The first step in being efficient on your bike is to have a professional bike fit. A good fit may include changes in your saddle height, fore/aft position, stem length, seat angle, stack and reach. All are important for comfort, aerodynamics and producing more force to your pedals.
Once you know the bike fits you, balancing left- and right-leg strength with proper pedaling mechanics, you’re on your way to becoming more powerful and expending less effort. As with learning any new skill, focusing on various aspects of the pedal stroke is an important part of training. Just like in swimming and running, I recommend doing pedaling drills to help you to learn to efficiently apply force to the pedals.
An efficient cadence is around 85-95 rpms. High-cadence pedaling works your cardiovascular system more, but reduces the relative intensity of the leg muscles. The key, then, is pedaling with enough cadence to keep your watts-per-pedal-stroke at a level that your muscles can handle, but at a cadence that will not overload your cardiovascular system. The optimal balance is different for every rider. Each athlete must experiment to find the cadence that works best for them. Your natural cadence can be changed with repetition in training.
Ultimately the choice should be based on what makes you go fast, while still leaving you with sufficient energy and speed for the run that follows. My recommendation for finding your optimal cadence is simple; count your stride rate during a run and match it on the bike. For most athletes this is 85 to 93 strides/ pedal strokes per minute.
Cycling drills, such as focused on the four phases of the pedal stroke, can be an essential contributor to pedal stroke efficiency. Pedal stroke efficiency reduces the wear on muscular endurance and demands less energy, and as a result improves overall cycling performance.
Pedal stroke is critical because it provides the power that propels the bicycle. In order to increase efficiency, it’s important to incorporate drills that work the hip flexors so they are trained to lift during the recovery phase of the stroke.
There are four phases of the pedal stroke: The downstroke, backstroke, upstroke and over-the-top stroke. Practicing these can improve your movement and efficiency. For the most part, 360 degrees of various pressure points of force.
The downstroke is where the foot and pedal move from 0 to 180 degrees (12 o’clock to 6 o’clock). The motion of the foot should be directed forward and downward during the downstroke.
The backstroke overlaps with the end of the downstroke and the beginning of the upstroke. The motion is mostly horizontal, and is made by pulling backward and upward from approximately 120 to 220 degrees (4 to 8 o’clock).Note that as the one foot and pedal are entering the downstroke, the other is entering the over-the-top stroke. I emphasize the backstroke in specific technique workouts.
The upstroke emphasizes pulling upward from 270 to 360 degrees, the last 90 degrees of the pedal rotation, from 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock. This phase is easiest to focus on while riding out of the saddle on hills or in a high gear with high resistance on a trainer.
The over-the-top stroke precedes the downstroke. pressing forward over the top from about 320 to 20 degrees, or from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock.
As with swimming and running, drills are an important part cycling training, as part of your warm-up, a weekly indoor trainer workout, or during cool-down following your training rides.
As with swimming and running, technique-based cycling drills break down the stroke, allowing you to focus on and improve one piece of this complex movement at a time, helping you to learn to efficiently apply forces to the pedals. The four drills outlined below include pedaling aspect practice, horizontal focus, high-cadence drills and single-leg drills.
Pedaling Aspect Practice was designed to help you to become aware of and improve the different aspects of your pedal stroke and to work on improving how well you apply forces during the specific aspects. When pedaling, fully focus on moving one pedal through each of the following four distinct phases: downstroke, backstroke, upstroke, and over-the-top stroke.
While pedaling, focus on one leg at a time and say to yourself “Down, Back, Up, Over” as you complete each phase. Even though you are focusing on the movement of one leg, be aware that your actions at the opposite phase of your pedal stroke with your other leg, directly impact how well you are pedaling with the leg you are focusing on. For example, focus on a strong thrust of your right knee to your handlebars (upstroke) is aided by a strong downward push of the pedal (downstroke) with your left leg, and vice versa.
Downstroke. This part comes most naturally when riding. Focus on exerting a strong downward push of the pedals
Backstroke. As you feel your foot approaching the bottom of the downstroke, focus on pulling your foot backward parallel to the ground. This is often equated to the sensation of scraping mud off your shoes.
Upstroke. Don’t focus on pulling the pedal up. Rather, as soon as your foot approaches the end of the backstroke, focus on rapidly driving your knee towards your handlebars.
Over-the-top stroke. Focus simply on feeling the transition point where the momentum from your drive towards the handlebars just begins to cease. At this point, initiate the strong downward push of the pedal in the downstroke.
Horizontal Pedaling helps you improve the horizontal component of your pedal stroke, the transitions between the drive and recovery phase. Although your goal for efficient riding is to pedal in smooth, uninterrupted, continuous, circles, this drill helps you become aware of and improve how you apply forces during the more horizontal components of your pedaling. When pedaling, focus on moving your feet and the pedals in a forward and backward motion, the opposite of pedaling in an “up and down” fashion. When you are really doing this drill well, you will feel your feet moving back and forth in the small amount of room your bike shoe allows.
High-Cadence Pedaling allows you to move at maximal speeds while expending the least amount of energy. From a comfortable cadence, gradually pedal faster until you are just about to start bouncing around on your saddle. Back off, and ride at the highest cadence you can maintain, in 20- to 60-second segments, without bouncing around on your saddle.
Pedaling with a single leg allows you to isolate and correct weak spots in your 360-degree pedal stroke for each leg by taking away the assistance the opposite leg provides. Perform this drill on a stationary bike trainer. Remove one leg from the pedal and rest it on a chair placed to the side of your trainer. Pedal with your other leg, focusing on pedaling in smooth, uninterrupted, continuous circles. Work to eliminate “dead spots” in your pedal stroke where you lose circular momentum. Use a moderate rate of pedaling (85-95 RPM)
Whether in the pool, running, or riding, many times we’re tempted to just grind out the hours and miles as we train, but that overlooks the importance of technique – and, if you are training inefficiently, and racing inefficiently, you are costing yourself energy and time, as well as preventing yourself from being comfortable, competing better and having more fun.
Author: Wendy Mader is the co-founder and owner of T2Coaching and has made a lifelong commitment to fitness, sports, coaching, and triathlon. From her youth as a competitive swimmer to her current career in the fitness industry, her dedication shines. Wendy is a former collegiate swimmer and has 25 years experience in triathlon including 15 Ironman’s. Wendy is also an Ironman University Certified Coach, an 8x Kona finisher and author of “Ironman Training Made Easy”. Wendy recently moved to Georgia with her husband and dogs after nearly two decades living in Colorado.
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