Cycling vs. Spinning

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Bike, Training
Tags: ,
  • Long (Easy) Ride (click to see stats)
  • 26.99k (1:00:06)
  • Avg. Heart Rate = 134 bpm
  • Max. Heart Rate = 164 bpm
  • Avg. Speed = 26.9 km/h
  • Max. Pace =  55.1 km/h
  • Calories = 1163
  • Temp = 13°

FINALLY!  The nice weather seems to be to stay (knock on wood) and as such, I am beginning to get outside more to ride my bike.  And this run of spring weather couldn’t have come too soon either as my current two hour spins at the gym have become rather, shall we say…tedious.   I enjoy spinning and all but, at this kind of duration, honestly, I’d rather be staked naked to an ant hill.  But now that I’m outside again, I’m noticing that my pedaling isn’t as ‘easy’ as I thought it may have been.  Unlike my run workouts that I maintained outside throughout the winter months (and which, coincidentally, resulted in some rather significant improvements I might add), this is my first opportunity to really check out my true ‘cycling skills’ coming out of the indoor spin sessions…and, so far, I am unimpressed.

“Peaches to the left of me, Grapes to the right. Here I am cycling in the middle with you…”

What is the difference exactly between true cycling and indoor spinning anyway?  Well, for starters, spin bikes are very different machines than my road bike (or time trial bike).  The flywheel on most spinning bikes is about 30-40lbs, which is why the pedals keep turning after your legs stop.  The hamstrings will naturally respond to this added circular momentum by contracting at the top of the pedal stroke to decrease momentum, resulting in an “eccentric contraction” or lengthening of the muscles responsible for slowing hip flexion. So your hamstrings work harder on a spinning bike.  You’ll also find that the added flywheel momentum encourages a higher overall cadence, resulting in an increased strain on the cardiovascular system.  This is why your heart rate is typically higher in spin class vs. an indoor training session.  As your spinning rate increases, you use a higher degree of slow-twitch muscle fibers, burn more fat as fuel and have a higher perceived rate of exertion.

Crossroads in the middle of nowhere

In contrast, the freewheel drive train system on your bicycle requires a greater degree of hip flexor activity and quadriceps activity to generate momentum at the top of the pedal stroke.  This explains the added work I seem to be experiencing this season so far on my bike.  Because I don’t have that flywheel helping me spin, my cadence is typically lower than it would be during one of my spin classes.  While this means less oxygen shuttling needs and a lower strain on the cardiovascular system, it also means I’m using a higher amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers, burning more carbs as a fuel and depleting muscle glycogen stores, all at a slightly lower rate of exertion.  This is described by the highly scientific term “gear-mashing”, and is highly contraindicated for time trialists and triathletes.  Me?  I’m a masher…I admit it.  But I’m learning how to ‘spin’ and I am getting better.

The farmhouse-slash-goat farm along Church Rd.

Spinning classes focus on three important aspects of base training: skill development, force development, and aerobic endurance.  However, you need to be careful about going all out with the pumping jams and ‘rip-your-legs-off’ workouts too often otherwise you run the risk of ‘peaking’ too early in like, say, March.  No good.

Blossoming orchards

So now that I’m cycling outdoors once again, apart from the obvious benefit of being outside with the local flora and fauna, what other benefits can I look forward to when cycling outside?  Well, for starters, I’m definitely going to burn more calories.  This has been very evident in my few rides I’ve taken so far already where I am burning almost 30-40% more calories than I would on a spin bike for the same amount of time.  I was really surprised at this given the amount of sweat that will expunge itself from my body during the course of a single indoor spin workout, but there it is:  1163 calories burned on this 60 minute easy ride compared to the usual 963 calories I burned in my last 90 minute spin class.  I guess this may directly attributed to the freewheel drive train on my road bike that I mentioned before.  Winning.

Tying up the grape vines

Secondly, given the current cost of gas, you practically need to take out a second mortgage just to finance a single trip to Walmart, so riding my bike is going to be my main mode of transport through the summer and fall months this year.  So on top of my regular long weekend rides and mid-week tempo workouts, I’m also going to be taking lots of random easy spins around the city doing my errands and whatnot.  Swell.

Vineyards along Church Rd.

The primary benefit of outdoor cycling as I see it, is that you get to breathe fresh air – period.  As compared to the musty, dank air in the basement of my house or the stale sweet smell of sweat at the gym, fresh oxygen can do a lot more for the lungs.  Outdoor cycling will also provide me with a new kind of adventure every time.  I may take trips through the old neighborhood where I grew up as a child, retrace routes I took on my bike as a boy down the Canal Rd. (of course, I do them a lot faster now), or, maybe, push out to unchartered territory and explore new roads, find new rolling hills, long stretches of lone highway, etc.  Whatever, every workout is an adventure simpler to running.  Of course, as my distances increase so too will the need to discover these new routes but, shit, it’s so much better than just staring at the walls.

Only in the Niagara Region will you see huge lake-going vessels sailing through the middle of an orchard

In conclusion, my cycling will get better and I just need to be patient.  Just as I have worked at, improved, and therefore gained some degree of confidence regarding both my run and swim training, so too will my cycling skills once I get in a few more rides.  And, in the meantime, there’s always:   “the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees…”

  1. Stephanie says:

    Love the photos with this article…especially the one with the ship! Great clouds too. I would love to have such flat places to ride. The hills are so evil here! 😉 So glad it is outdoor season again.

  2. Ellen Eastwood says:

    Gorgeous shots, Terry, but I have no idea what the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks you’re talking about!

    • Sometimes I don’t even know what the H-E-Double Hockey Stick I’m talking about Ellen. I’ve probably thought longer and harder on some of these issues I experience than I ever did on my homework assignments in University.

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