When the pandemic hit and Peloton popularity skyrocketed, soon most of my friends and coworkers were getting bikes and starting to chatter about their Peloton scores. Peloton score was becoming a social status symbol in this really weird, pandemic environment. Never one to back down from a social status challenge, I decided I wanted to reach the top — to finish in the top 1% of a 30-minute ride.
But one thing was holding me back — I wasn’t in that great of shape. Some background on me: I’ve had a Peloton since 2017 (a self-serving Christmas gift for my wife). In 3 years I didn’t even hit 100 rides. Definitely not a Peloton pro. For general fitness levels, I’m probably in the top 30–50% of athletic mid-30-year olds with kids and sedentary office jobs — nowhere near a top 1%-5% athlete. So how the hell was I going to reach a 1% finish on Peloton?
Following similar styles of Tim Ferriss and Jonathan Bales, I decided to “hack” Peloton performance, by using game theory and finding the edges to exploit.
The key to this challenge for me — I didn’t need to become a top 1% Peloton athlete (this would take months/years of training), I simply needed to generate a top 1% output score within the bounds of a 30-minute class.
To get started, I first did the math. Using the data from my previous classes and typical leaderboards, I figured out what level of output I would need to get a 1% finish. I calculated that it would take an average output of ~300–310 kj’s to reach an output in the mid-500’s, which what I was seeing consistently in the 1%. So I had my answer. I knew the target. Now I had to figure out how to reach that level of output for a 30-minute period.
To level set, my typical output at that time was around 200 kj’s (I was getting beat by my wife). I needed to increase it by over 50% — a massive jump. I realized I needed to find several edges, not just one or two.
My first experiment was riding at the top max end of the instructor’s recommended zones for the entire class, and when I did that, I typically finished in only the top 15–20%. I learned immediately that the top riders weren’t staying within the class zones or maybe even listening to the instructor at all.
Then I dove deeper. I experimented with several different class types, different instructors and riding techniques over the course of 2–3 months. I learned the typical frequency of rest periods, length of warmups and cool downs. I studied the top of the leaderboard in each class to see what it would take to get to the 1% and how far off I was. I reviewed my metrics and output data on the Peloton app after classes, seeing how my average resistance and cadence were impacting my output.
After a few months of trials, it started clicking. I was rocketing up the leaderboard, finishing in the top 2–5% consistently. And then in February of 2021 I hit a new PR and finished in the top 100 of a 20,000+ ride.
How did I do it? I found the edges to exploit and went all-in from a mental and physical effort standpoint. I summarize those edges in the 5 tips below.
Before I dive in, a few quick disclaimers:
Disclaimer 1: You have to be in moderate cardio shape to actually beat your friends or finish in top 1% of rides. But not great shape by any means. Again, I’m in moderate shape (235 lbs., 20–25% bodyfat), and live a fairly sedentary lifestyle. If I can do it, you can too.
Disclaimer 2: This is not fitness advice. Of course there are other, better ways to PR, like building up cardio endurance, leg strength, increased training, VO2 max, etc. This post isn’t about that — it’s about game theory and quick wins to score big.
Alright, let’s dive in.
Tip 1: Warm up (mentally and physically) before your ride. If you follow your instructors 4–10 minute warmups in super low resistance zones, you’ll tank your average output for the ride before you even get started. I either take a quick warmup ride or warmup off-bike for any serious attempts at PRs. When you do get started, you should be in high FTP zone 3 or low 4, and you should look to move to zone 5–6 fairly quickly (if you don’t know what FTP is, see my explainer below). This means you’ll likely need to be somewhat ignoring the instructor’s commands (see Tip 2).
To PR, I recommend figuring out your target average output for the ride before the class, and trying to get to that average within 3–5 minutes. You’ll have to be pushing pretty hard to get here and it sets the tone for the class — it’s going to be a tough 30 minutes. But what did you expect for a 1% finish?
From a mental standpoint, you need to know going in that you’re trying to max out and PR. And you have to execute that mindset right out of the gate from the first minute of the class all the way to the end.
Tip 2: Forget about the instructor’s guides and recommended bands. Use the FTP guides more than your instructor’s cadence and resistance levels, as you’ll never PR or get a high leaderboard finish staying within these parameters. I’m not saying to just tune out the instructor and do your own thing — that would be no fun and why even take the class? But instead of purely relying on their resistance ranges, find your own (hint: they need to be a lot higher), and generally track your FTP output against what you perceive to be the difficulty at each stage. For instance, if you’re taking a HIIT class, you can still push and rest on your instructor’s callouts, just do it at a higher resistance and lower speed. The big point here is that you can’t limit yourself to the instructor to maximize your score.
Quick sidebar — Take your FTP test! FTP on peloton stands for Functional Threshold Power, and they use the number to create 7 output zones based on perceived exertion. You can take a 20-minute FTP test ride to determine your score and the bike will add new metrics showing your 7 zones in each ride. In theory your average output is in zone 4 and thus all time spent above zone 4 is above your average. You should aim to spend as much time in zone 6 and 7 as possible to PR, but you can only do this if you know your zones. My biggest rookie mistake was not taking this test and just guessing at my zones.
Tip 3: Get out of the damn saddle and stay out. If you want to PR, you absolutely need to maximize your time out of the saddle with highest resistance you can handle. The easiest and best way to increase your average output (and overall output score) is to spend big minutes out of the saddle and in 70–80+ resistance zones. The per-minute output is just so high when you’re at these levels it balances out your intro minutes and rest minutes. In my latest PR ride, I got out of the saddle 2:30 into the class and never sat back down.
To be able to hit these levels and maintain, your cadence needs to be low. You should likely be in the 50–70 band for most of the class. If you’re consistently riding above 70, your resistance is too low and you’re leaving too much output on the table. This tip took me the longest to realize (it seemed counter-intuitive to drop my cadence), but made the biggest difference in my output. Slow and steady at the highest resistance possible, with some peak interval exertion pushes mixed in to balance out rest periods, is the optimal strategy. I elaborate on this and show the data in the technical analysis section below.
Tip 4: Minimize rest. This is a PR-try so you’re going to have to push hard. But rest will be necessary a few times in the ride to support the exertion required. The key — rest for 15–30 seconds instead of 1–2 minutes like the instructors offer. And learn how to rest out of the saddle at a resistance like 50–60, versus sitting on a flat road at 30. Any time spent resting at a resistance in the 30s ruins any chance you have at a top finish.
This tip especially applies to the final minute of the class. Go all out the final minute. This is typically reserved for the rest and recovery zone, but if you’re trying to smash your buddies high score and PR, you better be going all-out while he’s relaxed on the bike and barely pedaling. It may go against the “spirit” of the class, but who cares? This is a game and we’re trying to win. You should be in FTP zone 7 for the final minute if at all possible, or if you’re already burned out from the final class push, stick in zone 5–6 out of the saddle as opposed to stripping all the resistance. You’ve already pushed for 29 minutes so what’s 1 more minute of hell?
Tip 5: Class selection. I almost left this tip out, as the post is meant to tell you how to finish in the top 1% of any class. But if you’re going for a PR overall, class selection is important. While my early PR’s often came from interval training classes (HIIT, Tabata’s), I don’t recommend these for big scores. I’ve found the levels of exertion called for at the peak intervals for these class types makes it too difficult to maintain a high average output across the entire class.
In my experience, climbing classes (pure climbs or “HIIT and Hills”) seem to be the best and I prefer Sam Yo as the instructor. They’ll allow you to spend the most time at the highest resistance levels and out of the saddle, which I’ve already explained is the best strategy to reach a top score. I’ve had by far my most success with these types of classes.
Those are the tips I’ve used to reach the 1%, and they helped me raise my PR by about 50% in just a few months. If you use 1–2 of these tips alone, it’s likely enough to PR with the right class. But if you use all 5, you should be PR’ing on any ride.
OK, so that’s the qualitative summary. I’ve got some quantitative data analysis for the true nerds out there in this next section, if you’re still with me.
Peloton technical analysis: Anatomy of a 1% finish
Data analysis is important. If you’re not looking at your Peloton data, you’re operating sub-optimally and you have very little chance of ever getting to the 1% (unless you’re a top athlete). The 3 key charts to focus on in analyzing any ride (and mentally planning out a PR ride) are the Cadence, Resistance and finally Output.
Cadence: Consistent and relatively low
Speed kills your peloton score. Seriously. If you’re an average athlete like me, you likely can’t maintain a cadence in the 100s at any resistance above 45. So don’t try. Forget about high cadence and focus on resistance — resistance is the key to output. You’ll see in the chart above that I started with a relatively high cadence in the first few minutes, and then almost immediately settled into my steady state cadence, between 50–70 rpm. If your average cadence is far above 70 rpm, you’re sacrificing output by leaving resistance on the table. Change your mindset and forget about cadence if you want to PR.
Resistance: Go high fast, and maintain as long as you can
Based on my historical performance and calculations, I knew I needed to have an average resistance in the 70s to have a shot at a PR and a 1% finish. Here’s how I made it happen:
I got to my average resistance quickly, within 5–7 minutes. This is absolutely critical but also one of the hardest things to do. It is likely the biggest differentiator vs average riders and a huge key to finishing high on the leaderboard. To accomplish this, you absolutely must come in to class warmed up and focus on getting to your highest comfortable resistance ASAP.
I avoided too many big pushes as well as any resistance strips. I only dipped below 74 resistance briefly at minute 7, from 14–15 and 21–22.
I maintained a level about 10% above my average (in the 80s) for most of the final 2/3 of the class, with few pushes or reductions. If you try to push too hard, you’ll burn out and won’t last for the whole class (trust me, I’ve done it). On the flip side, you simply can’t rest much to have a shot at the 1%. You’ll see the final 6–7 minutes I basically just maintained the same resistance the whole time.
Output: Aim for 5–10% above your target goal
Output is simply the combination of cadence and resistance, so not a whole lot of new information here. But it is helpful to look at the data to analyze the ride and draw conclusions.
One immediate takeaway from the above is that I dipped below my average only 3 times on the ride, for less ~3 minutes in total. This was a conscious and calculated choice, in line with my tip 4 above to minimize rest. But to execute this, you have to know your target output going into the class, so you can focus on not dipping below that threshold.
Another takeaway is the value of short peaks/sprints with relatively longer troughs. You can see these specifically between minutes 10–15 above and 17–20. Every single second you can spend 50%+ above your target output is gold. I peaked at 496 output in this ride specifically, but essentially every minute spent at that high of a level buys 30–45 seconds of “rest” later on to maintain your average. The more of these you can do without over-exerting the better.
That is a great segue to my final analysis point — the importance of monitoring your exertion levels. You have to know when you have gas in the tank to push and when you don’t. In the chart above, I was clearly pushing hard minutes 10–14 and 17–20, but didn’t really push again until a final push at minute 28. I basically tried to maintain a consistent 10% above average output for the final 10 minutes of the class. I was already so gassed that I was in “just make it to the end” mode and it paid off. I didn’t even have enough left to make a push in the final minute, but I had enough to stay above my 310 average which is what I knew needed to happen.
Overall, this ride was good enough for a 1% finish but could certainly be improved upon. Easy takeaways that jump out from the data include an even faster warmup and getting to average within 2–3 minutes vs 4–5, and dabbling at even higher resistances with lower cadence. I do think there is a tradeoff at a certain resistance level where you do sacrifice output (for me I think this is 85–90+) but certainly worth some additional trial.
If you made it this far, you certainly have the tools now to PR your next ride. Good luck and let me know how it goes! You can find me on Peloton @tdwarner, so look for me and we can have some friendly competition.
You can also find me at the top of the leaderboard in any of your classes…