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How Many Watts Should I Have? (It’s All About That Base)

Warning – You’re going to be getting a better workout as soon as you pay attention to your power meter.

I used to teach at a commercial gym (Still do occasionally…. shhh) up here north of Toronto (this gym was Good… but not great), and in those classes, as an instructor I’m not encouraged to get off the bike and work with my clients. This always seemed okay to me as I subscribe to their approach of ‘there’s nothing more motivating than an athlete in motion’, but the trade off was something I didn’t notice until I actually started getting off the bike and working with my clients on the Spinner™ chrono bikes we have here at SpinCycle; I started to notice the more I focus on the coaching aspect of each rider, the stronger and more motivated they got.

Now, as you know when we’re riding indoors there is no road around us, no distance to race, and clearly no hills, so we have to recreate the outdoor ride by using the only three elements that are available to us:

Position (Standing, Flat, Sprint)
Power (Watts / Resistance)
Pace (Cadence / RPM)

By manipulating each of these elements, we can trick the body into feeling like it’s actually racing outside – With a little resistance turn up, we can emmulate head wind, by reducing the load, it feels like we’re leveling out from a marginal up hill push. If your body didn’t know any better, it would think that it’s riding along the greats at the Tour du France (Basically every class at SpinCycle ;).

So what is Base resistance? It’s simply the minimum wattage output for certain positions and zones. It’s where you’ll never go less than, and always try to push more of. This

Gottcha… but HOW much resistance do I turn on during sprints, or climbs? This is something I’d like to explore with you. Let’s set two examples of riders and show you how they use the power meter for base resistance.

Rider 1:

Experienced out door rider, power cyclist, trains for endurance, and for HIIT heart rate training indoors. They have been riding for 5 years and their goal is to become a stronger outdoor rider.

Rider 2:

Newer spinner, stays almost exclusively indoors, been riding for 6 months and starting to build a base. Their goal is to get fit, and burn more calories.

Let’s look at the resistance zones:

Base Resistance:

This is the level in which you will never go under. It’s quite simple actually, just make sure you’re not free spinning the fly wheel so that the bike is doing the work for you (Yes, you can absolutely destroy your workout when you don’t put resistance on). This is the zone you warm up in, cool down in, and take breaks in between tracks or pushes

What to do: Put your hands in position 1 (on top of the bars in front of you) Find a slower RPM, say around 50-55 RPM, keep your eye on the cadence / rpm meter and gradually add on resistance until you ‘feel it’ on your legs, and your rpms start slowing down. When you see a drop, bring your resistance back a bit, and hold that for a few minutes.

How you’ll feel: This zone is a good casual zone, it should feel like you’re out riding with your family on a commuter bike on a pathway. You’ll notice your’e moving quickly on the flat road, but it’s not enough to really draw too much of a sweat. Your heart rate will rise as it would with a brisk walk, but you could hold this all day long.

Rider 1: Minimum Base Resistance = 125 Watts @ 55 RPM
Rider 2: Miminum Base Resistance = 75 Watts @55 RPM

Racing Resistance:

This zone is for when you’re pushing your bike along the straight aways, and even slightly up hill. The resistance is much higher than at your base zone, and that is emulating the bigger gear from your outdoor bike. As you take off here, you feel a noticeable ‘pull’ as you bring your pace up to the speed of the pack.

What to do: Bring your hands out to the racing position (Hands on the curve of the handlebars, or up to the bend), then find a 70-75 RPM Pace and add resistance until you see a noticeable drop from 70 to around 65-60. When you’re slowing down, challenge your legs and pick your pace up to around 80 RPM. Hold this at 2:00 without dropping speed.

How You’ll Feel: When you pick up your pace after it slows you down, you notice that momentum makes the gear easier to handle. You can test and challenge this by adding on more speed and noting how your body feels lighter. Another test is that if you completely relax your legs, your feet will come to a complete stop due to the resistance within about 3-5 seconds (NOTE: any longer means you don’t have enough resistance on your bike). AS you’re riding at 80-90 RPM, you’ll notice your heart rate rising and you’ll need to begin active breathing, or rhythm breathing.

Rider 1: Base Racing Resistance = 230 Watts @ 80 RPM
Rider 2: Base Racing Resistance = 125 Watts @80 RPM

Climbing Resistance (Seated)

Ready to burn some calories? This resistance zone is truly challenging every inch of your body. This zone pushes your legs into a power heavy wattage zone and you need to hold on with every inch to keep pace. Often, the pace slows down to around 65-75RPM, and you’re on the brink of being forced out of the saddle.

What to do: Bring your hands out to the racing position (hands out on the bars between the two bends), and find your 65-75 RPM. Grab as much resistance as you can with 80% effort or more, and turn until you start to drop to around 55-60 RPM. When you start slowing down, let go of the resistance knob, and bring your hands out, and pick your pace up to 65-70. Hold this for 45 seconds without dropping your speed.

How You’ll Feel: This is going to feel tough – The climbing zones dont last long, but they truly push your heart rate up! Your heart should start beating stronger, and your breaths become shorter. You’ll notice your body naturally attempting to sway back and forth, but it’s important to keep the upper body still. You may feel the need to pull up on the handlebars to accommodate the weight.

Rider 1: Base Racing Resistance = 360 Watts @ 70 RPM
Rider 2: Base Racing Resistance = 190 Watts @70 RPM

Climbing Resistance (Standing)

If you find yourself standing up on your bike, you are hopefully pushing some serious weight! It’s unfortunately SUPER common to see people stand for the sake of standing in the class. Remember why you’re climbing outside; when you stand up, it’s because there is too much resistance to stay seated, but you can’t stop your bike on a hill (Trust me, it’s embarrassing to carry it up)! When you stand, it’s not a break, but adds in a new level of cardio. You’ll see your power rise as you gear up, and your heart rate will come along for the ride too.

What to do: 
Start by adding in resistance until your legs begin to slow down starting at 65 RPM, keep challenging your body in the power climb position to hold on as you slow your legs. At around the 35-40RPM zone, you’ve earned the right to jump out of the saddle. ‘Take the bull by the horns’ and get your hands wayyyy out on the handlebars. As you rise, get back to the 65 – 70 RPM pace, and make note of your resistance. Hold this for 45 seconds without losing speed.

How You’ll Feel: Starting out before the climb can be very challenging. Your heart rate will rise, and you’ll notice that you’ll have to pull more on the back stroke of your pedal rotation to help snap you into the right position. Your body will want to hop around, but force your upper body to stay as still as naturally possible. Climbing is meant for short bursts and will max out your heart rate in a very short amount of time.

Rider 1: Base Racing Resistance = 480 Watts @ 65 RPM
Rider 2: Base Racing Resistance = 270 Watts @65 RPM

How to use this information:

The base zones, in my opinion, are meant to be your scoreboard. I attempt to push my base zones up every time I teach, and there are some days where it’s darn near impossible for me to keep my legs going, let alone pushing a new personal best, and there are other days where I see an opportunity to bring up my climbing power up by a few points.

Here’s my tip: You’re going to take at least 3-5 classes before you can really hone in on your zone, and you WILL make mistakes (by mistakes you’ll absolutely burn out in the first 15 seconds of a 2 minute race OR you’ll feel fresh and happy when the rest of the participants around you are ready to fall off their bikes).

Base resistance zones are used to allow you to progress through your classes, and become a better athlete overall!

I know, this is a TON of information – Swing by the studio and I’ll personally take you through a one-on-one review of your base zones and help you target it so that when you’re riding in a class, you have somethign to strive to.

See you soon,


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