For years, TTS coaches have led spin instruction courses and packed spin classes. Here's a photo of the great Gabrielle taken by JF Houpert in 2008 during a strength-spin session at the Snowdon YMYWHA.

TTS coach, Michelle Paiement, will be leading an advanced skills workshop for spin instructors at the Westmount YMCA. It is full, with a waitlist!! The growing demand for both Michelle’s coaching and the desire amongst spin instructors to take their classes to another level, led me to think about the main differences between computraining and spinning.

First of all, let’s put spinning in its place. One of our main goals at TTS is to contribute to the cycling culture of Montreal. It’s easy to forget that Quebec-based spinning instructors work in a cultural context infused with an appreciation of cycling. Here are some stats derived from Vélo Québec’s 2005 and 2010 reports:

:: Per capita, more people own bikes in Quebec than in the USA, Britain and France.

:: Riding a bike is the most popular leisure activity in the province.

:: The average cyclist spends 3.8 hours a week cycling between May and September!

:: While most cyclists ride for fun, exercise, or as part of family outings, one of every six adults uses their bike as a mode of transportation.

:: A further 62 000 participated in organized one-day events in 2005

:: The number of adult cyclists has increased by 500,000 since 2005

:: Between 1987 and 2010, the number of bicycles in Quebec more than doubled and the number of regular cyclists increased by 50%

:: In Montreal, cyclists can take advantage of the plethora of bike routes and paths that have helped the city be consistently ranked in the top 5 cities for cycling in North America.[1]

There is also a rich racing tradition in Quebec, with numerous national champions and top professionals emerging from the province’s superb local racing scene. Over 7 000 racers belong to over 120 clubs and participate in over 300 events a year.

In 2009, the city hosted the 12th edition of the Montreal Women’s World Cup–a road race involving the best female cyclists in the world. Since 2010, the best male cyclists in the world have raced through the streets of Montreal and Quebec City, races which will take place again in 2012.

Montreal is also home of the hugely successful Bixi public bike system, a program for commuters that has since been purchased by London, Washington, D.C., Ottawa, Toronto…. Bixi is awesome, though it lacks the flare of the bikes in Coppenhagen:

New Bike Share System by RAFAA (CH) @ Dailytonic

Quebec loves cycling and people in this province will ride bikes anywhere! Though we do have to fight the odd pothole.

“Lucky I’m not on a fixie listening to Gaga blasting through my earbuds while trying to text my yoga instructor to tell them I’m running late!”

The point is that spinning plays a huge part in this culture. Spin classes with good instructors are packed, and they take place in gyms all over the province. Spin classes at post-secondary gyms introduce many people to cycling. In fact, spinning provides an opportunity for those who don’t ride outdoor to experience a key part of cycling culture: indoor training!

Both Computraining and spinning are effective ways to reach many of your cycling goals…depending on the level of coaching

Personally, I get turned off when people poo-poo spinning. With a good coach in front of you, a spin class is a great way to raise your fitness and to learn basic cycling techniques.

Notice how I’m using the term “coach” instead of “instructor”?

Most spin certification courses emerge from an aerobics-based context, where you have an instructor demonstrate a sequence of exercises that a group replicates.  Many cycling videos are organized this way also. I’ve always argued that spin classes should be coached. Yes, there can be some demonstration, but those leading a spin class can offer more by not riding the entire class and instead walk around to give more one-on-one instruction. So that’s one big difference between computraining and spinning: the former is coached while the latter is most often “instructed”. TTS, however, is trying to change that by providing cycling-specific knowledge and coaching techniques to spin instructors.

This weekend, Michelle’s workshop will help attendees develop a periodized series of spin classes, so that each class properly builds upon previous classes in ways that effectively develop basic technical skills, strength, muscular endurance and power. Through periodization, a spin class becomes less of a “one-off” class, and more of a program. Such an approach encourages retention of attendees because they know they are part of a building process. It also encourages those who drop-in to come back for more, and to feel they are part of a fitness regime with a broader vision. Plus, it adds variety to classes for both the coach and the gym members!

The key to Michelle’s workshop will be its focus on learning a cycling-specific vocabulary so that those in attendance will have a clear sense of the difference between, for example, “strength” and “power”, and how the two are expressed on a bike. A cycling-specific working knowledge and a precise vocabulary will allow everyone in a spin class to better understand levels of “intensity”, whether people are measuring their work by watts or rate of perceived exertion. An 8/10 effort during a strength exercise feels really different than an 8/10 effort during a 3-minute power exercise designed to improve your body’s ability to deliver and use oxygen! “Instructors” will also be encouraged to get off the bike to “coach” proper pedaling technique, and to be able to better observe riding postures–which should change depending on the drill. They will also be able to utilize different motivational techniques off the bike, as they walk through the class instituting a spinning program.

A spinning program is an effective way to train indoor for the outdoor season, and it is certainly a good way to supplement a training program offered by your coach. Spin classes delivered with the basic “up”, “down”, “hard”, “ez”, “Level 8” range of instruction can help get you going but often they are repetitive training experiences that do not coordinate well with a goal-orientated approach to cycling.

The computraining program that we offer is periodized and coached to groups whose maximum size is 6. Given the same level of coaching, the real advantage of computraining over spinning is the ability to ride on a variety of courses using bicycles. When you computrain, the bike you ride on is attached to a trainer hooked up to a computer; your bike sits on a compu-trainer. Being on a regular 10-speed bike allows us to coach more cycling related skills, such as how to better use your gears on hills in a variety of different scenarios. The computer software produces courses which you can see on a monitor in front of you, and it increases or decreases the resistance depending on whether you are on a climb, flat, or downhill. Importantly, it also calculates and allows you to see how many watts you are producing, along with how many calories you are burning, the distance traveled, your cadence and so forth.

Computrainers are the equipment of choice for many national training programs, pro teams and serious racers and triathletes.Increasingly, they are being made available to riders through programs such as ours. One reason for the popularity of computrainers is that the watts measured by computrainers are MUCH more accurate and consistently so than spin bikes that also measure watts. Therefore, when you computrain with TTS you participate in a periodized program where each period is designed to focus on certain skills and aspects of cycling fitness development, while building off previous periods. The accuracy of the equipment, plus the use of gears and the variety of courses you can train on offers a more stimulating training environment with more immediate bio-feedback to participants. At TTS, we also track aspects of your training so you can measure your progress and fitness gains. We also develop “rider profiles” of our clients, so you have a better sense of your strengths and weaknesses. This is a much more specific understanding of what you are actually achieving through your workouts than that offered by any spin program based on “perceived effort”.

Overall, computraining offers a more detailed, elaborate indoor training environment than spinning, but good spin programs have their place in any fitness regime.

I want to finish by saying that most people think that computraining is for “serious” cyclists and racers, so they feel more comfortable attending spin classes. This perception is shaped by the history of computraining, which has until recently been done by racers or those willing to spend a significant amount of money on a sophisticated indoor trainer. Recently, however, more computraining programs are opening up in larger urban centres. Some programs are more elitist than others, but that’s more a question of attitude or the clients targeted by that business. We’re embedded in the YM-YWHA, and are part of a centre committed to community building. We’ve coached a wide range of people from those attending our packed spin classes to provincial and national champions. Interestingly, many of our computraining clients have come from spin classes. I often have members who spin at the Y pop by the computrainers. At first they are just peeking, and turn away as soon as our eyes meet! Then they come by and tease their friends who are training. Then they get teased to give it a try. They’re interested because they are increasingly interested in CYCLING because of the level of spin classes taught at the Y, especially those classes led by Michelle Paiement. We’re building a vocabulary and training programs that help create a bridge to support traffic back and forth between Michelle’s spin classes and our computraining within the Y. I like to think of that bridge as one of our contributions to the broader cycling culture within the Y. Fully subscribed workshops like the one Michelle is offering this weekend extend that contribution to other community centres and gyms. That’s a good thing because in Quebec, we like to ride our bikes anywhere!

“Check it out all you plaid-wearing, skinny-jean hipsters wearing scalp-stinky, floppy winter hats: a true ‘fixie’!!”


[1] See Vélo Québec. Bicycling in Quebec 2005. Montréal: Vélo Québec, 2006. And Vélo Québec. Bicycling in Quebec 2010. Montréal: Vélo Québec, 2011.

About Scott Toguri McFarlane

Scott Toguri McFarlane is a former Elite racer, and the founder of Toguri Training Services. For more than a decade, his approach to training has helped aspiring professional racers, provincial team members, and recreational cyclists of all ages and ability achieve their goals, including gold medals at National and Provincial Championships.

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