce repeated bouts of high-intensity work characterised judoka who competed at higher levels; whilst aerobic capacity (as measured by VO2 max) did not distinguish between levels of judoka, with moderate (~ 48 ml-1∙kg-1∙min-1) to high (~ 70 ml-1∙kg-1∙min-1) levels reported in elite judoka.

That judoka can compete at a high-level with moderate aerobic capacity could be taken to indicate that aerobic capacity is perhaps not a priority for training, particularly as decisive actions (e.g., throws) rely predominantly upon anaerobic energy production. However, it is possible, as we noted, that technical and tactical superiority might compensate for any deficiencies in aerobic capacity. Moreover, regardless of technical and tactical superiority…

“…high levels of aerobic capacity may help to maintain power output when anaerobic energy production decreases [towards the end of a contest].” 

(Lahart and Robertson, 2009)

Aerobic capacity should also be considered important due to the aerobic energy system’s role in recovery between bouts of high intensity work, both within and between contests.

Research published in 2017 attempted to quantify energy system contributions during judo contests, and further highlighted the importance of the aerobic energy system. The research identified that the aerobic system contributed the majority of energy (compared to each of the two anaerobic systems) during simulated judo contests, with this contribution increasing as contests progressed. Such findings help to emphasise the need for judoka to undertake appropriate aerobic training, and highlight that summaries of contest judo should account for the aerobic demands. Yet, it should be noted that the findings from this 2017 research are from 5 minute contests (not 4 minute contests as per the current rules), and that the contests did not incorporate all aspects of a contest (in order to protect the measurement equipment used).

Other research published since our work has identified (as we did) a contest work-to-rest ratio of ~ 3: 1, although this may range between from 3: 1 to 2: 1 throughout a contest. However, as with the energy system contribution research, this research was not carried out under the current rules. Consequently, as stated in the 2018 book The Science of Judo, there is a need for research to be carried out using the current rules to establish the present demands of judo contests. However, as we approach the end of the current Olympic cycle, there is a possibility that the rules may be amended or reinterpreted for the next cycle, therefore potentially affecting the demands of contest judo.

In summary, the amount of research into the demands of contest judo since our work in 2009 and 2010 has increased, with only a small proportion of it cited in this post. Despite being based on simulated contests, the energy system contribution research cited emphasises the need to ensure that the aerobic system is developed, and highlights that our original conclusion did not sufficiently identify the importance of aerobic energy production during contests. Work-to-rest ratios appear similar, but we do not yet know the effect of the current rules on this aspect of contest judo. There is also the potential for future rule changes that may affect the contest work-to-rest ratio.

Whilst research into the demands of contest judo has its challenges (e.g., having to use simulated contests, keeping up with rule changes), it does provide some basis for strength and conditioning programme design. As coaches, when designing programmes, we should aim for specificity by using the information available to us (treating it with caution where necessary), and integrating it with our previous experience of developing athletes. Moreover, we should remain aware that specificity when preparing athletes does not always mean exact replication or simulation of competition.


Planning and structuring indoor cycling classes


Whilst it might seem to those in my indoor cycling classes that sessions are thrown together at the last minute, there is some thought that goes into planning them!


Alongside employment in various coaching, teaching, and research roles I have taught indoor cycling classes at the same fitness facility for over 15 years. In this series of blog posts I aim to give some insight into how I plan and structure my indoor cycling classes, and how this process has developed over time. Hopefully, these blog posts will provide some interesting information for those looking forward to teaching and participating in indoor cycling classes when lockdown restrictions are eased and gyms reopen.

Part I: Interval or continuous?

When planning an indoor cycling class the first decision I typically make is whether the session is going to be interval-based or continuous. My early indoor cycling classes generally followed the interval-based structure (periods of high intensity work interspersed with rest periods) taught to me when taking the indoor cycling instructor course. However, having come from a sport and exercise science background (I had not long finished an undergraduate degree in physical education and sport science, and obtained my certified strength and conditioning specialist qualification) I began to try and incorporate a slightly different approach to structuring indoor cycling classes.

This slightly different approach involved trying to incorporate the work-to-rest ratios I had learnt during my degree, and in studying for my strength and conditioning exams. In most instances, these work-to-rest ratios (how long the periods of high intensity work are compared to the rest periods) are based around ensuring that rest periods are long enough for recovery from the high intensity work to occur, therefore allowing the high intensity work to be repeated throughout a training session. In practice, this means that the rest periods sometimes need to be quite long (up to several minutes depending on the length of the high intensity work and the aim of the session) to allow for recovery to take place.

When I tried to incorporate these work-to-rest ratios into my indoor cycling classes I found that the participants did not always use them as I intended. For example, some participants would not perhaps achieve a high enough intensity during the work periods, meaning that they did not need all of the rest period to recover for the next period of high intensity work. This could then lead to participants becoming bored during the longer rest periods, or continuing to work during the rest periods and turning what was meant to be an interval-based session into a continuous session (a session where a more constant and often lower intensity is continuously maintained).

Whilst I probably did not always communicate the purpose of the work-to-rest ratios to participants in my classes effectively, I also came to realise that the participants were not necessarily there to train like athletes using strict work-to-rest ratios. Participants were definitely there to take part in a session where they worked hard and achieved some health and fitness benefits, but they were also there to enjoy themselves and to socialise with other participants. This meant I had to move away from adhering to the work-to-rest ratios I had learned, and revert back to the structure of my earlier classes. However, I did not abandon these work-to-rest ratios altogether. Instead, I generally restricted their use to smaller classes I worked with regularly. I found that working regularly with a small group of regular participants over a period of time helped me to develop how I communicated the purpose of the class, and allowed these participants to become familiar with my approach to structuring indoor cycling classes.  

Following my step back from the use of strict work-to-rest ratios in interval-based classes, and based upon my observation that some participants effectively engaged in continuous sessions despite the interval-based structure, I decided to purposely try and plan continuous sessions. At first these continuous sessions were largely characterised by the absence of rest periods, with this absence of rest periods communicated to participants at the beginning of the class. Participants then had to try and work at a relatively constant moderate intensity throughout the class, managing their pace so that they did not get partway through the session and have to reduce the intensity and rest. The response from participants was largely positive, and I began to include a continuous session once every few weeks, developing the sessions to include some subtle variations in intensity, but still with the aim of not having to reduce intensity and rest.     

Having found that continuous sessions were an alternative to interval-based sessions, I increased how frequently I used them until the first decision when planning a class often became whether it was going to be interval-based or continuous. This has typically remained my first decision when planning indoor cycling classes. With a regular group of participants I usually alternate between interval-based (possibly using stricter work-to-rest ratios) or continuous sessions. However, if I am taking a class I am as not as familiar with, I will frequently default to an interval-based session (usually with less strict work-to-rest ratios), as participants will often be more used to this structure.

In summary, strict work-to-rest ratios for interval-based training sessions have their place, particularly with athletes working towards specific goals. However, I have learned that for indoor cycling classes in a health and fitness setting these work-to-rest ratios are not always appropriate. Additionally, the process of trying to incorporate strict work-to-rest ratios led me to develop continuous sessions as an alternative to interval-based sessions. Whilst deciding whether a session will be interval-based or continuous is relatively straightforward, once the decision is made it does provide an overall principle for the session, and a basis for further planning decisions. In parts II I will discuss what these further planning decisions are if an interval-based session has been selected.

 

Planning and structuring indoor cycling classes



Part II: Intervals

Introduction

As identified in part I of this series of posts, the first decision I make when planning an indoor cycling class is whether it is going to be an interval-based or continuous session. In this second post of the series, I will discuss the further decisions I make if I opt for an interval-based session. As mentioned in part I, these decisions will be discussed in the context of indoor cycling classes in a health and fitness setting.

An interval-based session consists of periods of high intensity work interspersed with periods of rest, with the ratio of work-to-rest dependent upon the aim of the session. However, with participants in a health and fitness setting use of the strict work-to-rest ratios often cited for use with athletes may not be appropriate (see part I). Nonetheless, consideration should still be given to the intensity and duration of the work and rest periods. Additionally, the cycling position to be used during the work periods should be considered, as should the use of variations to standard intervals.  


Intensity and work period duration

The intensity in an indoor cycling class is determined by a combination of cadence (leg speed) and resistance (as applied to the flywheel of the bike). A slow cadence with a low resistance will result in a low intensity, whilst higher intensities can be achieved with a faster cadence, a higher resistance, or a combination of the two. As resistance increases, the effort needed to achieve fast cadences increases, with attempts to generate a fast cadence against a very high resistance resulting in maximal intensity efforts. 

As intensity increases, the duration for which it can be maintained decreases. For example, maximal intensity efforts can typically be maintained for no longer than a few seconds, whilst low intensity efforts may be maintained for several hours. This inverse relationship provides a basis for making decisions about the intensity and duration of work periods in an interval-based session.

In my interval-based sessions I generally use work period durations ranging from 10 seconds to 5 minutes. For planning purposes, work periods of 1 minute or less are termed short intervals, work periods of between 1 and 3 minutes are termed medium intervals, and work periods over 3 minutes are termed long intervals. If I have opted for an interval-based session, my next decision will be whether the session is going to consist of short, medium, or long intervals.

Having decided on the interval duration, the resistance to be used is considered. In the absence of a consistent way to apply resistance on the bikes I use (the mechanism for applying resistance can be affected by usage levels), I opt for terminology that describes how the resistance should feel. The terms that I typically use are “flat”, “small hill”, “big hill”, and “very big hill”; these terms approximately equate to moderate, moderate to heavy, heavy, and very heavy resistance respectively. Participants establish their resistances by progressing through lighter resistances during the warm-up until they have a moderate resistance on the flywheel (where any further increase would begin to feel like climbing a “small hill”). This moderate resistance is then their “flat”, and provides a basis for establishing the remaining resistances. The use of terminology such as “flat”, “small hill” etc. accounts for any differences between bikes, and helps to keep the intensity relative to each participant’s ability.

For short intervals, particularly those of 30 seconds or less, I will use higher resistances (i.e., “big hill” or “very big hill”), with the aim to generate fast cadences against these higher resistances. With such short durations, the high intensity should come from this combination of cadence and resistance. In my experience, trying to achieve higher intensities during short intervals using cadence with lower resistances does not elicit the required intensity, as participants reach and maintain a fast cadence relatively easily. Additionally, using fast cadences without enough resistance can result in excessively high leg speeds without sufficient control, thus increasing the chances of injury.

If using medium or long intervals, the desired intensity can be achieved via a combination of cadence and resistance. For example, if using a medium interval of 3 minutes with “flat” resistance, the intensity will primarily be achieved by maintaining a fast cadence for the duration of the interval. In contrast, if the same duration is used but with “big hill” resistance, then the intensity will primarily result from the resistance, as a fast cadence is not expected (participants should not be able to maintain faster cadences against higher resistances for such a duration).


Rest period duration

Following decisions about intensity and work period duration, rest periods need to be considered. As previously discussed, strict application of work-to-rest ratios is not always suitable in the health and fitness setting, as they can result in seemingly long rest periods (see part I). For example, text books suggest that a short, maximal effort interval (e.g., 10 seconds with “very big hill” resistance) requires a rest periods of at least 12 times the duration of the work period (e.g., 120 seconds), and a long interval of 5 minutes requires a rest period equal to the duration of the work period (i.e., 5 minutes).

To address these seemingly long rest periods, I would typically use a reduced rest period of 60 seconds for the short interval, and a reduced rest period of approximately 2 minutes for the long interval. During rest periods participants are encouraged to try and maximise their recovery by adopting a comfortable position of their choice (e.g., seated or standing), and reducing cadence and resistance. Additionally, participants are informed that they should be able to almost fully recover in the time available; however, it must be noted that compared to when using text book work-to-rest ratios, this will result in reduced intensity during work periods in order to allow recovery to occur. Consequently, different physiological responses and adaptations compared to when using text book work-to-rest ratios should be expected. In addition to information about the rest period, participants should be informed of the number of intervals to be performed; alongside information about the rest period duration, this allows them to make decisions about how to pace the intervals.

Despite not necessarily being appropriate for the health and fitness setting, with regular participants I do occasionally use the longer rest periods that result from strict application of text book work-to-rest ratios. Due to the time spent working with regular participants I feel that I can communicate the purpose of these work-to-rest ratios more effectively, and that participants have developed an understanding of their application to an interval-based session.


Cycling position

Further to decisions about intensity and work and rest period durations, I consider cycling position. Over the years I have been teaching indoor cycling classes I have narrowed the position options to seated or standing. Whilst other instructors use several variations on these positions, I only instruct participants to sit or stand. Providing participants are comfortable, and can achieve the required intensity safely, no further instructions are given. Limiting the position options and variations is based on feedback from regular participants, many of whom take part in other forms of cycling (e.g., road, mountain). These participants often indicate a preference for positions that replicate (as closely as possible) scenarios encountered on a real bike, and are not in favour of positions that would not be used when cycling outdoors.  

The position I choose for an interval depends upon the interval duration and the resistance to be used. Standing or seated are used for short intervals using higher resistances, with seated the preferred option for medium or long intervals. In addition to specifying a position to be used for the duration of an interval, altering the position to be used within an interval is an option. For example, for short intervals with higher resistances, I might use a period of standing at the start of the interval to assist with overcoming the initial resistance, before switching to a seated position for the remainder of the interval. For medium and long intervals, I may provide a standing section at set points during the interval (e.g., the first 15 seconds of each minute) to allow a change of position for comfort, or to use body weight during the stand to maintain or regain cadence.

As well as specifying positions to be used during intervals, I also use intervals where participants have the option regarding the position they use. For instance, an option can be applied to short intervals with higher resistances (e.g., standing as an option during the first 15 seconds of a 60 second interval to help overcome initial resistance). Providing participants with an option also suits long intervals using higher resistances. These intervals can be considered “climbs”, with the aim to maintain as fast a cadence as possible throughout the interval despite the resistance. For such intervals I will often allow participants to choose their own position, and to switch between positions throughout the interval. This allows participants to adopt an approach that hopefully enables them to keep their cadence as fast as possible. Additionally, this lets participants who have their own approaches to climbing (based on experience of other forms of cycling) to apply them to indoor cycling.


Variations to standard intervals

Having considered intensity, work and rest period durations, and cycling position, what I term standard intervals can be implemented. Such intervals will begin with a countdown of  “Ready, 3, 2. 1, Go!” or similar, with the clock starting on “Go!”. However, overcoming the initial resistance on the flywheel for short duration intervals using higher resistances can take time, meaning that a proportion of the interval is used to get up to speed. Whilst this is not necessarily an issue (participants still have to work at high intensities to overcome the initial resistance), it has led to me coming up with a couple of alternatives.

The first alternative is the “flying start”. The “flying start” allows participants up to 10 seconds to overcome the initial resistance and get up to speed before the interval starts. An option to stand during this period can be included before moving to a seated position for the interval. The second alternative is what I call a “wind up” interval. I typically use this alternative with 60 second intervals, and it involves starting at a slow cadence, and then increasing the cadence over the course of the interval, culminating in top speed being achieved for the final 10 seconds. Increases in cadence should be gradual, and participants should not have to make a big acceleration to hit top speed for the final 10 seconds. The increases in cadence can be every 10 to 15 seconds; however, for more experienced participants I allow them to make their own gradual increases in cadence providing they reach their top speed with 10 seconds to go. I do not use these alternatives with lower resistances, as there is less initial resistance to overcome, meaning that fast cadences can be achieved more easily and in a relatively short period of time compared to when using higher resistances.


Summary

Despite strict adherence to text book work-to-rest ratios not always being applicable in the health and fitness setting, if an interval-based session is chosen, intensity, work and rest period durations, and cycling position should still be considered. Including variations to standard intervals should also be given consideration. In part III of this series I will discuss continuous sessions as an alternative to the interval-based approach. 


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!