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Cycle for your soul? The latest craze set to hit Ireland

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Gillian Fitzpatrick spin cycling at Cycle Studio, Stillorgan

Gillian Fitzpatrick spin cycling at Cycle Studio, Stillorgan

Nadia Forde does SoulCycle workouts when in the US

Nadia Forde does SoulCycle workouts when in the US

Roz Lipsett does SoulCycle workouts when in the US | Fennell Photography

Roz Lipsett does SoulCycle workouts when in the US | Fennell Photography

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Gillian Fitzpatrick spin cycling at Cycle Studio, Stillorgan

Save for the few candles that are dotted around the studio, it is otherwise dark. Largely clad in expensive gym gear, close to 60 punters have packed in - resulting in yet another sold-out class.

The instructor assumes his position on the stationary bike placed at the top of the room. "Let's go!" he screams, before cranking up a popular dance remix of Lana Del Ray's Summertime Sadness. A few more motivational "woo hoo" exclamations are thrown in and before long the class is pedalling furiously in time with the music. "You ARE beautiful," comes another cry.

"What will YOU achieve this week?" is next asked, followed by: "Be honest about WHO you are trying to be."

This is SoulCyle. Aiming to create a party atmosphere that focuses on both the mind and body, it seems like just another indoor cycling craze - much like spinning. However, its phenomenal success has led to a cult following, with many devotees saying the classes are utterly addictive.

And like all addictions, it doesn't come cheap. SoulCycle sessions cost around €25 to €30 a pop. That's before you add on optional extras like specialist shoes, branded water and body wash, as well as oodles of stylish workout gear flaunting the SoulCycle logo.

There are now more than 30 studios in Washington, New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as in New York and California. In September, it was announced that a London outlet is currently in the offing. In total, around 8,000 people everyday attend a SoulCycle class somewhere in the US. A few have admitted to moving house just so that they can be closer to a favourite studio.

Roz Lipsett (29), an Irish model based in the States, is the typical SoulCycle client: young, good-looking and busy. "I often get bored of my regular gym routine so I enjoy going to group classes," she explains to Health & Living from New York. "I love SoulCycle as it isn't your regular bike class. It's almost like a workout and a nightclub combined!

"It's tough, but it's also one of the most fun ways to work up a sweat and burn a few hundred calories."

Established in 2006 in Manhattan, SoulCycle had waiting lists within six months. But it really took off when the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Katie Holmes, Victoria and David Beckham, Kim Kardashian, and Nicole Kidman came through its doors. Supermodel Karlie Kloss has credited her SoulCycle instructor Akin (many of the trainers promoted on the brand's official website have unusual names like Taye, Jaws, String, Sunny and Love), for her Victoria's Secret body.

Paula O'Donnell runs the Cycle Studio from Stillorgan in Dublin's southside, a business she established 18 months ago. She also has some interesting insight into the success of SoulCycle: "On a basic level, it is just another indoor cycling brand - it's a fad in many ways because it doesn't offer anything new, but there is no denying that it's all been expertly branded."

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She continues: "I would liken it to shopping for a coat in, say, Zara; versus shopping for a coat in a high-end, designer boutique. The difference between the items themselves might be minimal, but with the branded coat you're paying for the whole boutique experience, and I suppose the prestige of having a designer item.

"SoulCycle at the moment is that high-end, designer boutique - it's fashionable right now."

Model Nadia Forde (25) tells Health & Living she has attended SoulCycle workouts in West Hollywood and New York. And she's a big fan.

"The instructors all have their own style of teaching: some shout deep and meaningful messages and some teachers are more like stand-up comedians. It just makes the class that bit more enjoyable. You walk away extremely sweaty but feeling great."

She adds: "I like spinning in general as it's a tough cardio workout, but SoulCycle adds in a section with light weights for the arms so I feel like I've done a full-body workout. You can even add on a 5lbs weights vest to challenge yourself that bit more."

However, Paula remains cautious of this policy. "I've also been to classes in Ireland where you're getting off the bike, down on to mats to do push-ups or squats in the middle of the session. I've had weights in my hands. I've seen classes being told to do upper body exercises using the bike's frame - there are plenty of those elements in SoulCycle, but I don't really agree with any of it.

"Cycling classes tone your lower body. It terms of fat loss you'll be burning on average 450 to 600 calories a class. I think it's the best workout out there, so let's not complicate things by trying to shove in additional elements in to a 45-minute session.

"If you spend too much time jumping in and out of the saddle and working out all the different hand positions you won't be generating enough specific muscular fatigue. It sounds like a good idea in theory - but the science rather begs to differ."

Professor Colin Boreham is director of the Institute for Sport and Health at UCD. He is also a former Decathlete, competing in the 1984 Olympics for Great Britain. He furthermore sits on the Irish Institute of Sport Advisory Panel. He agrees that any form of cycling is hugely beneficial, but explains that in-studio varieties do have some distinct benefits.

"It's a physically demanding pursuit - both indoors and out - but the specific advantage of being in a class rather than out in the open, is that you're more likely to push yourself harder and subsequently get more health benefits," Prof Boreham explains.

"Many people find that in a class environment they're more competitive and less likely to take it easy in front of the instructor."

He also says: "We know that the most effective health-boosting exercises are the ones that are fundamentally aerobic, but that also include short bursts of high intensity movement - and that includes cycling. Research shows that this is the most effective way of exercising.

"And ideally, the average person should be taking two classes a week."

I try out one of Paula's classes in Stillorgan. I've been to spin sessions before, but the dimmed lighting, party-type music and candles used - not to mention the pay-as-you-go business model - all nod in the same direction as SoulCycle.

The 45-minute stint is certainly intense, but I'm helped along by Paula's expert encouragement and by the monitor that's on the bike in front of me: I can track the time and my heart rate. The 9.30am class I attend is also refreshingly a mixed bag of ages and fitness levels.

One woman in the class, Susan, tells me in the changing room afterwards that she first began the classes in April while she prepared for a charity cycle race in France.

"I did the Paris2Nice cycle in September. It involves cycling 700km in six days. So I began the classes five months in advance to build up my fitness level."

Following a mixture of indoor and outdoor training, she says she was well-prepared:

"I particularly noticed it on the hills - some of those I was cycling with struggled on those really steep climbs, but I certainly felt like I'd a good overall level of fitness and that the Cycle Studio work stood to me."

But while Paula's classes are welcoming and inclusive - she greets pretty much everyone in the class by name - some have begun to question whether the "soul" of SoulCycle is inevitably beginning to wane as the company expands.

Indeed, one SoulCycle instructor spoke to Health & Living from LA, but asked not to be named. She explains: "I was approached by someone representing the brand when I was working in another well-known gym in LA about 18 months ago. I had to audition for the part, and I was delighted when I was subsequently offered a job - admittedly largely because the money is so fantastic.

"It's also potentially a platform on to other ventures: some of my colleagues are brand ambassadors for major sports wear companies. Others have contracts and agreements with diet products or protein shake brands."

And understandably for a company that has seen such rapid growth and now is worth millions, she says SoulCycle is keen to protect its image.

"We're told to keep an eye out for instructors from other gyms coming into the classes - the assumption being that they're there to pick up tips and poach clients. If they're caught, they're asked not to come back."

Despite SoulCycle classes being available to watch on the likes of YouTube, earlier this year one bootcamp instructor, Joey Gonzalez, says he was called by lawyers acting on SoulCycle's behalf after he attended one of the company's classes in California on a day off.

When he was told that he wouldn't be welcomed at another SoulCycle class, he took to Facebook to vent his frustration - and the post attracted considerable attention. Other fitness instructors then came forward to detail their own similar experiences.

Nevertheless, its fans remain fiercely loyal - and they're only growing in numbers. When the spinning brand was established 20 years ago, Rolling Stone magazine declared it the hottest exercise trend of the moment. So eight-year-old SoulCycle is merely the latest incarnation.

Whether it can maintain its incredible momentum, perhaps even branching out into Ireland, remains to be seen. But one message is clear: in an industry where trends come and go with lightning speed, indoor cycling remains one of the world's most beloved - and effective - workouts.

Indoor cycling jargon debunked

• Interval training: short periods of really hard work (15-30seconds) followed by a period of recovery. This recovery time can be less than, equal to, or more than the really tough segment, depending on the desired impact.

• Endurance training: in contrast to interval, endurance means longer stretches of less intense exercise - negating the need for frequent recovery.

• Recovery: this is vital! We only get the real benefits of the workout if we allow ourselves to recover in between the tough segments. During these periods of rest, physiological changes can take place. We all also need to take breaks in between training sessions.

• Active recovery: you're allowing your body to recovery - but you keep moving. Light resistance prevents the build of acid in muscles, which in itself allows you to perform better overall.

• Earned recovery: any recovery must be earned though! Improvements only happen if you challenge and stress your body. In order to develop, grow and improve, you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Paula O'Donnell, owner and instructor at cycle studio ireland, see www.cyclestudio.ie


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