Cycling involves a lot of pedalling. We all know that, but a little mathematics really hammers it home: in a one hour ride, the average person pedalling at 90 revolutions per minute will turn those pedals 5,400 times.
That’s a lot of revolutions – especially when we consider that many of us are heading out for three hour weekend jaunts. Since the pedal stroke drives the momentum that keeps us moving, it’s obvious that if we can do anything to improve our stroke, we probably should.
We spoke to Watt Bike Trainer and coach, Adam Daniel to find out if he could provide us with any advice on how to perfect our stroke. Daniel coaches riders using Watt bikes – which show the user the shape of their pedal stroke as they ride a static bike, alongside power and heart rate data. The machines, used by Olympic riders Lizzie Armitstead and Jo Rowsell Shand, are excellent for helping you to work on specific components of training – but all of his advice can be adopted without a Watt bike easily.
Know the perfect stroke you’re aiming for
First, Daniel describes the perfect pedal stroke – saying: “Start with the right foot at the top [around 12 o’clock position], you need to push down through the front part of the stroke. As you come to the bottom [5 to 7 o’clock positons], you start to pull through, creating a drag effect along the bottom of the stroke. Then your left leg starts to push down. The key thing is creating constant force on the pedal, which means constant power."
Explaining the benefits of this style, he said: “When you start to pull through the bottom of the stroke, you’re getting activation through the hamstrings, and the glutes - which if you’re looking to generate power, that’s where everything comes from. When you work on that ‘dragging through’ technique, you’ll generate way more power."
Describing common mistakes, he said: “I often see people misunderstanding what effective technique looks like, a lot of people go for a push and pull type technique – stomping in the downstroke rather than keeping the movement round. And a lot of people think they need to point their toes down as they pedal – which has a negative effect on power."
Don’t expect to pedal perfectly at all times
Daniel explains that though learning to adopt this style will be beneficial, we can’t expect change overnight. Initially, you'll need to practice pedalling efficiently in dedicated sessions, then adopt the best form when you really need it - in a sprint or over a climb.
Daniel tells us: “In an ideal world, we’d be pedalling like that [more efficiently] all the time – that’d be awesome. If you look at the physiology, cycling more efficiently produces more power, for a lesser metabolic cost. You’re using less energy, so therefore when you do come to that sprint, or big hill, you’ll have more to give. In reality, it’s very much a motor skill that you have to learn over time."
He adds: “If you’re coming new to the sport, you’re probably not going to have the strength and endurance in the posterior chain – the calves, hamstrings, glutes – to maintain that kind of pedalling technique constantly, so you’ll revert back to the pushing and pulling type often." Practice over time, however, will help.
Sprints and strength training for better pedalling
And how do we go about learning to pedal more efficiently? Daniel has a suggested session, but also says we need to be working off the bike too.
- The session
- 10 minute warm up
- 10 minute threshold (around 7/10 effort, if 10 is all you've got!)
- 10 x 10 second sprint, 50 second easy pedalling
- 10 minute cool down
He explains: “A great way to work on your pedalling is by doing sprint sessions. During a sprint, you really want to get the absolute best you can from every pedal stroke. Start with a long effort – maybe 5 to 10 minutes at threshold, then introduce short sprints of 10 seconds, with a 50 second rest. That 10 seconds should be absolute max, and I’d do it 10 times. It’s quite a short session but should be hard."
He also reckons we can make major gains off the bike – saying: “I also think it’s important to work on strength off the bike, to improve your posterior chain strength. A lot of cyclists tend to forgo strength training – they think it’s all about time on the bike. From personal experience with clients, when we’ve looked at developing strength off the bike, they’ve seen results on the bike."
And what should be doing in the gym? Daniels has a range of suggestions – deadlifts, squats, lunges, and more progressive movements with TRX equipment are all good ideas. We should, however, keep it up all year – with one session a week during ‘race' period and two sessions over the off-season.
Of course, strength workouts can result in Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), which can have implications on the bike – but Daniels is ok with that. He says: “Coming from a rugby background, where I’d be lifting heavy weights, I had to just load slightly less on the weights when I started cycling [and wanted to avoid dead legs the next day]. Sometimes I’d just grit my teeth and accept the DOMS in the following workout, and over time my body adapted. Once your body starts to adapt, DOMS start to fade. You might have to deal with them over winter, but coming into summer you’ll reduce the volume of the weights and see them reduce."
There you have it. The key advice is to work on that 'drag back' action after the push phase of the stroke, and to set aside time to practice it with short sprints. A little gym work won't do any harm, either - and you should keep it up all year, not just over winter!