It’s hard to go anywhere these days without hearing someone talk about their last indoor cycling class — how great of a workout it was, how much they love their instructor, how it acts as their form of therapy. It’s inspiring and of course you would try it, but the idea of getting into a roomful of fired-up indoor cyclists can be very intimidating when you don’t even know where to begin.
Even for me, a relative veteran of seven or eight cycling classes, I still had a big question mark: Once I’ve gotten to my bike, what will the right fit feel like and how do I get it there? To answer that and other pressing questions, I met with expert Jenny Gaither to walk through Indoor Cycling 101.
Gaither is not only a badass Senior SoulCycle instructor, she’s also the CEO and Founder of the Movemeant Foundation. The Movemeant Foundation addresses the need for advocacy and awareness around positive body image. They host the Dare to Bare campaign, which has held multiple outdoor fitness events across the country that celebrate bodies of all shapes and sizes.
Gaither taught me about fitting your bike properly, form and posture throughout class, what to bring, and how to fuel ahead of time.
Here’s one thing Gaither emphasized to me: never hesitate to ask for assistance from cycling instructors or a gym employee to help you set up your bike. Everyone has a first time, and the experts at your gym or studio will be excited to share their expertise and passion for their choice workout with you. It is important to have your bike fitted properly to you to prevent injury and maximize the effectiveness of your ride. I was lucky enough to be assisted by some experienced riders during my first few classes to understand the basics, but I still needed the nitty-gritty details of a perfect fit from an expert like Gaither.
Bikes may vary across different studios and gyms, but no matter where you are, these foundations are the same.
The basic controls:
In general, the seat height, forward and back positioning, and handlebars are adjusted with a knob or lever that you loosen. Pull out the knob to slide the seat or handlebars to the appropriate notch, then release the knob into the notch and twist to tighten.
While standing next to your bike, the seat should be at hip height. Once you hop on the bike to check the seat height, pay attention to your knees. Your knees should have a slight, comfortable bend when lengthened. Having knees that are too bent or too straight (hyperextended) can cause injury.
Seat distance from handlebars:
The distance between your seat and handlebars should equal about one forearm length from elbow to fingertips plus the the width of two more fingertips. Basically, make this a couple of inches longer than your forearm.
Handlebars should be level with your seat or a couple inches above. A common misconception: having the handlebars higher will make the ride easier on your back and spine.
Some tips for actually making that “bike to nowhere” ride properly:
Start by standing over the bike with a foot on the ground on either side. Spin the pedal closest to the ground until it’s facing up and position your foot loosely over the clip. Hold the brake down to keep the pedals from spinning while you press your foot down and slightly forward into the clip. Switch sides to get the other foot in.
Pedals will often have a different type of clip on each side to accommodate a variety of cleats. For example, these SoulCycle bike pedals have SPD clips on one side (pictured on the left below) and Look Delta on the other (pictured on the right below), which fit with the shoes you can rent at the studio. Bottom line, if you’re having trouble clipping in, try flipping your pedal over.
To unclip, twist the outside of your heel away from the bike.
Form and posture:
Ride as if you are squeezing a small Pilates ball between your thighs. Keep your knees in line with your toes, not splaying out to either side. Imagine your knees and toes spinning between two vertical walls.
Your elbows should always be slightly bent. Have your collar bones and chest open with your shoulders down in their sockets.
When you lift out of the seat (sometimes referred to as a saddle), raise your hips only an inch above it and don’t move forward. When you move your body toward the handlebars, it puts tension on your knees, quads, and neck.
Grip on the handlebars should always be loose and relaxed. Having your arms loosely bent will engage your lats and prevent neck injuries.
You’ll see and possibly hear cues for the following hand positions from your instructor:
First position or Prayer position: both palms on the back bar, slightly separated from the center. Gaither will sometimes also use the phrase “back bar center.”
Second position: Hands on the outside of the bars just above the corners.
Third position: Hands on the outside just below the top of the bars. Do not put your palms on top of the ends of the bars and wrap your hands around them, as this can cause you to hunch your shoulders.
Gearing (and Eating) Up
What to eat, what to wear? Here are Gaither’s tips:
Unless you have your own set of clip-in shoes, you will be renting a pair from the studio. (Some classes also have pedals with a flat side, or a cage, that would allow you to wear normal sneakers. Check with the gym or studio ahead of time if this isn’t clear.) Your shoes should be snug. Having your toenails graze the ends of your shoes is good. Sliding around in your shoes while riding can cause discomfort.
Don’t forget socks!
It is recommended to wear some sort of noncotton athletic wear that can do well with heat and excess sweat. Tight-fitting bottoms are best, and make sure they’re tight at the ankles to not risk getting caught in the bike. Yoga pants can work. Some people might find bike-specific shorts or pants with padding more comfortable.
Towels are optional. Most studios provide them for you.
Bring a water bottle with you. Studios will often have water available for purchase also if you need.
Eat at least an hour before class, and you don’t need a super heavy snack. In the morning, Gaither prefers a half cup of oatmeal with coconut milk and half a banana. In the afternoon, she’ll go for half or a whole protein bar (Perfect Bars are a favorite of hers) and a green juice or a hard-boiled egg and an apple.
That should cover the basics and get you ready to ride! Again, if you are unsure, ask for assistance before fighting through a class with a bike that doesn’t fit. The first few rides may feel odd and uncoordinated as you’re getting used to the indoor cycling movements, audio cues, and general vibe. However, after a few classes you’ll be feeling more comfortable to find your pace and focus on the intensity you want from your workout. Now, go get your sweat on and have fun!