Commander's Fit Tip: Go see the spin doctor

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- Recently a fellow gym rat cornered me during a workout (by the way, I really don't mind that at all) and inquired about my interest and enthusiasm for "spinning."

I was surprised to learn that the activity hasn't really caught on here at Arnold.

When I asked him if he had ever tried it, he admitted that he hadn't, didn't know much about it, and didn't see how a stationary bike would offer a challenging workout. Let the myth busting begin.

Bottom line: spinning will take your fitness, and in particular, your leg strength and endurance, to levels you just can't achieve with other activities. And it does this without the profound injury risk aggressive running represents.

Don't get me wrong, I still favor running as the core of any aerobics program. But I also know that without professional training, the vast majority of fitness runners have bad mechanics, and over time, the price will come. If you up the ante with higher intensities, the risk magnifies. All preventable with appropriate coaching, but for reasons I just can't understand, we just don't ask for or get that help (though we have this month with the first in a series of running clinics).

Perhaps more importantly, running represents an endurance building/maintaining tool, both for aerobic capacity and leg muscle activity. Unless you add in significant hill workouts, leg strength slowly declines.

Spinning offers a way out of this trap. If you like to run every day, you simply will not believe the improvement you'll see if you trade two of those runs for a spin class. Here's why.

While it's true spinning uses a "stationary bike," it's vastly different from the common treadmill companions at the gym, particularly the "recumbent" variety. A spinning bike has a large, "sewer-lid" wheel, and the inertia that component represents completely alters the dynamics of the workout.

Additionally, the spin bikes have a very strong (though not quite solid) mechanical connection between the pedals and this wheel. If you try to "coast" on a spin bike, it will "spin" the cranks for you as the inertia in the wheel keeps the rotating mass going.

Spin bikes are nearly infinitely adjustable ... the handle bars and seats move up and down, as well as forward and back, allowing for a perfect fit every time. A typical stationary bike has only seat height adjustments, and for many riders, the fore/aft position is out of alignment, you just don't know it!. But most importantly, the friction/resistance control puts the rider in complete control of the workout.

You "own the knob," so as you fatigue, you can modulate the workload very accurately. Throw in an enthusiastic coach and a music-based program, it's just about impossible to combine these elements in any other workout.

What's really cool about a spin bike is that you can tailor the workout either on the fly or day by day. The spin bike is extremely rigid and stable, making a variety of riding positions not only possible, but completely safe.

A good instructor will take you through variations of four basic pedaling positions ... seated, standing, vertical, and my personal favorite, "the hover," where you basically lift yourself off the seat a couple inches but otherwise replicate the seated position. You can also vary how fast you pedal (sophiticate's call this cadence), and how much friction you apply. With four basic pedaling positions, fast and slow pedal speeds, and infinitely adjustable friction, the possible combinations are endless. This offers the instructor a wide portfolio to choose from, so there's never a dull moment in the class.

The friction control deserves a little extra explanation, but it comes with a catch. To get the real benefit of the spin bike, you have to get a pair of biking shoes fitted with cleats. Biking shoes are much stiffer than running shoes, and allow a much better power transfer to the pedals. I use mountain bike shoes for fitness training. They are much cheaper than road bike shoes, and are safe to walk around in. Most have three straps, and fit very securely to your foot.

There are lots of different cleat patterns out there, but fitness/spin bikes (like ours) use the "SPD" style cleats. The cleats let you physically connect to the pedals, like a ski boot/ski binder, and this is the real benefit. Once "clicked in" you can push, pull, lift and "drag" the pedal all the way around the crank circle, effectively loading your leg for 360 degrees. On a conventional pedal, you can "push" from about the one o'clock through four o'clock position, but that's it. You are coasting the rest of the way around. Rubber straps or toe clips help, but only for about half the stroke. You won't believe the difference once you've clipped in. Secondly, with this physical connection, your weight is no longer a limiting factor to the load you can apply. You can literally apply so much friction that you can't pedal. No regular stationary bike goes there, and if you are running, your weight is the only load on tap.

A good instructor knows all of this, and will take you through various intensities during the workout. A carefully choreographed session will use the music to reinforce the cadence the instructor wants you to use for that interval. It's very important to follow the instructor's directions, as they have mixed and matched positions, loads, and cadence variations for the whole session. Stay with them, and if you need a break, go ahead, but get back to it ASAP.

The fitness center offers several classes, and if interest picks up, more can be on the way. Plus, after a few sessions, you'll learn enough to do one on your own if you miss a class. This is the real deal. Even once a week will make a difference you will feel on your runs. Just take it easy the day after ... no "hard day, hard day" routines. Remember the sophisticate's holy trilogy of training ...

Train Hard, Race Harder, Rest HARDEST!