Pedalling techniques – we’re told about peanuts, circles, mashing, pulling up, left/right balance… It’s a lot to think about. How much technique is involved in pedalling and are there benefits like more power for the same heart rate by improving technique? If there is, what drills should be done? What about pedalling at the same power with the left and right legs, it’s become a talking point for some time but is this thinking flawed? Here are three common pedalling myths busted…
By Mark Carroll
Photo: Zoon Cronje
You can get huge gains in economy and efficiency by improving pedalling technique.
Unless you’re the kind of rider that throws his/her upper body all over the bike, this simply isn’t true. Your aerobic fitness and muscle fibre make-up will determine your economy and efficiency. The pedalling action is very constrained; the cyclist is clipped into the pedals and drives the crank in a fixed rotation.
There’s no possibility to modify stride length like in running or to correct stroke as in swimming, so unlike these sports, the nature of pedaling does not lend itself to that level technique training to improve efficiency. There are some basic areas to be aware of and to focus on when pedaling:
- Keep a stable pelvis. Incorrect setup can affect this, but so can lack of focus.
- Avoid a ‘thud’ at the top and bottom of the stroke by ‘scraping’ through the bottom so there is a smoother transition from left to right legs. This thud is more obvious when out the saddle, but it can exist when seated too.
You must pull up on the pedals.
In studies of elite and professional cyclists, the more powerful the rider gets, the greater the variance in power produced on the down stroke versus the upstroke. To ride faster, they need to push down harder, not pull up harder. In reality, the upstroke makes a negative contribution to power production; in other words, the down stroke leg is helping to push the upstroke leg.
In a study by Coyle et al, using specialised equipment to record pedalling muscle activity, the researchers compared elite cyclists to sub-elite cyclists and found the elite group created, ‘larger propulsive torques by creating significantly larger forces in the vertical direction on the pedal during the down stroke and by not attempting to pull up during the upstroke.’
To help illustrate, in order to ride at a steady 300watts, the down stroke leg may need to produce 400watts, with 100watts ‘lost’ in pushing the upstroke leg. This loss is due to a combination of muscle, the weight of the leg and inertia. Actively trying to do this can reduce efficiency. There are two possible explanations for this:
- Actively pulling up de-stabilises the pelvis and hinders force production on the downstroke leg. The brain is unable to simultaneously co-ordinate upstroke and down stroke muscles, it works better when it only needs to focus on pushing down. Think of punching a punch bag, the non-strike arm pulls back automatically while the focus is on the punch arm. Try punching a bag while focusing on force production on the arm pulling back.
- There may be gains to be had but they would be marginal at best, so trying to pedal a circle won’t suddenly give you 25watts for free.
You need to aim to produce and even 50%/50% power output on the left and right legs.
First, the human body is not symmetrical, i.e. the left side is not a mirror image of the right. Just in terms of cycling, there can be foot-size discrepancies, leg-length discrepancies and pronation discrepancies that affect power output balance. It will have a negative impact on performance if someone, for example, tries to chase a 50%/50% even output by pushing harder with the ‘weaker’ left leg (or tap off on the ‘stronger’ right leg) when the issue may be that it’s simply shorter.
This is not to say that some imbalances cannot be improved or even totally rectified through muscle imbalance correction, stretching, rehab, etc… 50%/50% may still not be possible but assessment and correction of imbalances can help the ‘weaker’ leg naturally produce greater force.
Road riders, track sprinters, time trial cyclists and mountain bikers – do they pedal differently?
The demands of the cycling discipline and the setup of the bike will affect the power distribution through the 360-degree rotation of the crank. The most extreme variance in power output between the down stroke and upstroke will be found in track sprinters. Despite recruiting power during the upstroke, it’s negligible compared to the downward force required to produce upwards of 2000watts for world-class competition.
The next on the list are time trial cyclists but for a very different reason; setup. The closed hip angle makes it more difficult to recruit muscle for the upstroke, placing greater demand on the down stroke to generate average power. However, the trade off is greater aerodynamics and speed.
Mountain bikers have the least variance in down stroke power versus upstroke power, in other words, the most even application of power through the 360-degree rotation of the crank but still a negative upstroke. An open hip angle due to more upright position plus the conscious effort of the cyclist not to produce a high torque down stroke that could cause the rear wheel to slip on loose surfaces, especially steep uphill climbs.
The upstroke does not make a positive contribution to power production in sub-maximal steady state cycling; it is in fact a slightly negative contribution. This has nothing to do with inefficiency, the muscles simply cannot activate with enough speed and torque to even deliver sufficient power to counteract the effect of gravity on the upstroke leg during steady state cycling.
Most cyclists won’t last two minutes pedalling with one leg at a nominal power output before the hip flexors seize up. If you fancy a good laugh with mates, get onto a stationery bike that has a freewheel (not a fixed wheel), select a light resistance and see who lasts longer pedaling with one leg. If you can’t even carry the weight of the upstroke leg for two minutes, what chances are there of the upstroke contributing to power for two hours out on the bike?
Mark Carroll is a UCI Level 2 certified coach and the founder of Cadence Cycling Performance. Cadence Cycling Performance Centres are indoor cycling performance studios that make it possible for anyone to do power-measured high intensity interval training sessions.
*Originally published in TREAD Issue 40, 2016 and can be found on Zinio – All rights reserved