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.



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