Pedal Power

By Coach Nick Morrison

Pedaling efficiency and technique is an important skill to master for all cyclists. It’s key for success at all race distances, and especially over longer and longer distances. Not only that, but offseason/winter/indoor training is a great time to focus on it.

The goal

An efficient pedal stroke is when the cyclist is pushing/pulling on the tangent of the circle that the pedals make at every point. Imagine looking at a bike from the right side like in the diagram. Think of the pedal stroke like a clock. At 12, a cyclist should be pushing forward, at 3 pushing straight down, at 6 pulling back, and at 9 pulling up. Avoid the tendency to just think about pedaling as an up and down motion.

Pedal Stroke

Drills

There are a couple of drills that I like to have my athletes work on to improve their pedaling efficiency. Both are easiest to do on an indoor trainer but can also be done riding outside. If you try these outside, just make sure you pay attention to your surroundings and pick a safe path, quiet road, or parking lot to try these out.

The first drill is called spin-ups. Shift down to your easiest gear and lower the resistance on your trainer all the way down. Then spin-up to the highest cadence you can maintain. As you reach your limit, you’ll probably feel your hips start to bounce around on the saddle. We want to try and eliminate that, so really focus on rounding out the bottom of your pedal stroke and pulling back at 6 o’clock. Also think of pedaling forward and backward instead of up and down. As you improve, you should feel your hips settle into place in the saddle and you should also notice that you can hold a higher cadence.

The second drill is called single leg or peg leg. Again, shift down to your lowest gear/easiest resistance. Unclip one foot and rest it against your chain stay (avoid rubbing your heal against the wheel!). Then pedal with just one leg. Focus on keeping a constant pedal stroke speed and applying power all the way around the pedal stroke. When you first try this out, you’ll probably feel a disconnect as you round the top of the pedal stroke and you’ll feel a distinct jerk somewhere between 12 and 3 as you connect back and reapply power. Focus on pulling up and over the top of the pedal stroke so that you can maintain the connection to power and eliminate that jerk. If you’re having trouble, practice first sitting more upright with your hands on the handlebars and as you get the hang of it, challenge yourself by going down into aero position.

Track your progress

As you practice these drills, challenge yourself by recording the highest cadence you can maintain before your hips bounce around in the saddle and time how long you can do the single leg drill without that jerking feeling. You’ll also probably notice with the single leg drill that you have a dominant leg. Try to even those out so that you can get the same score with each leg. Set a benchmark for yourself and try to improve from there!

Cycling Technique for Triathletes

On the spectrum of technique sports to fitness sports, road cycling leans pretty far to the fitness end. A triathlete’s and cyclist’s ability is primarily dependent on their fitness level. Nevertheless, there are a few key technique elements that will make a significant difference in your race day performance. Master these skills and you will become a more efficient rider as well as dramatically reduce your risk of injury.

Pedal in Circles

The single most important thing to learn to do appropriately is to pedal in circles. Sounds easy, right? Your crank arm is a fixed length, your pedal attaches to the end of it, and the pedal is forced to go in a circle. The big question is, “Are you pushing on the tangent of that circle at all times?” Many cyclists – new and experienced – are not and instead they pedal up and down. They slam their foot down like they want to kick through the pavement thinking that they’re generating more power. In reality, they’re wasting energy. You need to teach your body to pedal in circles and round out the bottom of your pedal stroke so that you’re pulling back at the bottom of the stroke.

There are a lot of trainer drills and ways to think about pedaling in circles that can be effective to improve your pedal stroke. What I have found to be most helpful is to do spin-ups at a low resistance (easiest gear) and a high cadence (30-40 rpm or even higher than where you normally ride). At this low resistance, you’ll immediately feel your hips start to bounce around in the saddle when you’re pedaling up and down. When you do it right, you’ll feel your hips sink into the saddle and stay in place as you increase the rpms. This immediate feedback from your body is why I like the drill.

Another drill that I like is the single leg drill. By pedaling with only one leg, you can feel if there is a disconnect in where you are applying power. Unclip one foot and rest it on the back of your trainer then pedal with the other foot. Focus on pulling back at the bottom of your pedal stroke, then all the way up and over the top. Since you only have one foot clipped in, you won’t be able to cheat and let your opposite foot pushing down lift your foot that’s clipped in. Work on this first sitting up with your hands on the handlebars. Once you master that, drop into aero position for an extra challenge. When you do it right, your pedal stroke will feel nice and smooth, but when you do it wrong you’ll feel a clicking/jerking pedal stroke. Again, I like this immediate feedback.

Relax Your Upper Body

The power you generate on your bike is coming from your legs – relax your upper body! If you’re riding a road bike, support your upper body with your core, keep a slight bend in your elbows, and make sure there is very little weight in your hands. If your hands/fingers start to get sore/tingly or completely lose feeling, that’s a sign that you’re putting too much weight in your arms. The same principles apply when you move to a tri bike with aero bars. Make sure you support from the core. Avoid letting your chest drop too far and your shoulder blades pinch together across your back.

Shift, Shift, Shift

I’m still amazed at how many triathletes I see that shift poorly. First, make sure you’re comfortable using both the gears in your big and small chain ring (left hand shifter) and all the gears in your cassette (right hand shifter). Next, think of shifting as a way to make the resistance level that your legs are feeling constant for the whole ride. Strive to make it feel like you’re riding on an indoor trainer where the wind and grade never changes. If the grade of the road starts to increase (uphill), shift down to an easier gear. Likewise, as the grade decreases (downhill), shift up to a harder gear. Listen to your legs and be in tune with how hard they are working so that you can shift immediately with the variations in terrain. Same goes for the wind – as that changes, shift as necessary.

If you have a power meter, you’ll be able to measure the difference – watch your power while you ride and keep a low variability index. It is eye-opening for most cyclists when they first start using a power meter and can see how much their power spikes from even small hills if they aren’t shifting appropriately. Triathlon, time-trial, non-drafting cycling is all about energy efficiency – especially over longer and longer distances. To be efficient, you need to reduce the variability through shifting.

Work on these tips next time you’re out riding or working on the trainer. Pedaling technique and relaxing your upper body are great things to work on during trainer rides in the winter. You’ll see the benefits by the time race season comes around.