Have you ever watched the pros on TV, or out on the roads as the Tour of Britain rolls by and thought, ‘I wish I could pedal that smoothly?' Well, we have.
Seemingly effortless pedalling technique is a hallmark of a well-trained cyclist, developed over countless miles and millions of pedal revolutions, and can lead to improvements in endurance and power output, while reducing the chance of injury - not to mention looking the part.
There's no shortcut to improving your pedalling efficiency, but there are a number of things you can take a look at to see if you can get more from your pedal stroke, including bike fit, cadence and technique.
Now, help is at hand to point you in the right direction as we’ve spoken to two cycling coaches to find out what improved pedal technique can do for you, and how to go about getting it right
Why is pedalling technique so important?
“Pedalling efficiency is crucial to ensure that you get the absolute most power from each revolution," says Pav Bryan. "Getting it right means you'll be producing more power for the same or less energy output."
As well as improving your efficiency, a smooth pedalling technique can also reduce the chance of injury to joints and muscles, and has the potential to prolong component life by putting less stress on your equipment, according to Bryan.
James Spragg of Spragg Cycle Coaching agrees, pointing out that many amateur cyclists pump their legs down, in a style which results in 'spikes' in torque, rather than a smooth, consistent application of power.
“For most cyclists who haven’t been coached, it’s all start-stop-start-stop, leading to torque spikes," says Spragg. “Therefore, consistent pedalling means no torque spikes with each pedal revolution as you push down through the pedals."
How can I spot inefficiency in my own pedalling?
A Wattbike is a great tool to identify pedalling imbalances and inefficiencies, because of the sheer amount of data it provides, including left-to-right power and a pedalling technique analysis tool to show where you are applying power on the pedal stroke. However, as Bryan points out, not everyone has access to a Wattbike.
"I recommend trying single leg riding," Bryan says. "Ideally, you should be able to pedal with one leg without that ‘clunking’ when your leg stops being able to rotate smoothly.
Another easy way to assess if your pedalling is inefficient is to change up your cadence to highlight weaknesses, according to Spragg.
"Let’s say you ride naturally at 80rpm – if you up the cadence for a minute to around 100rpm, try to see if you’re bouncing on the saddle," he says. “If you are, your pedal stroke is probably inefficient.
“Similarly, try riding at a slow cadence – in this case 60rpm – and feel the pedal stroke to see if it feels like a push-and-stop effort. You can spot a weakness in your pedalling efficiency if you’re constantly finding yourself re-engaging on the pedals, because it means you must have disengaged from them in the first place."
Is my bike fit to blame?
According to both our experts, possibly. Having your bike setup properly isn't just important in ensuring you are comfortable and injury-free, but also to improve performance and that include pedalling efficiency.
“If you have your saddle too far forward, in the 5-7 o’clock range of the pedal stroke you’ll be pedalling too far behind you, which causes rocking back and forth to compensate," says Spragg.
“A saddle that’s too low will cause a high knee lift and an unfinished pedal stroke. This also crushes the diaphragm, which constricts your breathing and therefore the amount of oxygen you can get to your legs.
“Too high," Spragg continues, “and you’re having to rock in the saddle to get optimum extension, and rely upon your weaker gastrocnemius (the outer calf muscle) to help complete the pedal stroke."
There’s also crank length to consider, for which there is no golden rule due to the unique proportions of every cyclist’s legs, sometimes even down to the individual leg. However, Bryan says that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least consider crank length, but it's something which fits within the realms of a specialist bike fitted.
“You really need to see a bike fitter who can sit you on a jig and easily allow you to play around with crank length," Bryan recommends. "From personal experience, I recently dropped 5mm from my cranks after a fit, which showed increased power and cadence up for the same feel and heart rate."
I hear a lot about cadence. Is there an optimum RPM?
On your local club ride, it’s likely you’re going to see a range of cadences, from those spinning away at 90-100rpm to those powering through at 60-70rpm.
With power the result of cadence multiplied by torque, finding the ideal cadence is a case of hitting the sweetspot between how fast you're spinning the pedals, and how hard you're pushing them. It's not uncommon to see a new cyclist eagerly pushing too big a gear, before adapting to a higher, more efficient cadence.
It's a hotly debated topic but what's right varies from rider to rider, with the normal recommended range for cadence between 80 and 100 revolutions per minute.
“I don't think there's a specific optimum cadence," Bryan says, "but a current theory suggests you should aim to train yourself to spin faster as it’s a more efficient use of energy – moving the stress more to your cardiovascular system."
However, it’s one thing in theory and another in practice, as Bryan warns that things are never as simple as they seem.
“Having coached cyclists for years on pedalling efficiency, I know that technique very often deteriorates at higher cadences because the pedal action becomes choppy, rather than staying smooth," he says.
While extreme examples at either of the cadence scale may lead to an inefficient pedal stroke, and new cyclists will often take time to adapt to the higher pedalling rate associated with road cycling, a rider will often find their natural optimum cadence with time in the saddle.
"For maximal power output, self-selected cadence has always been shown to be the most efficient in terms of technique," says Spragg. "However, that doesn’t mean you should train at other cadences, too."
Ultimately, your cadence will vary throughout a ride, depending on a number of factors including terrain, fatigue and the situation you find yourself in, whether it's sitting in a group lightly spinning the pedals to conserve energy or shifting into a harder gear and winding up for a sprint. Spragg recommends training at a range of cadences to work on your comfort and efficiency across the board.
“If you’re riding an event like the Etape du Tour – which involves lots of prolonged climbing - you’re going to want to train to shift the effort away from the muscles and towards your cardiovascular system by upping your cadence," says Spragg. Doing so reduces the torque of each pedal stroke and the size of each muscle contraction, thereby ‘saving’ your legs.
At the end of the day, Spragg says opinions on optimum cadence follows fashion, as was the case when Lance Armstrong, who had a notably high cadence, was 'winning' his seven Tours.
"We now know how he could keep up that cadence," Spragg says, "but if it were Jan Ullrich who had won all those Tours, fashion would probably have gone the other way and we’d have a lot more people advising a lower cadence pedalling style as the most efficient."
What techniques can I use to improve my pedal stroke?
As cyclists, there’s no shortage of advice and cues from club-mates of how best to improve and on any one ride you may see a variety of pedalling styles. Typically speaking, there are three main pedalling techniques: neutral, toe-down and heel-down, and while they're a matter of individual style, Spragg says there’s one key thing you should avoid.
“No actively pulling on upstroke," he says. "I hear a lot from clients about pulling as the foot recovers around, but in fact you should only be getting your foot out of the way of the pedal so that you negate negative torque (i.e. pushing against your own stroke with the other leg)."
Spragg recommends Pioneer’s power meters, and the linked Cyclo-Sphere analysis tool because it shows where power is applied and the direction of that power.
"As a general rule, when your foot is at 90 degrees, force should be being applied directly downwards. At 135 degrees, the direction of force is 45 degrees off the downward, which means you’re pushing around the pedal stroke," says Spragg. By contrast, an inefficient cyclist will push directly down only, he continues, which minimises the time spent actually driving the pedals. Instead the aim is to have a smooth, balanced drive phase, consistent between both legs and maintaining momentum while allowing for recovery.
Bryan recommends cyclists keep their ankle loose while pedalling, so that it becomes easier to apply power through the dead zone at the bottom of the stroke. “Holding the power on here by ‘ankling’ should feel like you are scraping something off bottom of your shoe," he says.
Are there any drills I can perform?
“If you take pros as an example, it’s muscle memory that has built up and is why their pedal technique is so consistent," says Geofco Ville D’Algre rider Spragg. “While you probably can’t replicate the sheer volume of training, you can aim to ride at different cadences, focussing on keeping your technique the same as your self-selected cadence RPM."
Bryan, however, prefers to break the pedal stroke down into isolated leg drills. “It’s a simple case of warming up, unclipping one foot and pedalling with one leg, focusing on a smooth circular pedal stroke. Once one leg fatigues, you should swap over and repeat.
“Also, any cadence-based session on a turbo such as spin ups are good to perform. For example, each minute you can add five rpm until you start to bounce on the saddle. Then ease back until you stop bouncing and hold that cadence rate for five minutes. Take 10 minutes to spin lightly, before repeating," advises Bryan.
“What you're looking for with those is for your body to adapt to and become more comfortable working at a higher cadence. Technique will come as a side-effect of this."
Should I be targeting technique improvement in the gym?
Both Bryan and Spragg agree simply working out in the gym won’t automatically result in better pedalling efficiency. However, core training can be a vital component to cycling efficiently in general, with a solid core providing a platform from which to push on the pedals.
As Spragg puts it, “any core work is beneficial – too much movement in the core means less stabilisation, and a stronger core helps to minimise this movement. That’s why most pros are visually rock solid in their upper half, and, as a result, can generate more force at the same leg speed."
“Having a strong core also means that your position on the bike will be consistent – you won’t be fresh and sitting up one day, and hunched over the bars the next. It’s that consistency that leads to greater muscle memory with regards to the pedal action."
Bryan adds, “While vital, it’s not just about the core. Building strength in your legs will certainly make producing the power easier if this is a weakness, while regular stretching, and/or Pilates or Yoga will help improve general flexibility and therefore movement around the pedal motion."
All the factors affecting pedalling efficiency mean there's room for most cyclists to improve. Technique improvement is always a long-term goal, and not an overnight fix, but start now and you’ll begin to reap the rewards.
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