Cycling any bike, whether a 500 euro entry level road bike or a 12,000 euro super bike relies on technique. There are of course many elements of technique that can be applied to riding a bike eg. climbing, descending, in-saddle, out-saddle, drops of handlebar, cadence (high RPM / low RPM) etc. but the fundamental element that is required to propel a bike in a forward motion is: Pedal Stroke.
Let’s look at some common theories associated with pedal stroke, which you may have heard or read about pedalling:
• Push down – (12 – 6 o’clock – quads) & Pull up – (6 – 12 o’clock – hamstrings)
• Toe Tipping / Toeing – when the angle of the ankle is greatly increased to bring the toes much lower than the heal.
• Scrape & Flick – scraping through the bottom of the pedal stroke & “flicking dog muck off your shoe”.
• Lance Armstrong – “Just pedal in circles.’’
Over the years when working with cyclists – most notably when bike fitting – I would often use golf as my starting point for explaining the imperativeness of excellent Pedal Stroke Technique for increased performance.
So why golf?
Well, golf is a good example because technique is crucial in executing the perfect body position, control and handling of the club in order to maximise the delivery of the shot about to be taken.
It also has a great comparison with cycling in terms of equipment versus technique.
I personally don’t mind going to a golf driving range and hitting some balls, but I am shocking at it in terms of controlling the swing, follow-through and striking the ball. More often than not, I would miss the ball and subsequently increase the risk of injury.
So, would using a golf club that is an expensive state of art club make me a better golfer? No, I would just be a very bad golfer with a very expensive golf club. But, should I spend time with a coach on the driving range, breaking down all elements: hand grip, shoulders, arms, feet, draw-back, eyes, etc. then suddenly, when everything comes together, my success rate of actually hitting the ball massively increases, plus the direction I want it to go actually becomes possible.
Cycling is no different at all. A very expensive super bike does not make your pedalling technique better than someone who may be riding an entry level road bike. But unfortunately, when we go to buy a bike from a shop, apart from some small advice on saddle height adjustment to get you on the road, you are unlikely to experience any further in-depth guidance on riding, and in particular – pedalling technique.
Technique is of course not just isolated to the activities of cycling and golf, but is also the foundation for all sports such as: swimming, skiing, running, tennis, football, just to name a few, and even non sporting activities such as music and art are also reliant on this foundation.
So ultimately, the topic of technique is not a new concept, it just requires attention to be drawn to it.
So, what is the overall objective of wishing to address the topic of pedal stroke technique for improved cycling performance?
To deliver the most direct force possible throughout the pedal stroke from optimised positioning, technique, and training to maxmise power output & efficiency.
Here are some thoughts on the elements mentioned within the objective:
When looking at the rider and bike relationship, it is important to remember that as humans, we are simply not designed to ride bikes. Therefore our positioning over the bike (bikefit) is very important for comfort over long periods of time. Positioning is also crucial to ensure our bodies are optimised so that muscles deliver strength using their maximum capacity potential for increased power and efficiency, and to of course decrease the risk of any kind of overuse injury due to muscular imbalances from over-firing muscle groups. Optimised positioning applies to all cycling disciplines – Road, MTB, TT, etc. because we are striving to maximise performance in them all. The important anchor to all bike positions is your cleat setup – if the cleats are not in the correct position then the rest of your position is compromised.
Using the earlier photo of rider Alaphilippe on the Time Trial bike – we can see that his position looks super balanced, his body is definitely not stretched out over the bike, and from the legs we can see that he is utilising the full capacity of the leg muscles. How? Pedalling relies on the foot – most notably the ankle – for setting the foundation of the leg muscles being able to function to their full range and capacity potential. We can see that Alaphilippe’s toe to heel are level and exactly parallel to the ground as he is pushing down. Why important? Well, this is were the calf muscles come in. By continuing to push through the pedal stroke with the mid foot and maintaining a parallel position(heel to toe) while exerting power, then he will ensure that the calf muscles remain ‘open’ and able to exert to the full potential of strength using the full range of the muscle. But if he was to continue to only push on the down stroke using his toes then this generally encourages the heel to raise higher than the forefoot, opening the angle of the ankle (anterior), therefore shortening the calf muscles and placing a restriction on their ability to exert strength to their full capacity.
I often use the analogy: if watering your garden with a hose – you don’t want to have a bend in the hose restricting the water flow.
Muscles function in the same way – but with a much more complex structure. But the principle is the same. Muscles need blood to carry oxygen and nutrients to them, therefore if you restrict this process then you will place limiters on the muscle’s performance potential. Over an extended period, muscle shortening, and imbalances can begin to materialise to the point of creating a decrease in your performance.
We will explore the pros and cons of various techniques you may have heard of in the next section, but the conclusion to optimised position when relating to pedal stroke, is to ensure muscles can function without any obstruction to their range and capacity.
When taking in all the things mentioned regarding foot, ankle and muscle capacity, then we need to look at the considerations to make all these things function in unison to create an efficient, fluid and powerful pedal stroke.
I personally feel it is important to not over complicate things, because when you are going to be turning the pedals anything from 80-100 rpm while riding, then the last thing you need is the added stress of keeping track of tens of thousands of pedal revolutions during your ride.
So here are some tips:
Cleat Setup: Cleats are the anchor, they should be aligned properly on the shoe in relation to the bone structure of the metatarsals of the foot (bones of toes). Once set, they are fixed.
Ankle: Many riders use the ankle as a fixed structure to dictate the direction and angle of the foot – particularly on the down stroke. I do not agree with this. The ankle should be a ‘hinged link’ that is supporting the transfer of muscular power from the legs to the cleat, but not a fixed structure dictating certain angles and positions of the foot – ie toes down etc. The leg is one long lever, and the ankle joint is one of the passing links in that lever.
Foot position: The important consideration is to ensure that all downward force is directed through the strongest most supportive part of the foot (between first and fifth metatarsal heads) which is were the cleat should be correctly aligned too. Avoid pushing with the toes and raising the ankles higher than the forefoot – the whole length of the foot should feel in full contact with the insole of the shoe from heel to toe. Force to be directed with the foot pushing parallel towards the ground with the ankle supporting the direction but not stiff and restrictive. The execution movement should be no different to doing standing squats in a gym where the full length of the foot would also be in contact with a gym floor.
Muscle Capacity: To ensure optimised muscle capacity, it is important that there are no impediments to the muscle function, and the points mentioned (1-3) are all crucial to muscle length and maximised capacity for performance
Having explored the overall objective of having a good pedal stroke, let’s revisit some of the common theories mentioned at the beginning and look at some Pros and Cons associated with each:
1) Push down & Pull up: I am against this theory, which normally raises people’s eyebrows. But here is why…… Firstly, if you concentrate the force as two separate motions then you accentuate the risk of creating ‘dead spots’ at the top and bottom of the pedal stroke where there ends up being a break in the force which creates a loss of power. Secondly, when considering the distribution of force, it tends to be very uneven due to the push of the pedal from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock position and then a separate pull motion from 6 o’clock back to 12 o’clock. Therefore, in doing so, the rider has not created a circular motion, but that of an egg (think Rotor Q.Ring).
Thirdly, the dangerous part of ‘push & pull’ is that the push is a more natural motion of the leg therefore can feel easier, but because ‘pull’ feels less natural – especially for the hamstrings – then many riders will aim to exert more effort on executing the pull, and then there is a high risk of overexertion on the insertions of the hamstring muscles behind the knee. When muscle insertions become loaded with more load than they are used to (mostly at the Musculo Tendonous Junction – MTJ), then posterior knee pain can materialise which is very common for those riders starting out on being clipped in for the first time.
2)Toe- tipping / Toeing: When we start riding with cleats then the feeling of pushing with the toes can feel like the thing that has to be done because this is perhaps been the advice given, or from our own assumptions. But this is not the case, which will be outlined later in this blog. With good precise cleat setup, then we should be thinking about distributing the pushing force through the whole foot to the cleat, rather than a toe focused action. If the cleat has been pushed too far forward on the shoe when set up, then this does also cause the rider to be more ‘toes-down’. When the focus is on the toes, then this encourages a raising of the heel, making it higher than the toes in order to try and exert more power through the toes on the down stroke. Also, when the heels become raised higher than the forefoot / toes then the calf muscles are put into a shortened state which will increase the rate of fatigue. (Try walking around your home with your heels raised as a test of how quickly the fatigue can start).
There used to be a common believe that having the cleats all the way forward on the shoe and having a toe-down style of pedaling, was actually what generated more power, but as more science and data came to the fore, then this idea is being proven otherwise. On long rides, and also rides that involve lots of climbing, a toes-down style can be a major contributor to numbness in the toes due to over-compression of plantar nerves of the foot.
3) Scrape & Flick: This technique was very popular particularly in the 80’s / early 90’s. The intended motion through the pedal stroke was the idea of visualising that there is mud stuck to the sole of your shoe of which you imagine you are scraping it off the shoe as you push/drag through the bottom of the pedal stroke. Then the subsequent response to the scraping is to flick the toes on the upstroke to bypass the top of the pedal stroke in readiness for the next down stroke. For those that have trained to master this technique, it can look very fluid and quite graceful. Having tried it, I did notice an improvement to the fluidity of the pedal stroke with smoother circles, but with so much concentration required to keep such motion consistent, it felt like too much to think about. But, like all techniques, it can take a while with training for things to feel natural in which the body takes over with less reliance on the mind. The other added opinion is the potential for fatigue around the ankle joint and the anterior muscles of the lower leg in executing the ‘scrape’ movement. But possibly, much like the body and mind, it could begin to feel less fatiguing with consistent training over time.
4) ‘Just pedal in Circles’- Lance Armstrong. He said and did many wrong things in his career, but I must admit that this straightforward quote from him is exactly what we want to achieve. Essentially, by thinking about a circle around a complete revolution then we seek to have consistent power distributed all the way around a complete circle, which is generally what most riders do not do, especially if they use the ‘push pull’ technique which creates more of an egg shape. You will recall that I have already mentioned that I am against ‘push pull’ – mostly due to ‘pull’, so now is a good time to address what I believe should be a consideration, if I do not want a rider to ‘pull’ on the up stroke.
To create a fluid, power efficient pedal stroke then the ‘circle’ is imperative to maximising efficiency for output, and also decrease the likelihood of any overuse injuries materialising particularly around the hamstring insertions. So, if we do not ‘pull’ on the upstroke, then what do we do to make being clipped into the pedal worthwhile? Well, rather than think of the term ‘pull’ I much prefer to use the term ‘support’. To support the down stroke with an equal torque on the upstroke is much more beneficial to fluidity of the circle and greatly reduces the risk of straining the insertions of the hamstrings at the back of the knee. While it is merely the change of one word (pull – support), it is the psychology behind the word that can completely change our view of the upstroke. Support means that we should not exert more force on the upstroke to that which is being exerted on the down stroke. Using watts as an example: do not push down with 300 watts and try to pull up with 400 watts. If pushing with 300 watts then support on the upstroke with 300 watts.
Direct Effective Force + Equalled Circular Motion = Increased Efficiency
Training for smooth equalled circular motion – Why?
There are many muscles of the lower body which are required in cycling and a good pedal stroke requires balanced structure, activation and recruitment of muscles to maximise power output and increased efficiency. The most dominant muscle groups are that of the quadriceps (anterior leg) and the hamstrings (posterior upper leg). Therefore, good positioning on the bike; focused training on and off the bike, will ensure that full strength potential is being exploited to maximise output on the bike.
Further to this, balanced muscles also help greatly in reducing the risk of developing overuse injuries, for example: over dominant quads could induce knee pain, and over dominant hamstrings & hip flexors can be the cause of lower back pain.
So, what kind of exercises can be incorporated into your training to develop a more efficient and powerful pedal stroke?
OFF THE BIKE TRAINING
This refers to the body’s ability to gage space. For example: standing on one leg and all the micro adjustments your body makes to try and achieve balance, is the best example of proprioception.
Proprioception should form an extremely important proportion of rider’s ‘off the bike’ training for all disciplines, especially mountain biking, cross and BMX. This is due to the requirement of muscles to perform with strength outside of the normal alignment associated with road cycling.
While Peter Sagan can make it look easy doing squats on a full size exercise ball, for most people starting on a Bosu ball can be much more approachable. If using a Bosu ball for the first time, then just standing on one leg on the ball may feel impossible, but with continued training then you will begin to feel the body responding as proprioception increases, and you will be able to progress into further exercises such as single leg squats, single leg glute raises, and of course not forgetting some proprioceptive core work too.
Gym strength is important for every cyclist for setting the foundation and development of power on the bike. A riders annual training plan should have strength structured throughout, and the rate and intensity should correspond to the training phases of the training plan. Strength work is a huge contributor to also improving overall economy when sustaining a given power at a particular VO2 marker.
Single leg exercises and squats etc, are important at the proprioception stage of training, and gym strength work is the opportunity to develop on this to add much greater load to muscle, to increase strength and capacity.
There are some riders such as Nathan Haas (pictured) who have presented some videos of their strength training routine. One very interesting topic that Nathan raises, relates to cycling specific joint range of rep execution. It’s certainly a very interesting topic and one that does make sense to train the muscles in the ranges in which the pedalling motion requires. But as with all weight training, diligence to good technique is super important to avoid injury. If technique is something you are unsure of in the gym, then seeking guidance from a personal trainer is highly recommended to get you started.
Strength reps & intensity recommendation:
3 x 12 – 15 reps @ 60% of 1Rep Max
Equal number of reps are important especially if working each side of the body separately, eg, single leg press. This ensures that the risk of developing muscle imbalance between left and right sides is decreased.
ON THE BIKE TRAINING
Doing specific training for pedalling technique on the bike, is excellent for creating rider awareness to the requirements of each muscle group of the legs, to create a smooth efficient circle throughout the pedal stroke.
Many riders feedback when they first attempt single leg drills is that of ‘pedaling squares’, where they simply cannot control the fluidity around a complete revolution of the crank. Further to this, fatigue builds up very quickly in the muscles that are suddenly firing more than they may be familiar doing. So, single leg drills are excellent for the neurological training of muscles to perform in the way we want, and not just for building strength.
Single leg drills should be done on a flat quiet road or on a turbo trainer and is a good continuation of an extended warm up prior to the main work of your training session. Should you experience pain especially around the knee then stop the interval and continue pedaling normally at very low intensity. As mentioned previously, single leg work can cause fatigue in muscles very quickly which in turn places more load on the muscle tendons, which are not flexible!
|Single Leg Drills|
|On a flat quiet road / or turbo with EASY gearing / RPE 6 x 5 reps.|
Pedal with your right leg only for 30” (sec) @ 80rpm.
Pedal with your left only leg for 30” @ 80rpm.
Pedal with both legs for 1′ @ 100-105rpm
(Total x 5 = 10’ for the set)
|Low Cadence Work|
|2 x 12′ of 3/1 Strength Work.|
3’ @ 60rpm / RPE 8/10.
1′ recovery (as easy as possible) @ 100rpm.
(Repeat 2 more times for 12′ set)
Low cadence intervals are best described as: weightlifting on the bike.
Low cadence intervals (50 -60 rpm) at an above medium to high intensity are excellent for not only building strength, but also a great way for improving the fluidity of your pedal stroke. The combination of power and required torque increases the rider’s awareness to the effective force and smoothness around the complete circle of the stroke and activates all the muscles that have been targeted during proprioception work and single legs drills.
If during any intervals of low cadence, acute pain around the knee is experienced, then it is very important to stop the interval and return to a lower intensity at a higher cadence. As mentioned previously, low cadence intervals are replicating weightlifting on the bike, therefore it is important to listen to your body during any kind of strength work…. on the bike or off.
It is of course normal to experience muscle fatigue, not just in the legs, but also through the lumbar area of the back. The lower back can signify the activation of the psoas muscles which originate from T12 of the thoracic spine to L5 of the lumbar spine when placed under load such as low cadence strength work, so fatigue can build quickly during intervals. Care should be taken if fatigue develops into acute pain, if so, then stop immediately and return to very easy spinning.
To further explore the benefits of continuous training, especially specific on and off the bike; below is a comparison between two riders who underwent some pedal analysis and perfectly shows the percentages of effective force (down stroke) and the brake force (up stroke) for each rider, and highlights which rider could benefit from some focus on specific training and technique guidance to increase their overall efficiency and maximise the return on their output.
(Recreational cyclist with no specific on/off bike specific training)
(Professional rider at World Tour level)
It is very clear that Rider B is able to present a large percentage of effective force to maximise their efficiency. The aim of having the brake force percentage as low as possible is clear to see between the two riders. For Rider B to achieve such low percentages of brake force will be testament to all the specific on and off the bike training that is required to stay at a professional level, where the margins in performance can be extremely small. The important thing to note is that every rider, regardless of ability, can train to improve their pedalling efficiency.
OPTIMISE EFFECTIVE FORCE % OF THE PEDAL STROKE AND DECREASE THE BRAKE FORCE.
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS AND PRACTICES
Pedal Type: SPD / SPD SL (MTB / ROAD)
Depending on the discipline you are primarily engaged with, then pedal type is something to consider, especially if you are using a type that may not be giving you benefits. For example: using a Shimano SPD (more common off-road system) for riding on-road, is absolutely fine. Many people often prefer it due to having a double sided pedal, and also an MTB/off-road shoe may be desired if they plan to walk around a lot, or perhaps they are touring on a road bike. But, if you are training, racing or just seeking to find improvements to your performance output on the road, then selecting a road based pedal system can bring many benefits including: wider cleat / lower pedal interface allowing for more lateral stability of the knee for the transfer of power from body to bike.
Type of Shoe (Off-road / Road)
Closely related to the previous point, the key difference between a road shoe and off-road shoe primarily comes down to the stiffness of the sole.
Road shoes generally have a much stiffer sole which is often made from carbon or a carbon composite material and much more suited to withstand the power demands on the road, especially sprinting . Off-road shoes can have quite stiff soles, but they are designed to have more flexibility which makes them more versatile, especially if off the bike, eg. touring, commuting or running during a cyclo-cross race.
Bike Fit / Cleat Positioning
- Body balanced over the bike.
- Cleats ensure alignment of the leg and pelvis to maximise muscle capacity.
The role and overall importance of bike fit to any cyclist regardless of level, really cannot be recommended highly enough. Often pain is the main trigger for many riders seeking out a bike fit, when really the bikefit should preempt everything, to help to reduce the risk of positioning ever putting the body in pain.
If seeking a bike fit, then be sure to research thoroughly the business / bike fitter, even contacting them to ask any questions relating to your experiences so you can decide if they will be a good match for you.
Bike fit as a service has become a bit of a ‘band-wagon’ throughout the last 10 years, with many shops seeing a commercial opportunity to create more in-store turnover with a greater profit margin. Many bike fit ‘brands’ or systems have not helped, as their objective was also to capitalise, by trying to make bike fit easy and accessible for shop staff with short 3-5 day courses.
The reality is that bike fit is a service whereby the fitter will make changes that can have an affect on a person’s body, therefore if the fitter does not have a good knowledge of the body (anatomy, physiology and biomechanics) then proceeding with care is highly recommended – especially if you are already suffering with discomfort and pain. Knowledge and experience are paramount for every bike fitter,, so do not compromise on asking questions in advance of making a booking with someone.
Power Meter / Dual Sided
Training with power has now become so accessible, and the amount of data and metrics that can be available is excellent, especially live data.
Where possible, a power meter that is dual sided (provides individual readings for each leg) is highly recommended. Dual sided is excellent for everyone, but especially if a rider has known biomechanical discrepancies that they need to monitor, or perhaps even to assist with rehabilitation from injury. Most people will have minor percentage differences in output between each leg. For example: L = 48% R = 52%. But anything more than this does warrant further investigation.
Fixed gear single speed (Winter Training, Track)
It used to be common that a proportion of winter / base training would, for many riders, include time spent riding a single speed fixed gear bike. Of course this would also require carefully selected route profiles if on the road, but the overall objective would be to use fixed as a means to work on muscle activation, leg speed, development and training of pedal stroke fluidity.
Riding on the track is another great way to train fixed within a controlled environment.
Q-Rings & Asymmetric Chainrings
The overall objective of each type is to increase pedalling efficiency by decreasing the amount of time spent in the ‘dead spot’ ( 12 & 6 o’clock position); increase the amount of time in the ‘power zone’ and decreasing fatigue over longer durations.
Each type / brand of chainrings will present their performance gains based on the research they have carried out. But ultimately, any rider who has not fully invested in focusing on technique and training of themselves, as outlined in this blog, prior to moving onto oval chainrings, will not execute their full performance potential in the long term. Overall, oval / asymmetric rings are not a bad thing, it is simply a case of the rider assessing the percentage gains they may achieve from using them, versus the gains from starting with much more focused technique and training work prior to moving onto the chainrings.
Pedalling a bike is normally just taken for granted, which is completely understandable. But if you are seeking to maximise your efficiency and explore further margins of improvement to your performance, then it really is worth investing time to experiment with some of the concepts mentioned.
It is important to remember that what works for someone else, may not work for you. Listen to your body and monitor your data files to track your performance profile if you are trying things out.
If you enjoyed this post or have tried out some of the suggestions, then why not drop a line and share your thoughts and experiences!
It would be great to hear from you!