Spinning by the Numbers: Harnessing a Need for Competence in the Quest for Fitness

When I was training for my marathon, it was pretty clear that I had to add in some form of cross-training. The bitter cold of last winter coupled with my reluctance to pony up for a gym membership led me to spinning, where you can buy classes a la carte. I reasoned that although the individual classes were expensive, I was still saving money over a gym membership I’d rarely use (and feel guilty about). Moreover, I know I’m more likely to follow through on a resolution to exercise if I’ve registered and paid for a specific class.

This morning I went to a 6 am spin class at Flywheel Boston with the lovely Melinda Sarkis. For those of you who know me, I am NOT a morning person, but as I said, registering and paying for a specific class seems to get my butt out the door.

One of the reasons I like Flywheel in particular is that they use something called a “Torq board.” Every bike is linked to a computer. You have a personal screen displaying your current level of resistance, your rotations per minute (RPM), and your “Torq,” which essentially a measure of the work you’ve expended so far. If you opt in, you can compete with others in the class and see your relative rankings on the Torq board at the front of the studio. For me, someone with a very high need for competence, this competition is incredibly motivating. It is not the most admirable thing about me, but I like nothing more than to beat other people in a competition.

My summary stats at Flywheel, and proof that my ranking this morning was due to my performance and not the competition.
My summary stats at Flywheel, and proof that my ranking this morning was due to my performance and not the competition.

But even aside from the competition, the personal metrics are really helpful to me. I think I work harder when I have subjective proof of my efforts. In other spin classes, I can sometimes catch myself rationalizing less effort. But the numbers on my screen don’t lie, so I have a much harder time fooling myself at Flywheel.

This morning I noticed I was doing more poorly than usual on the Torq board. Typically I find myself in 3rd or 4th place for the women (there are always a handful of really gung-ho ladies who take the top spots). This morning, I was struggling to maintain 7th place (although I am proud to say I eventually finished in 4th). I was wondering what was going on. Was it me? I’m not a morning person. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. My legs still feel a little tired from the marathon. Or was it something about the class? Are the people who show up for a 6 am spin class more motivated and/or fit?

Well, this is why I love data. After each class you can view your performance online, and see additional metrics like your mileage. What I discovered when I viewed mine was that I had a slightly below average performance (for me) this morning. So, I have to conclude that my struggles in this morning’s spin class were due to me and not to morning warriors. The good news? It means I have a better likelihood at dominating next time I get up for an a.m. session.