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6 Essential Steps to Improve Cardio Fitness

It's pretty cold outside and many of us have put away our bikes for the winter, but you don't have to give up riding. Indoor cycling classes are low-impact on joints, high-impact on cardiovascular fitness, and a great way to meet new friends and get in a great workout!

Gyms offer spin and group cycle classes, and many bike stores offer indoor trainer classes on your own bike, but stop to consider as you grind your way through 45–60 minutes of grueling sprints and hills: are you getting the most out of your class time? For your next few rides—indoors or out—try one or two of the following tips to get more from your time in the saddle.

1. Breath Effectively

breathe_correctly_to_improve_oxygen_intake_and_energy_levels_picWhen you feel yourself beginning to gasp for breath, pull your focus away from your legs for a moment and put everything you have into the longest inhale you can manage. Fill up your belly, ribs and chest, then exhale as slowly as possible (which may not be very slowly if you're really working, but give it your best shot.) Do this 4 or 5 times.

While our natural instinct is to gasp for breath when exerting, we can deprive our muscles of oxygen even as we begin to hyperventilate. Instead of catching your breath, the result is decreased energy and increased physiological stress instead of a happy endorphin response. Work toward breathing rhythmically and with purpose, especially during the challenging portions of the ride.

2. Take the rest offered—but not much more

Skilled cycle instructors build rest into their profiles and classes in order to help you take full advantage of the fat burning and cardiovascular improvements that cycling can offer. By powering through the rest periods they build in, you can leave yourself susceptible to injury and decrease the fat burning power of rest during interval training.

On the other side, by resting through work periods, you're wasting precious time with someone who is there to challenge you! Don't skimp out during the profiles because it's hard—you came to work, so work.

There are exceptions to these rules: if you have an instructor that brings you to cool-down levels between work periods, add a bit of challenge as needed to keep your heart rate at an appropriate level. Alternatively, if you are above your ideal heart rate range or rate of perceived exertion, take rest when you need it.

3. Check your mechanics, body and bike

adjust_your_bike_for_optimum_workout_picEffective and safe cycling is reliant on the relationship between your body and your bike. If you don't know how to set up your bike, if you have joint pain or back pain (even a little), or if you feel like you are not getting full power out of your pedal stroke, get to class early and ask your instructor to help you check the settings on your bike.

Here are a couple quick checks you can do on your own:

Seat height: Aim for a height that allows for a slight break in your knee at the bottom of your pedal stroke. A seat that is too low or too high will decrease strength in both your push and pull and place strain on your lower back.

Handlebars: If you place the tip of your elbow at the front of the saddle and run your forearm parallel to the ground, your middle finger tip should touch the handlebar set up. Handlebars that are too close—although they might seem more comfortable—will force you into a position that can decrease your lung capacity and increase strain in your neck and shoulders. If the handlebars are too far away, it can create strain and potentially serious injury in your low back.

4. Keep your abs “zipped up” and your low back long

While you ride, imagine zipping up a hoodie or jacket from your pelvic bone to your bottom ribs. Your pelvic floor will lift slightly, and your transverse abdominis (corset muscles) and rectus abdominis (6 pack muscles) will engage.

At the same time, send your tail bone toward the wall behind and the crown of your head toward the wall in front, growing long over the bike. Standing up, sitting down, sprinting, or climbing, keep going back to these spinal alignments to keep your low back safe and your diaphragm open for full breaths.

5. Do your PreHab and ReHab

marzia_prince_prepare_your_muscles_for_a_workout_with_a_foam_roller_picWant to get stronger? Or faster? Spend 5 minutes before and after class preparing and healing your muscles.

PreHab: Grab a foam roller or stash a tennis ball in your gym bag and roll out your quads and TFL (the most-likely shortened muscle that runs behind that pesky IT band) as well as your hips and mid back. Do 3 sets of 10 glute bridges and/or single leg deadlifts, followed by 10 breaths in forearm plank to get your rear and core fired up

ReHab: You! Yes, you. The one sneaking out of class early to grab the best shower. STAY FOR THE STRETCHING. Take the last 5–10 minutes of stretching to clear any kinks out of your chest, hip flexors, and quads at the very least.

If your instructor does not lead stretching that leaves you feeling balanced at the end of class, take the time to do your own and focus on opening the front of your body.

6. Re-Fuel and Re-Hydrate Immediately

About 30–45 minutes post-workout is the peak opportunity to refuel as your muscles are primed to receive nutrients that will help them heal and develop. Post workouts meals should include both carbohydrates and protein for optimum results, and you’ll want to replenish electrolytes lost during your spin session.

Blend together 1 banana, 8 ounces coconut water, and 1 scoop chocolate Sunwarrior protein and enjoy it inside that 30-45 min window. (No blender in your immediate future? Take a scoop of Sunwarrior in a shaker and a small container of coconut water to combine and eat the banana on the side!)

So as we continue indoor training season and the awesome opportunity to train up for great rides in the spring, be sure to get the most out of your indoor cycle classes! Get in a little early. Take care of your body and your bike. Rest and breathe effectively. Maybe even shift your mindset from "total annihilation" to finding the subtle joy in a more effective pedal stroke. The soaked-in-sweat, endorphin-high walk to the locker room will feel just as good—maybe better.

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