When Tony Chin, 50, had back surgery in 2017, he had already stopped training for races for over a year thanks to an arthritic back and knees. Craving the cheers of a crowd and the thrill of a racing clock, he talked to his doctor about a training plan that would not only help his back heal safely but also prep him for a return to the road that would last for years to come.
His doc’s solution: an indoor bike.
As a big fan of low-impact cross-training, Chin’s doctor had him running just twice per week—once on the track and a long run on the weekends—and pedaling through five workouts on a Peloton while training for the 2019 California International Marathon.
Come race day, Chin crossed the finish line 15 minutes ahead of the five marathons he had completed in recent years. “Indoor cycling helped me replicate the same cardio workout I needed from running in a low-impact way,” he says. “I could ride any time of day, lost 25 pounds, and feel the best I have in years.”
Chin isn’t the only one swapping his running shoes for cycling cleats. In the six months since sheltering started in 2020, year-to-date sales of at-home fitness equipment increased up to nearly 300 percent of those from the prior 15 months, according to data research and analytics firm M Science, and Peloton reported a membership increase of 1.6 million since May 2020. (The brand’s annual Turkey Burn even broke their standing record for the largest ride, with close to 52,000 live riders; 2019’s pulled in just 19,000.)
Here’s how you, too, can get in on the indoor action.
Why Runners Should Consider Riding Inside
As Chin learned himself, hopping in the saddle boosts your aerobic fitness without the impact of running, explains Meghan Kennihan, certified personal trainer and run and cycling coach in LaGrange, IL. It also works complementary muscle groups—more quads and glutes in cycling; hamstrings and calves in running—so you build muscular strength and fix imbalances, reducing your risk of injury.
Of course, you can get all of those benefits from an outdoor road ride. But when you move indoors, you also eliminate some risk. “[A lot of] things can happen outside; your head has to be on a swivel looking for cars, people, dogs. Riding indoors removes all that,” says Matt Wilpers, certified personal trainer and Peloton Bike and Tread instructor.
Taking a virtual class is also a bit like the treadmill: It puts all your metrics in front of you. Having that allows trainers to get very granular with athletes. “It’s basically like having someone in a laboratory with all the variables isolated,” Wilpers says. “When that happens, we can get really specific with training, giving us the ability to get very specific results.” And if there’s a leaderboard (à la Peloton’s popular class structure or Apple’s Fitness+ Burn Bar), there’s a burst of extra motivation to compete, along with access to guidance from a trainer.
Plus, as everyone around you battles for a slice of your time, there’s the convenience of being able to squeeze in a more intense workout in a shorter period. Unlike riding outdoors, “you don’t have to wait for a hill, you just change the tension,” Kennihan says. “You don’t have to slow down for traffic lights or coast on a downhill. You can do short sprints in or out of the saddle to spike your heart rate and build speed.”
How to Rework Your Routine
To best incorporate riding into a running plan, Wilpers operates by one golden rule: All your quality workouts should be in your sport of choice. So if you’re training for a (virtual) race, you need to clock those important workouts—the speed sessions, the long runs—on your feet, rather than in the saddle.
Wilpers says those moments aren’t just improving your fitness; they’re also getting your body used to time on your feet and building the biomechanics of running fast. So cycling should be supplemental, helping to build volume and base work at a low intensity. An easy strategy: replacing some recovery runs and easy runs with indoor cycling sessions.
“I always tell runners: cadence high and resistance low,” Wilpers says. “When you do that, you’re putting more work on your cardiovascular system, which is what you want to develop as a runner on the bike, versus muscular strain and stress.” If you did the opposite, you’d build more biomechanical efficiencies for cycling, which is not the end goal.
The exception is injury-prone runners, like Chin. Given his arthritic back and knees, the emphasis on indoor cycling—and choosing the right classes throughout his training—allowed him to get aggressive on the bike in a way he couldn’t on the road, in turn improving his running while minimizing the risk of injury. Peloton’s Power Zone and Heart Rate Endurance rides, for example, helped him maintain a sustainable heart rate zone that was similar to running, while the HIIT and Climb classes built the strength and power he needed to tick the miles off faster.
Because indoor cycling workouts are lower impact but can be higher intensity, start slow and build up your endurance. So if you’re used to running an hour like it’s no sweat, don’t jump right into an hour-long cycling session. Kennihan suggests starting with a shorter ride to see how it feels, giving your body and mind time to adjust to the new modality. Over time, you can make 10-minute increases to your rides similar to the way you build weekly mileage when training for a race.
All that said, the above really only applies if you’re training. If you’re simply running and riding to avoid injury and maintain both your physical and mental health, Kennihan says the main focus should be fun. “What kind of rides do you enjoy? Hills? Intervals? Mix it up and find the rides that are most exciting for you.”
Set Up for Success
Wilpers says proper form on the bike is a little like finding the best foot strike in running—there is no one size fits all answer. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t general guidelines to help set your machine up for optimal performance. Follow these cues from Peloton’s 101 video series to fine-tune your bike for the best indoor rides.
Adjust the seat height.
Start standing next to the bike, then move the saddle to hip-level. Once it’s locked in, sit on the bike and move through a pedal stroke. If your knee is fully extended at the bottom (6 o’clock position), your hips are rocking, or you can’t keep your foot flat on the upstroke (and are instead leading with your calf), the seat is too high. If your knee has a deep bend at the bottom—enough that it’s causing compression at the front of the knee—or both knees are pushing out to the sides, then the seat is too low.
Typically, a slight bend in the knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke—somewhere around 135 to 145 degrees—is just right for retaining muscular control and optimizing performance. “Where you land in that range is often dictated by your comfort and ability to control force throughout the pedal stroke,” Wilpers says.
Don’t forget seat depth.
Rest your elbow on the nose of the saddle, adjusting it until your fingertips touch the handlebars. Wilpers says there should be a slight bend in your elbows when your hands rest on the two front corners of the handlebars—reaching out to full extension can cause neck and shoulder pain and scrunching up can cause you to roll your hips backward, losing a neutral spine and negatively impacting performance.
You can also pedal to the 3 o’clock position. There, your knee should be above the ball of your foot. If it’s behind, nudge the seat forward; if in front, shift it back.
Play with the handlebars.
Start at the highest setting, then lower as you get more comfortable. It’s really about personal preference, though Kennihan says most people end up somewhere slightly higher than seat height. Those with back or hip issues, as well as women who are pregnant, may need the bars to be higher to help protect against discomfort or injury.
Perfect your positioning.
With the technical settings in place, now it’s about riding in the most biomechanically efficient position. “Try riding with a relatively flat back, elongated spine, light hands, loose elbows, and relaxed shoulders,” Wilpers says. “Your core, hips, and glutes make up your ‘foundation’ as a rider. You don’t want it to be unstable or wobbly, so engage and push from it.”
And remember, your handlebars are only there for gentle assistance. Your weight should always be in your sit bones while in the saddle, and over the pedals when out of it—not dumping forward into your arms, Wilpers says. Putting too much weight on the handlebars only hurts performance and can cause aches and pain in the hands, wrists, shoulders, and neck.
A Note on Your Numbers
Once your bike is set up properly, make a note of your personal numbers (most bikes feature this on the seat post, saddle, and handlebars), as your settings are likely to be different if you’re sharing one bike with family members. Just know your numbers aren’t actually set in stone—Wilpers says they’re likely to change as you get more fit and flexible. So just like outdoor cyclists visit a bike shop for an annual fitting, go through the set-up process at least once a year to see what tweaks need to be made.
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