Q. Hey Gale — I've recently started attending Spinning® classes, and I'm having some knee problems. I'm getting saddles sores, too.
The instructor is always encouraging, wanting us to work hard so we can reap benefits. There is a lot of getting up and down off the bike (like 30 seconds up, 30 seconds down, or eight pedal strokes up, eight pedal strokes down) while cranking the tension to a high setting. He tells us not to change the tension when we sit down, just push through it.
I sweat buckets and I work really hard; but I'm wondering how these short, high-tension efforts in and out of the saddle actually translate to my summer road riding? How do they really help me? I never do anything closely resembling these drills when I ride my bike in the summer.
I want to use Spinning® to help me get ready for summer cycling, but it seems I'm creating more problems than it's worth. Do you think the hard sprints are causing my knee pain and saddle sores? Should I quit the class?
Discouraged Aching Body
A. Dear Discouraged Aching Body,
Indoor cycling classes can be used to help you get in shape for summer cycling, and they can be used to your fitness advantage. That written, you will likely need to do some modifications and take some precautions to be sure the class does more good than harm. Here are a few things to check:
Measure the Seat Height of Your Road Bike
This is the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the top of the saddle in a straight line following the seat tube. Take a tape measure to the class with you and try to make your gym bike's seat height equal to your personal road bike.
If the gym bike has seat height adjustments that are not infinitely adjustable (i.e. it is a hole and peg combination rather than a sliding post and tension screw arrangement) try to get the peg in the slot closest to your road bike seat height. If this happens to be lower than your road bike, you may have pain in the front of your knee. If it is higher than your road bike you may have pain in the back of your knee.
Check Your Shoes
If you are using the same shoe and cleat combination in class that you use on your own bike, check to be sure the cleats on your cycling shoes are tight and have not slipped into an awkward position. (Pointing excessively toward your big toe or little toe.)
If you are using a different shoe and cleat set up for the indoor bike than you use outdoors, try to get the measurement from the top of the saddle to where your foot rests on the pedal to be equal indoors and outdoors. Consider shoe sole height and cleat height (i.e. the distance from the bottom of your foot is when your leg is maximally extended in the pedal stroke to where your body contacts the bike seat should be close to the same in both situations).
Use Your Tension Wisely
With your Spin® bike set up as close as possible to your road bike, the next thing to look at is how much tension you are putting on that flywheel. Ease into loading the gym bike flywheel like you would ease into riding hills. The instructor is there as a guide, not a dictator. Modify the class instructions to meet your personal needs.
Up and Down
Some instructors like to have people jumping up and down out of their bicycle seats until students beg for mercy for their burning legs; with an undertone of asking for more. Instructors can't intimately know every person's needs in a drop-in class. Regular class attendees tend to build a rapport with the instructor, and often these students equate pain with guaranteed progress.
Also, long-time riders will be able to work harder than newbies. I think some time standing alternated with time in the saddle does build fitness, but it has to be done in reasonable doses. You may need to modify the popcorn instructions to get the benefit from the class that you deserve.
Additionally, you may need to change the seated tension setting between your seated position and standing. With limited time to change tension, you may need to do 24 pedal strokes standing and 24 seated so you can modify the tension.
With your gym bike set up as close as possible to your indoor bike and some downward regulation on the tension setting, hopefully this will resolve your knee issues. Of course, if the pain is causing you to modify your daily life, you need to see a doc now.
If your saddle sores are really bad, you may need to have them drained by a doctor and get prescription antibiotics. If they are low-level saddle sores, perhaps having the correct bike set-up will eliminate them. Reducing the up and down motion may also eliminate the sores. If you are still having problems, you may need to use a chamois crème to reduce the friction.
Hopefully, one or more of the tips here can help you eliminate the problems you're having. Let me know what happens.