Eventually, all of the stuff we do for maximum fitness, both diet and exercise, comes down to activities at the cellular level. We eat the right food, which includes the micronutrients and the sugars that give us the glycogen and the other stuff that ends up in the citric acid (Krebs) cycle as we oxidize nutrients inside the cells of the body. The determining factor in your level of fitness, as long as you are eating the right food, is all right down there inside your mitochondria, the little bodies found inside our cells and responsible for the generation of chemical energy. The number of mitochondria that you have and their efficiency (having to do with the density of proteins inside the mitochondria, like cytochrome c) is directly related to your level of fitness, which is why that getting in really good aerobic shape is all about increasing your mitochondria and how well they produce energy. While we live and train in the macro world, it is at the micro level that our training has an affect and understanding what is happening at the micro level is helpful in understanding how to get in the best best aerobic shape, particularly if you want to do it in the shortest period of time.
So, how do you get your body to become more efficient at creating energy by increasing the density of your mitochondria?
Studies have shown that the fastest way to produce the largest number of mitochondria and increase their efficiency is by stressing the body, taking it to its aerobic limits. The body responds to this stress at the cellular level by making itself more efficient. Training fast, over short periods of time, can increase your speed and power (increase mitochondria) better than longer workouts at lower levels of intensity. A great article that summarizes this phenomenon is Mitochondria Functions - More mitochondria mean more PBs, but what do you have to do to get them? The science is showing that getting your body up in the 85% of maximum effort for about forty-five minutes at a time frequently over a six-eight week period gives the greatest increase in the density of the proteins inside of the mitochondria, raising their levels by about 40%. That seems to be the secret in how to get your body in top aerobic shape at the cellular level, able to metabolize glycogen and produce lots of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy source inside your muscles.
So, what are the things that we can do as an athlete to produce this effect? How do you stress your body in a way that can get your heart rate up to to near maximum for short periods of time, taxing your energy production system at the cellular level so that it responds by producing more mitochondria and makes those mitochondria better at producing the energy you need to move your legs, climb that hill and sprint for the line?
When I was younger, running sub-three-hour marathons, I used to run 220 and 440 yard intervals. I always hated running intervals and still, to this day, get a little sick feeling when I get ready for a speed workout. Modern psychology has taught us that the fastest way to extinguish a behavior is to to associate a negative feeling with the activity. I have most certainly extinguished any desire to do wind sprints. However you have to do something to get in shape and most recently, I have cycled hill intervals, doing the northern Central Park loop, sprinting up the Great Hill and recovering on the ride back down past the Harlem Meer. It’s gut twisting, but at least I usually have other riders on the hill to ride against (who have no idea that they are part of my master torture training sessions as I come panting past them going up the road between around 108th and 104th Streets in the Park.)
However, I’ve found that it was increasingly difficult to get motivated to run intervals and do hill sprints. Over the last few years, I’ve realized that there are some factors (tricks) that help me to take my body and pain threshold to those levels over and over again in a way that does not tend to extinguish the behavior due to the fact that it hurts so damn much. These factors have been social pressure (working out with others), competition (that inner need to work harder and to know that I can hurt more than the person next to me) and great tunes (see Performance Enhancing Music.)
So, in October, when recovering from my last hand surgery, I decided to try spinning. I’d tried spinning about ten years ago, when the training technique was still in its infancy and never liked it. The bikes were lousy, there was no music and I couldn’t use my own shoes. Well, times have changed.
New York City has a variety of spin classes and studios. I did some research and decided that I would try Flywheel Sports. They had good reviews online and I liked the fact that they measure the output of each rider and use a “TorqBoard” to display the power each rider produces. I also liked the fact that the studio is designed only for riding.. not an exercise studio room where they have put stationary bikes.
On 1 October 2011 I took my first spinning class. I had decided that I would commit myself to take classes for three weeks, which is the lag time it takes between the onset of high-level aerobic activity and for the benefits to start showing up. I figured that it would probably be a miserable experience for those few weeks and then start getting better. That is just about how it turned out.
The Flywheel studio in my neighborhood is about ten blocks away. I signed up for five-ride package, showed up with my own cycling shoes and presented myself at the front desk. There was really not much of an orientation… as I was shown where the water and towels were located and pointed towards a bike. The Flywheel studio is a great setting; the lights are down, the bikes arranged in four auditorium-like rows in a large semi-circle around the instructor, bathed in a spotlight.
This is the Upper East Side Flywheel studio as riders are trickling in, getting their bikes set up before the ride.
On my first ride I felt like crap after the first few minutes. When you think that you might be fit, there is nothing like as humbling as a spin class to remind you that there is a big difference between being fit and really being in shape. But, over the next few weeks, I kept coming back and put down my money for twenty more sessions (not cheap at about US$20 per ride if you get a package.) The memory after each ride of the forty-five minutes of suffering seemed to fade more quickly each time as the weeks rolled on and I got better at handling the unique style of riding in the spin class. There is not a lot of connection, beyond the fact that you are sitting on a bike seat and spinning pedals, between cycling outdoors and spinning. Who in their right mind would ever get up out of the saddle and do 80 rpm at 100 watts of power while riding outdoors? Yet, the instructors seem to think that taking the torque to 15 (which must be about 100 watts or so) and getting up out of the saddle on the stationary bike is somehow good for you. For me, it just tore up my knees, which are not used to this sort of silly abuse. In the real world, I was taught that when you are out of the saddle you gentle rock the bike back and forth, allowing the force of the leg to come straight down onto the pedal as you stand on it. These are not the natural biomechanics of the leg in relation to the spin bike, which stays at a straight angle in relation to the leg. After several classes my knees were sore, telling me either that spinning was not good for them or that they were taking their time to adjust to the sudden change to the repetitive motion of cycling to which they had become accustomed to over the last 30-40,000 miles on my road bike.
I almost quit. Then three things happened. First, I brought in the measurements from my bike fit and a tape measure and actually set up the bike with exactly the cm distance between the top of the seat and the pedals, the distance the seat was horizontally from the pedals and the height of the bars. By setting up the spin bike in exactly the ergonometric dimensions of my road bike, I think that I removed some source of stress on my joints.
Then, I decided that I didn’t have to follow exactly what the instructor was telling me and that I could just do my own thing. So, for a ride or two I didn’t get up out of the saddle when everyone else did, spinning silly circles at low torque and high RPMs. I just sat down, turned up the torque and made believe I was riding along pushing 250 watts. And, I made it through a few classes without hurting my knees. I also turned UP the torque when the class was getting out of the saddle, so that although the instructor only asked for 25 on the torque, I would set it at 40-45. This meant that I was still getting the out-of-saddle muscles, but doing slower RPMs and able to concentrate on moving my body better over the pedal and avoiding the twisting in my knees.
The third thing that happened was that an instructor actually came up and introduced herself and asked me how I was doing. I had been taking classes at Flywheel for a month and had had absolutely no interaction with the instructors during that entire period. Spinning is, unfortunately, a pretty “corporate” sport business and the modern studios are more about getting clients out of the last class, the bikes wiped, the floors mopped (yes, there are pools of sweat) and the next batch of clients into the room. With the instructor on the bike at the front of the room and the bikes crammed one against the other, there is really no space for the instructor to come around and check in on you during the workout (unlike yoga, where the emphasis is more individual.) Surprisingly, that small gesture rescued spinning for me. And, even more surprisingly, when I took a class from this same instructor, Natalie, she actually remembered my name and asked me how I was doing. It made a big difference.
Flywheel does a fairly good job with stats, which are important to me since I really wanted to see over time if my fitness was improving and by how much. Of course, I was riding with my Garmin Fitness Watch and able to measure heart rate (which the Flywheel bikes don’t do) but to have a read out both on the bike during the ride and afterwards online was great.
So, from my first ride on 1 October when I was able to produce only 207 of total power, my numbers climbed over the seven weeks (between 1 October and 23 November) when I started traveling again, to a high point of 279. Although I took my bike with me to ride in South Africa and the United Arab Emirates at the end of November and early December, those rides were for distance and I never took my heartrate up to the 80-100% of maximum for longer than half a minute or so. And, on my return, I had one ride in late December (before leaving for Palm Springs and Death Valley to ride) that was really epic: 300.
Although I’d like to have the heartrate and power data together and run it through the Training Peaks analysis, my guess is that my fitness peaked in late December about three weeks after my intense training in November and then fell off when I was doing my distance work in December and early January. However, there is early evidence of the correlation between the intensity and frequency of the Flywheel spinning sessions and adaptation to the stress.
My feeling is that there are two types of training necessary to prepare for the long distance cycling that I like to do; a) the high intensity speed work, which increases the efficiency of mitochondria; b) the long distance riding that lasts longer than two hours and teaches the body to use a higher amount of free fatty acids for energy production, allowing the body’s stores of glycogen to last longer. This process of “enriching the mixture” is what allows distance athletes to go longer without bonking. So, both types of training is important… the fast stuff and the long stuff.
But, for the “fast stuff” there is nothing better than a spin class. Although I would have lost some high end fitness in December and early January, while riding long, I did improve my endurance.
Below is an example of heartrate during a typical Flywheel class of 45 minutes. According to the rule-of-thumb (MHR is 220 minus your age), my MHR should be 162, but I think it is actually about 180. I measure maximum heart rate by going out and riding up a hill until I start to see stars and almost fall over… and that is right at 180. I think that the maximum benefit (stress that produces more mitochondria) is in the upper 15% of my maximum or above 153 bpm. In this case, I stayed at 85% or above for the entire class and was in Zone 5 (168 or better) for more than 10 minutes. That is some mitochondria and cytochrome c inducing stress!
In my opinion, this sort of heartrate profile is not only what you want to achieve from a spin class but also is the single fastest, lowest impact way to get in the best possible aerobic conditioning. If you only have an hour a day to get in shape, this workout should be part of your routine.
However, it is not something that you should do every day. Your body needs time to recover from this stress and to start manufacturing the cellular bodies needed to adapt to it. And a good measure of your body’s stress can be easily measured every morning with your resting heart rate. My resting heart rate is 53-54 bpm and I know that I am recovered from one or two days of hard workouts when it is at that level. However, if I wake up, put on the heartrate strap and my pulse is at 56 bmp or higher, I know that today is a good day for an easy run, a yoga class or just to put my feet up and rest, but certainly not a spin class. You have to let your body recover and adapt.
Natalie Cohen, one of the instructors at the Flywheel Studio on the Upper East Side (and the one instructor who actually introduced herself.) Natalie’s enthusiasm and music mix is such a “draw” that she is able to pack the studio at 7:30 am on Sunday mornings.
After almost three months of spinning, I have some general observations and recommendations:
- While the training benefits of spinning can be demonstrated, I wonder if the biomechanics and the equipment are right. I’d like to see studies on spinning injuries and how the spin bike could be better designed to replicate the outdoor cycling world. If I can ride 400 miles a week outdoors without knee problems, how come I have knee pain after several 45 minute sessions?
- I like the music and the encouragement from the instructor, which takes my mind off of the discomfort, allowing me to sublimate the pain and embrace the suffering (as weird as that sounds) but I’m wondering if it could all be done with a little more intensity but less volume. Maybe I am too much of an audiophile, but the distortion level of the music and that cutout of the instructors who yell too loudly into the microphone is bothersome. As an actor, I learned to use the microphone as a way to get your voice into the brains of your listeners.. and you never have to yell. Yelling just dampens the effect, as the listener starts to tune out the intensity. I would think a good instructor could drop the volume on the music just a bit and use the power of the microphone to get into our heads better, tickling our intensity rather than slapping it all the time.
- For god’s sake put fans in the studio and get the air moving around. (See “Note to Yoga Teachers: Please turn on the fans”) There is nothing wrong with maintaining a little homeostasis and when people sweat it is a sign that their body would like a little cooling… and a breeze will do that.
- It would be good to have a little orientation for new spinning students. I would have liked to spend a few minutes asking questions about how to do it right, how to set up the bike, what to expect from the classes over time. But, it was more like learning to swim by being tossed in the pool.
- There is so much room for incorporating technology into the spin studio. First of all, the power measurement should be set in watts rather than “power” since the measurement does not correlate to anything used in the cycling to measure output. Also, heartrate data and power output should be measured and available online as a download so that it can be imported into any of the popular training sites like Training Peaks or even Garmin Connect. And, knowing about the very cool virtual training environments being developed by Tacx, why can’t you wire a studio with bikes that are tied into a virtual reality screen at the front of the room, so that riders can train as a group riding up real hills on the screen. At US$20 or more a bike per ride, there should be a financial argument for a larger investment in the infrastructure in each studio, improving the bikes so that they are state-of-the-art or better.
- Spread out some of the classes by an extra ten minutes so that there is a little more interval between some sessions. This way students with questions or concerns can ask them.. and the instructors will feel less pressure to get in, get set up, get going.. and could actually interact with clients.
- Get rid of plastic bottles of water! Jeez, doesn’t anyone in management pay attention to detrimental effects on the environment from bottled water? At least put in a water cooler and encourage everyone to bring their own reuseable water bottle so that those of us who wish to be environmentally aware can get water without having to take a plastic bottle. Just because the studio on the Upper East Side is next to the Fox studios does not mean that you need to act like the anti-environmentalists next door. If you don’t want to charge for water, at least allow for a credit to the account of each rider if he or she brings their own bottle.
- Turn down the heat a few degrees. It can be a comfortable 60 or even 65 degrees in the studio, which will save you money on your heating bill and make everyone more comfortable. And, for the anorexic upper-east-siders who get chilled at room temperature, you can put on a sweatshirt until you get warmed up in class.
So, spinning has definitely become part of my training regime. Combined with yoga, the two are a perfect accompaniment to running and outdoor cycling several times a week. And, I look forward to experimenting a bit more with other studios to see what New York City has to offer, particularly those studios that might be more geared towards the off-season outdoor cyclist.