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How To Improve Your Pedalling Technique

How To Improve Your Pedalling Technique post image

In this post we will explore pedalling (‘pedaling’ if you are American) technique for road cyclists. This is an important area.

The meeting of foot and pedal is the primary interface between human and bicycle (well, primary moving interface – you wouldn’t get padded cycling shorts if there wasn’t a pretty significant ‘interface’ in that area as well).

Good technique increases the efficiency with which the power that we generate is turned into forward movement. It also helps avoid injury, both by avoiding unnecessary strain on joints and ligaments and by promoting an even strengthening across the leg and core muscles.

This post is, in fact, in response to a reader request. The Lanterne Rouge wrote,

“… I’ve been struggling with my pedalling technique for some time. Books and the internet give all sorts of advice. Perhaps you might blog on the subject of perfecting ones pedalling technique and when and what variation might be appropriate?…”

Let’s start at the beginning.

What Do We Mean By ‘Pedalling Technique’?

To me, that would be:

  • Cadence, or the speed at which we turn the pedals (measured in revolutions per minute, rpm)
  • The application of power throughout the pedal stroke

You might also include more technical considerations such as type of pedal, cleat position and the amount of float afforded by the cleat binding (i.e. can you move your ankle sideways whilst clipped into the pedal). I won’t go into these subjects in this post, other than to say that:

  • I’m assuming you’re riding with a clipless pedal of some sort
  • You should get a professional bike fit

Back to the story.

Why Should You Care About Cadence?

A cyclist can target their cadence (either to increase or decrease it) with a view to increasing the amount of power that can be sustained for a given period of time, whilst reducing tiredness (both of the muscles and in terms of energy consumption).

One of the famous Armstrong myths was that his very high cadence (e.g. climbing at 100rpm) was a contributory factor towards his dominance in the early 2000s. It feels like this might have been less important than first thought…

According to this article (and p’raps my learned colleague, Doctor Lanterne Rouge, can opine on whether I have selected a journal/paper with any credibility and/or scholarly rigour), we can look at three broad cadence ranges:

1. Relatively high cadence (100-120rpm) pedal rates suit sprint cycling because maximum power is generated and the force applied by the muscles is lower (and therefore fatigue in the muscles is also reduced)

(Hmm, have I just quoted an academic study that suggests sprint cyclists pedal quickly because they want to go faster?)

2. Cycling for a sustained period (i.e. up to 4 hours) is suited to a cadence of 90-100rpm. To do so at a higher cadence would impose too great an energy cost on the cyclist

3. “Ultra-endurance cycling” (greater than 4 hours) might be improved by a cadence of 70-90rpm, since “lower cadences have been shown to improve cycling economy and lower energy demands”

So, er, there you have it.

  • High cadence = high speed
  • Low cadence = cycle for longer

If we adopt a slightly less sarcastic attitude to point one above, we can probably say that for a given power (or speed) output, if we can achieve that with a higher cadence then we’ll feel less muscle fatigue.

As a cyclist with humble leg muscles, this seems to ring true. Any time at all in the ‘big ring’ (unless I’m going downhill) rapidly leads to burnout.

How Can I ‘Improve’ My Cadence?

The accepted wisdom for achieving a greater understanding of, and control over, your cadence appears to be:

  • Get a cadence sensor on your bike – use it to both get a feel for different cadences and to discover what feels like a natural cadence for you (if you are very rich, purchase a power meter and you can compare the two data streams in tandem)
  • Practice using different cadence and gearing combinations in order to develop your fitness levels with each one – there are various drills available online (such as this one) that will help you do this
  • Identify a course (maybe a climb near where you live), where you can test different cadences to discover which gives you the most speed (presumably the ultimate objective), without incurring too great a cost in terms of tiredness

So that’s cadence, one element of our ‘perfect’ pedalling technique.

Now let’s look more closely at the pedalling stroke and trying to establish whether there is such a thing as ‘perfect’ pedalling technique.

A Short, Unofficial (And Under-Researched) History of Bike Pedalling Technique

As children, we learnt to push down on the pedals, with the force of doing that on the left side pushing up our right foot, then vice versa.

When we progressed to clipless pedals, as well as enjoying a phase of doing delight slow-motion pratfalls at traffic lights, we realised that we can pull up on the pedals as well.

Then the aggregators of incremental gain (the GB track cycling squads of the world) came along and said that there must be an optimal pedal stroke, combining pushing, scraping and pulling, which they endeavoured to find (though I’m sure others were looking for it before British Cycling).

What Pedal Technique Are We Aiming For?

There seems to be general consensus that power should be applied throughout the pedal stroke. So, as well as pushing down and maybe, when I remember, pulling up a bit on the backstroke (between 6 and 12 if we imagine the pedal rotation as a clock face), I should also be trying to pull my heel back (presumably between 4 and 8) and pushing forward the toe at the top of the hour.

I have found this constant power approach easier said than done. With buses appearing without warning at your side and important sprints to be made to the next set of traffic lights, remembering to adapt something that you’ve done intuitively for the last 25 years is a challenge.

To be honest, I tend to forget the downstroke (since that appears to happen anyway) and attempt to focus upon the 4 to 8 and 8 to 12 sections of the clock. I do this by telling myself to scrape my foot at the bottom of the stroke (as if you’re trying to remove something canine-produced and smelly) and then to pull up my foot at the back (as if you’re trying to pull up your foot… at the back…).

Is There Any Evidence That This Will Work?

In short… maybe.  It is certainly possible to adapt your pedal stroke, in something like the manner described above. Whether there is a benefit to doing so is less clear. There is some evidence that cyclists perform better with the pedal stroke they’re most comfortable with (I take some encouragement from this).

That said, I have found a study that suggests that for elite cyclists, there is a correlation between high metabolic efficiency and an even distribution of torque throughout the pedal stroke. This only occurs at the lactate threshold (the point at which lactic acid is produced at a faster rate than the body can metabolize it away). The study found no correlation below lactate threshold.

I doubt I spend a great deal of time at my lactate threshold. In fact I know I do not. I’m either below it or, more likely, blown right through it and hyperventilating on a hillside.

To summarise: I shouldn’t spend too long worrying about an evenly-powered pedal stroke.

So, What Is Perfect Pedalling Technique?

I’m afraid there doesn’t appear to be one.

Bradley Wiggins, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans are very different technically, though they’ve all won the Tour de France.

We haven’t talked about toe and heel position in this post (I couldn’t put you through it) but I’ve read that Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault each used a different approach and each of them won 5 tours. Toe down, heel down and ‘neutral’, in case you’re interested.

There is probably a perfect pedalling technique for you, given your fitness level, your riding style and your own physiology. However, if you’re anything like me, then the advice would have to be just get out there and ride. The ‘incremental gains’ to be made simply by riding more must (at least for me) outweigh any finessing of my pedal stroke.

And On That Bombshell…

… A final thought to leave you with. Whilst we mere mortals focus on developing even power throughout our pedal stroke, it’s worth noting that a key feature of a pro road racer is the vast amount of force they are able to apply to the downstroke (the one we all start off with), compared to the average joe.

So you can spend as long as you want on a Wattbike, it’s probably not going to get you a professional contract. Deal with it…

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Until next time, safe cycling!

{ 3 comments… add one }
    • Adam July 18, 2016, 10:42 am

      I can’t deal with any description of Hinault as ‘neutral’…it doesn’t feel right!

      Any thoughts/access to studies on the Froome/Wiggo osymetric chainring fad? I spose it backs up your ‘different [pedal] strokes for different folks’ conclusion (idea for a title??!!), but it seems odd to me that – if this is another Sky ‘marginal gain’ – they’re not more widely used within the team and across the pro peloton. Maybe just more smoke and mirrors to stave-off Froome doping suspicions? 😉

    • Scotty July 18, 2016, 1:23 pm

      After most of a lifetime of pedaling uncoached (I guess this is now called ‘stomping’) I have been trying the push-forward / pull-back method, and, yeah, it seems to help, especially climbing. My cadence also goes up so (I’m told) more stress is taken up by the lungs. Definitely not a waste of time, but I’d recommend keeping expectations logically low. Just another tool for the box.

    • James July 18, 2016, 2:50 pm

      Good summary! I’ve worked on my pedaling and done various drills (one-legged cycling, etc.) but it’s hard to make it a habit. It helps sometimes on climbs though — if I’m getting tired, I can remind myself to accentuate different parts of the pedal stroke that I might not be using, and that’s like getting some help for tired legs, which is always welcome. Adam’s question on Osymetric chainrings is interesting; perhaps you could do a blog post about them (and the earlier Shimano Biopace). Personally I think they’re just an indication of how difficult it is to study the effects of muscular actions that take years to perfect; the theory is nice, but does it really work, and does it work for everyone? (The fact that they’re not widely used doesn’t necessarily mean anything — look how long the pros used skinny tires, and now suddenly they’re all on 25s.)

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