Perfect YOUR Pedal Stroke
Peanuts, circles, mashing, pulling up, left/right balance…? Simple pedalling has become very confusing.
Cycling’s a simple process: you get on the bike, you turn the pedals, the bike moves forward. But in modern cycling, even something as simple as pedalling has become a detailed science.
So how much technique is really involved in pedalling? Are there benefits – say, more power at the same heart rate – if you improve your technique? What about pedalling with both left and right leg producing the same power output? Does it make a difference?
It’s all been a talking point for a while now. But is our thinking flawed? Time to take a closer look at some of the major pedalling theories – and see if we can tell our left from our right.
Theory 1: ‘ IMPROVING PEDALLING TECHNIQUE MAKES YOU MORE ECONOMICAL AND EFFICIENT.’
Except for the rider who throws his or her upper body all over the bike, this simply isn’t true. Your aerobic fitness and the make- up of your muscle fibres will determine your economy and efficiency – because your pedalling action is constrained: you’re clipped into the pedals, and driving the crank in a fixed rotation. You can’t modify stride length, as you can in running, or correct your stroke, as in swimming.
But there are some basic areas to be aware of and to focus on when pedalling:
Keep a stable pelvis. Incorrect set- up 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’s a smoother transition from left leg to right.
Theory 2: ‘ YOU MUST ALWAYS PULL UP ON THE PEDALS.’
Studies have shown that the more powerful the rider, the greater the power variance between downstroke and 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. The downstroke leg is helping to push the upstroke leg. In a study by Coyle et al, the researchers compared elite cyclists to sub- elites, and found the elite group created “larger propulsive torques by creating significantly larger forces in the vertical direction on the pedal during the downstroke, and by not attempting to pull up during the upstroke”.
To illustrate: in order to ride at a steady 300 watts, the downstroke leg may need to produce 400 watts, with 100 watts ‘lost’ in pushing the upstroke leg. This loss is due to muscle make-up, the weight of the leg, and inertia. Trying to force this action can actually reduce efficiency, for two possible reasons:
Actively pulling up destabilises the pelvis, and hinders the production of force in the downstroke leg.
The brain is unable to co- ordinate upstroke and downstroke muscles simultaneously; it just works better when it only needs to focus on pushing down.
Theory 3: ‘ YOU MUST PRODUCE AN EVEN, 50/ 50 POWER OUTPUT IN BOTH LEGS.’
Despite what you think, the human body is not symmetrical; i.e. the left side is not a mirror image of the right. There can be foot-size discrepancies, leg-length discrepancies, pronation discrepancies; they all affect power- output balance.
So, for example, if you try to chase an even, 50/50 output by pushing harder with your ‘weaker’ leg (or tapping off on the ‘stronger’ leg), it may have a negative impact on performance if the issue is simply that one of your legs is shorter than the other.
This is not to say that some imbalances can’t be improved, or even totally rectified, through muscle-imbalance correction, stretching, rehab, etc. 50/50 may still be out of reach, but assessment and correction of imbalances can certainly help your ‘weaker’ leg produce greater force – naturally.
YOU CAN’T MODIFY STRIDE AS YOU CAN IN RUNNING, OR CORRECT YOUR STROKE, AS IN SWIMMING.