Starting tomorrow, I’ll be working at a fitness conference and will be away from home (and my laptop! eek!) from very, very early in the morning until late in the evening, through Sunday. Imagine the BlogHer conference with spin bikes and kettlebells instead of computers. And probably no $3 Patron margaritas. (Bummer.)

Oh yeah, and I won’t know anybody there, in real life or not. Well, not at first. I can talk to anyone and am sure to make some friends before the weekend is over.

Anyway, I thought it would be a great time to put up a post about starting spin (group cycling) classes. As an instructor, I’ve been asked by many people in and outside of the gym for pointers–I even e-mailed Michelle about it once in response to some questions she had, and I’m sorry I didn’t keep a copy of that e-mail because it would take less time to write this. Many people are “scared” to try a spin class. I’m not sure why (it looks hard? the music is loud? lots of sweating?), but they are. For some, it’s a major accomplishment just to set foot in the studio.

First, I should tell you what Spinning–or group cycling–is. Group cycling is a great workout; it’s usually done in a studio, to music, with an instructor. The instructor leads the class through a workout that simulates outdoor riding in a challenging way (sprints, climbs, intervals, and steady-state rides). The goal is to keep your heart rate in the ideal zone that corresponds with what the instructor is working on that day: endurance, racing, strength, or intervals. The bikes are basically customized stationary bikes: instead of the electronic dashboard you’ll find on traditional stationary bikes located with all of the treadmills and ellipticals in the gym, everything is manual.

Pretty funny looking, right? There are several adjustments on this particular bike: the handlebar height can be adjusted, and the seat can be adjusted both up/down and fore/aft. Many health clubs will have special, two-sided pedals on their bikes: one side has a “cage” (the straps that keep your shoe on the pedal) and the other side has the clips that attach to the bottom of biking shoes. There is a knob that you turn to add or remove resistance; once class begins, that’s the main part of the bike you’re going to be concerned with.

That brings me to your workout attire. You can wear whatever you’d wear to do the treadmill or any other piece of equipment in the gym, BUT…it’s my personal opinion that you’re going to be more comfortable if you wear pants or shorts that are snug. They don’t have to be bike shorts, but let’s just say that if you are wearing bottoms that are loose and have extra fabric that moves around, there might be some chafing involved that will make you an unhappy camper. You can (if you decide that you will add group cycling to your workout routine permanently) get special bike shorts that have padding in them, at the bike shop. Also, if you wear workout pants that are flared at the bottom, you will run the risk of those cute pants getting caught up in the bike and ripped.

Besides chafing, there’s a good chance you will be sore in, um, tender places after your first ride: another case for padding. A cheaper alternative to getting padded bike shorts if you are spinning regularly is to purchase a padded bike seat/saddle cover that you attach to the bike before class. With the padded seat, you don’t have to worry about making sure your special padded shorts are clean all the time. You DO, however, have to remember to take the seat/saddle cover with you when you leave, which is often a problem. Leaving that thing behind can be the kiss of death; usually someone will steal it and you’ll never see it again, but even if it’s there when you go back for it later, it’s likely that someone used it. And that’s gross, to ride on top of someone else’s butt sweat. But anyway, it’s an alternative to the bike shorts. TMI alert: I’ve been spinning for about eleven or twelve years and just wear regular workout pants (and don’t use a padded seat cover) because my badonkadonk has gotten used to the saddle.

What you wear on top doesn’t matter as much, but if you’re a woman, be advised that if you usually wear low cut tops to the gym, you should be prepared to give everyone a show because there’s some leaning forward involved in group cycling. I personally don’t like to wear t-shirts on a spin bike because of all the extra fabric moving around when I’m standing up and running on the bike (you read that right); I just wear workout tops similar to this one:

The men in my classes wear t-shirts, bike jerseys, or those workout shirts made of Dri-fit material.

What about shoes? If you are an avid cyclist outside and have special bike shoes, you would definitely wear them to spin class. If you use the clips on the bottom of the shoes, check with your health club to see what type of clips they have installed on their bikes (or bring a pair of gym shoes in case your clips don’t match up!). If you’re not a cyclist with special shoes, gym shoes are fine for trying the class out casually: I would recommend that if you really like group cycling, invest in the bike shoes. You’ll have a much better ride and your feet will feel more secure whether you use the pedal cage or the clips.

Next step? Choose a class to try! Check out the schedule and try, for your first time, to pick a class that is not starting immediately after another one ends. It’s much better if you can get into the room and meet the instructor 10-15 minutes before she/he has to begin teaching. I can’t speak for all instructors, but I really like it when people introduce themselves to me. I ask them questions about their current workout habits, why they decided to try class, if they have any injuries they need to worry about…and I can give them lots of pointers for having a successful session. The instructor will also help you set up your bike so that you’re not putting stress on your knees or lower back due to improper adjustments, and if you arrive exactly on time for class (or late) the instructor will have to set you up while teaching at the same time, which is possible, but it takes away from everyone else.

Make sure you bring water! Hydration is so important, even if you’re not exercising! When you’re cycling, your body is losing lots of water, so drinking throughout class is a must.

Work at your own pace. The great thing about group cycling is that there’s no choreography involved (like there is in aerobics), and nobody cares what you’re doing or how you look except for you. Nobody can tell how much resistance you’re putting on your wheel, and truthfully: if you’re trying to fake out others by keeping the resistance light but acting like it’s really tough, the only person you’re fooling is yourself because that’s not a workout. As a beginner, you’re probably not going to be able to do much of the standing work because those muscles need to be built up. I always tell my newbies that they can try the standing work by adding more resistance than everyone else because it’ll make them go slower and help keep them in standing position (see above, nobody cares) or they can do some of the work on the saddle instead, trying to stand up for longer at each subsequent class. By the way, when you are standing up on a bike, DO NOT use the handlebars for leaning on. Not only is it bad form, but it takes the workout out of your lower body and you’re wasting time. Handlebars are for balance only!

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s what your instructor is there for!

Stay for the entire class, even if it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard! I always tell people, even if they end up just pedaling as if they’re on a Sunday ride through the park, STAY. You’ll feel better if you can say you lasted the whole class! Also, instructors worry a lot about newbies who leave halfway through: if you must leave, at least give the instructor a wave and a smile so she/he will know you’re okay.

A final note: all instructors are–obviously–different. We have different personalities, different styles, and different music. If you don’t like one of us, try out someone else! (actually, even if you DO like us, try other instructors!) I know lots of people who can’t stand spinning with certain instructors (yes, me included!) but love it with others. You just have to find the right fit for you. Remember that your instructor should be someone who motivates you and makes you want to come back. And really, being motivated to workout is half the battle, don’t you think?

Did I miss something you’re curious about? Leave your questions in the comments and I can do a follow-up post if necessary!

Tomorrow I’m posting about group cycling etiquette and things that drive me over the edge. Stay tuned!