Head Games with Peloton Bike Statistics: the challenge of calibrating my nervous system  

I have a love-hate relationship with my Peloton bike.

Love: Easy access, anytime, any length, intense workouts with great music—not just on the bike. I also do their Pilates and light weights strength classes.

Hate: I am always so discouraged on the Peloton. It’s the statistics. The Peloton bike offers metrics up the wazoo and I can’t get them out of my head or my body. The bike tracks cadence (leg speed) and resistance (how hard it is to push against the pedal). Resistance can be dialed up or down by the rider. And, as the instructors always say in the intro to their rides, those two numbers (cadence and resistance) come together in a moment-to-moment output number (measured in watts) and at the end of the ride I have a single total output number, against which to gauge my previous efforts. Instructors cue a range for each of those numbers during the ride—for example, cadence 90-100 and resistance 35-45. I can barely ever maintain even the minimum resistance and cadence. So, that’s disheartening.

Then there are the comparative stats—the leaderboard, on which I can choose to track two different rankings—where I measure up against others who are “here now” riding simultaneously, or I can track my performance up against all others who have ever done the ride. More disheartenment. I am always in the bottom 5-10% of all riders who have ever done the ride. Every time.

This “reality” does not match my self-identity as an athlete. Yes, I recognize that I’m 56 years old and not as strong as I used to be. And, I am still quite strong. When I’m outside running or biking, I observe that I am not in the bottom 5-10% of others engaged in the same activity. Yet the Peloton metrics feed my personal narrative of insufficiency and I doubt my own strength. This doesn’t make me want to work harder, to push through, to climb the leaderboard, it makes me wonder why I bother.

I had heard from friends with Peloton bikes that calibration was a thing. As in, some bikes are calibrated hard and some are calibrated easy. Information I heard intellectually, but didn’t actually relate to myself. My nervous system decided that my bike was speaking truth to me about my strength.

My eyes opened this past Labor Day weekend. That’s when I rode a friend’s Peloton bike, my first experience of a calibration gap. My friend told me in advance that her bike is calibrated easy. This was even confirmed by a second friend who has ridden both bikes. Friend 2 assured me that my bike is calibrated hard. I was still doubtful. Until I rode Friend 1’s bike.

I did a 45-minute climb ride with Christine. My previous PR for the same genre of ride, with the same instructor, was 218 total output. My new PR?  438.

In case you’re wondering if I’d revolutionized by workout regime in the interim and accessed new untapped wells of strength, the answer is—no. All other factors are pretty much the same. If anything, I’m going through a stressful time in my life. I’m more tired than usual. I feel less perky in my workouts. Yes, those assessments are completely subjective. I don’t measure myself anywhere on workouts, except on the Peloton. I stopped measuring when I realized that the downside was more discouraging than the upside was encouraging. I’d put pressure on myself. The joy of a success was fleeting, compared to the pits of the you’re-not-so-strong-today-are-you? days. I can confirm that my calibration with running partners had not changed, which tells me that I am not breaking new strength barriers.

The wild increase in my PR was all just calibration. I knew that. I really (really) knew that. And yet, as I was riding, I felt revitalized. Stronger. More willing to push harder. While the higher PR was all due to calibration, I’m guessing that there was some small portion of that increase that was the result of the extra motivation of hitting the bigger numbers, not always falling off the bottom of the proposed ranges.

My mind knows that nothing is different, except the numbers, which are untrustworthy in both directions. And my nervous system takes its motivational cues from whatever baseless stats it’s served.

What a head game! Compare and despair! You are your only benchmark! And so on. We’ve all heard these truisms a million times. When will that message hit my nervous system?

13 thoughts on “Head Games with Peloton Bike Statistics: the challenge of calibrating my nervous system  

  1. Well that would frustrate me no end,! Why have all the comparative stats if they’re not meaningful? In Zwift with a smart trainer you can test and recalibrate your power readings. It’s why you can’t race with bikes, like the peleton bikes, that do a power conversion and use Z power rather than than a direct reading. I think I would just turn the comparative stats off and just do your own thing.

    1. I think there is some way to recalibrate, but it’s super complicated. And you’re right. I ought to just put the numbers away!

  2. I’m a fan of measuring my rides in BFUs (Big Fun Units). I don’t need those other statistics to know if I’m having fun. I keep my heart rate in the optimal zone at all times (non-zero). I make sure my speed is fast enough to not fall over and slow enough to not get speeding tickets. Watts? You’d have to hook a light bulb up to me to measure those. And I use LEDs so they don’t require many watts. BTW, BFUs are not measurable.

  3. Hey Mina!
    This post makes me glad that I use the Peloton app on my Bowflex bike rather than on the Peloton because I don’t get any of those stats. I am never on the leaderboard and I prefer it that way! I like competing solely against myself.
    Also, I just found out today that my Peloton app expired because I forgot to update my credit card. When I looked at renewing the difference is $16.99/month from the $12.99 I was paying. I was already feeling like I wasn’t using it enough and not crazy about some of the classes so may need to explore other options.

    1. I’m curious what you don’t like about the classes–I have my own opinions on that, too–I don’t always love the mix of hard core and cheeriness. Plus, there’s the “just tell that inner voice that says you can’t do this to fuck off”–because that always works so well. I try to just appreciate the ease of access and the challenge. Like the other morning I had to get my workout in before daylight, so I couldn’t go out on my mountain bike (or didn’t want to), so I did a 45 mins peloton pilates. I liked that I didn’t have search around for something, the workout was at my fingertips, as it were.

      1. The things I enjoy:

        – convenience, as you describe
        – good workout
        – sometimes I jive with the instructor. These days I like Cody Rigsby, Hannah Franklin, Sam Yo and Tunde. I still do Christine’s sometimes. What I like about Cody is it’s just fun. I don’t mind the pep talks sometimes but sometimes I just want fun and a hard workout.
        – when I connect with Christine, I really do. Good workout. Usually good tunes. Good distances.

        Things I don’t like:

        – my number one pet peeve is the amount that Jenn and Christine talk through the songs. I used to do the odd one with Jenn but she just never stops. And I feel kind of bad saying that but it’s just true. I have heard that on the peloton bike you can pick the option where their voice is quieter than the music. Can’t do that with the app. I have loved much of what Christine has to say and I have written about it. But sometimes what I liked gets grating. Like every ride doesn’t have to be “that” type of talk. But then I feel bad bc that makes me fickle.
        – with Christine she never stands. I like intervals. I don’t mind long sections in the saddle but I don’t want to do 60 min In the saddle. Sometimes I do what I want which they encourage but it also feels a bit like the plan B suggestion and I don’t like that.
        – they seem to do a lot more 20 min, etc than 45 min and up. I like 45 min and up. I do mix and match with the stack but I would rather just pick a longer ride.

        In the warmer months I only ride the bike about once a week bc I go to a class twice a week and run a couple times a week and do other things. But in September I was already doing more. I like it on my “off” days. And even though I run throughout the winter they get shorter and some months like February just make riding indoors much more realistic for a long cardio session.

      2. And even though I like “fun” some of the younger, peppier coaches are too much so for me. This is going to sound like snide but having a 20 something explaining to me why Bowie was so radical feels a bit much. Like just play Bowie and shhh. I don’t need you explaining it to me. But then I am not the demographic for that coach.

    2. Nicole, I had no idea that the music could be made to override the voice. Important new option! I think I’m with everything you said in your other comments. “That” talk is so welcome some days and so not others. And I’m still laughing about Bowie explained by someone who wasn’t born when he was rocking our worlds with Major Tom.

      1. Lol. And I should add that Jenn doesn’t just talk. She sings. Over the parts that you may be singing yourself, even in your head but instead you have Jenn singing.
        Part of the reason I have started doing Hannah’s is because she seems a mix between fun, not too cutesy and not too serious. And yeah, Cody cracks me up. Even when I don’t love the music he plays.

      2. Nicole – MONTHS past the point and you aren’t even doing Peloton anymore, but for others may be . . . . you CAN adjust the volume of instructor or music on the app. I use my iPhone for everything except riding and if you tough the screen there is a little slider icon (it is three lines with rectangles looking like a controls you slide) when you click on that the option for “more music” “original” or “more instructor” pops up. As I said, I know you are no longer using Peloton, but maybe this will be helpful to someone else. A thing to keep in mind, since the voice and volume are already set different the options might not do exactly what you want it to do, but usually there is a change.

  4. Hey Nicole: Welcome to “not being the demographic…”! 😉 When you get old enough, I don’t think we’re anybody’s demographic any more. (Not that I’m saying you’re old – it’s me that’s old.) I’ve never tried Peloton but I went to a Cycle Bar once and would much rather just ride my bike.

  5. So hear is the outdoor version of your calibration dilemma. I’ve been riding and racing outdoors for 27 years. I am not at peak fitness as I once was, but I’d like to think I am no slouch. We moved two years ago and I keep getting crushed by the local group rides. Dropped by folks 10 – 15 yrs my senior, on 10 – 15 yr old bikes, in 10 – 15 yr old bike clothes. It is disheartening to say the least.

    Last week I discovered that one of the friendly, soft spoken gents in the group, who has dropped me countless times – was a Euro pro for 8 years and rode in the TdF 3 times in the early 90’s. I am constantly re-calibrating my expectations.

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