Can you per­fect your ped­alling?

Want to go faster? Push harder on the ped­als! But what about hon­ing the way you ap­ply that pres­sure? Is it worth try­ing to im­prove your tech­nique? Han­nah Reynolds in­ves­ti­gates

Cycling Weekly - - FITNESS -

Some riders seem to have nat­u­ral style and grace on a bike, oth­ers quite frankly don’t. But whether you have the ca­dence of a metronome or mash the ped­als as if fight­ing with your bike, does it make any ac­tual dif­fer­ence to your per­for­mance? In­tu­itively, most of us feel it prob­a­bly does. There are cer­tainly plenty of mag­a­zine fea­tures, blog posts and prod­ucts to help us im­prove our pedal stroke, but a quick glance around at the most suc­cess­ful cy­clists shows there is a broad range of rid­ing styles and ped­alling tech­niques. So, what’s the truth?

Dr Bar­ney Wain­wright, head of science at the Board­man Per­for­mance Cen­tre and re­search fel­low at Leeds Beck­ett Uni­ver­sity, has worked ex­ten­sively in this area. We asked him: is there an op­ti­mal pedal stroke?

“It would be nice if there was an easy an­swer to that,” he says. “First of all, you can have a ped­alling tech­nique that is ef­fec­tive, that is, a pedal stroke that gen­er­ates a lot of force and helps you go faster or go up a hill.” Here comes an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion. “Though it is ef­fec­tive, it might not be ef­fi­cient — the en­ergy cost might be rel­a­tively high for that tech­nique, work­ing mus­cles in an in­ef­fi­cient way.”

Cy­clists need their ped­alling to be both ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient in or­der to pro­duce large amounts of power and to sus­tain a good level of power over time.

“The re­search so far is a bit con­fus­ing,” says Wain­wright. “It shows that a ped­alling tech­nique that is biome­chan­i­cally ef­fec­tive and pro­duces a lot of power is not nec­es­sar­ily great from an ef­fi­ciency point of view. A style that is very ef­fi­cient you can do all day, and when you need to gen­er­ate large amounts of power, you can change it slightly to re­cruit mus­cles in a dif­fer­ent way.”

Re­search into ped­alling is still far from con­clu­sive and there isn’t a de­fin­i­tive an­swer to the ques­tion of what is the op­ti­mal pedal stroke. Wain­wright says: “There hasn’t been a long-term study to see if, when we get used to that more ef­fec­tive ped­alling style, we also adapt and be­come more ef­fi­cient at it.”

Ped­alling tech­nique is a hot area of re­search be­cause the ev­i­dence is so in­con­clu­sive.

“Although we have good knowl­edge about train­ing, about ways to op­ti­mise phys­i­ol­ogy and aero­dy­nam­ics, the miss­ing thing at the mo­ment is, we don’t fully un­der­stand the ef­fect of ped­alling tech­nique or ef­fi­ciency on power out­put.”

Power on screen

Though it is not fully un­der­stood, ped­alling tech­nique can still be worked on and im­proved. Wain­wright worked with Wat­tbike on its lat­est project, a Ped­alling Ef­fec­tive­ness Score (PES). You may have used the orig­i­nal Po­lar View, which used a force di­a­gram to show where you were ap­ply­ing force through­out the pedal stroke. Poor ef­fec­tive­ness pro­duced a peanut shape, good ef­fec­tive­ness a sausage shape. The Ped­alling Ef­fec­tive­ness Score has sim­pli­fied this to a score out of 100, with 70-80 be­ing the op­ti­mal range.

“Most peo­ple, if left to their own de­vices, will de­velop a ped­alling tech­nique that is quite en­ergy-ef­fi­cient

but isn’t al­ways very ef­fec­tive at gen­er­at­ing high amounts of force,” says Wain­wright.

Hav­ing the Wat­tbike screen in front of you gives you di­rect, de­tailed feed­back. “With the right guid­ance it is rel­a­tively easy to change your ped­alling tech­nique, but it’s not a quick fix.” Adapt­ing your style isn’t straight­for­ward, ex­plains Wain­wright: “Typ­i­cally, those who un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship be­tween what they are do­ing and how the Po­lar View changes can change their tech­nique within a few weeks. If peo­ple don’t make the link be­tween their ped­alling tech­nique and the force pro­file, then we don’t see any change, even over sev­eral months.”

Un­der­stand­ing and in­ter­pret­ing the feed­back from the Wat­tbike seems to be key to mak­ing any mean­ing­ful change.

Wain­wright: “Real-time feed­back helps you un­der­stand how ef­fec­tive your ped­alling is. The PES score helps you fig­ure it out in your own way. You start to re­alise, ‘if I pedal like this, it is hav­ing a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive ef­fect on that score’.”

The PES can­not tell us the op­ti­mal pedal stroke, but it is a way of pro­vid­ing di­rect feed­back, en­abling us to work on our tech­nique and see how move­ment pat­tern al­ters the score. “What we wanted to do was give peo­ple a tar­get to aim for, where they could see what is good and what is bad. The op­ti­mal range is set at 70-80 out of 100.”

Now for a fur­ther com­pli­ca­tion: great­est ef­fi­ciency is not best all-round style. “If some­one is set­ting a very high ped­alling ef­fec­tive­ness score, over

80, it is not the best thing for cy­cling per­for­mance, as you are mak­ing an al­most equal pull-up force to push down force, cre­at­ing a cir­cle. Aim­ing for a per­fect cir­cle or a high PES value is detri­men­tal as over­all power will go down be­cause they are pro­duc­ing less force on the down-stroke.”

Across dis­ci­plines and rider types you can clearly see that ev­ery­one ped­als slightly dif­fer­ently. Just com­pare Chris Froome to Si­mon Yates, for ex­am­ple — very dif­fer­ent styles, yet they are both Grand Tour win­ners.

“Peo­ple tend to talk about ped­alling tech­nique as a spe­cific move­ment, but in­di­vid­u­als have dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions for them­selves. Although we all just turn a crank in a cir­cle, per­sonal anatomy dic­tates dif­fer­ent move­ment strate­gies.”

The strength and en­durance of dif­fer­ent parts of the mus­cu­la­ture in­volved in the pedal stroke, flex­i­bil­ity and range of move­ment all con­trib­ute. “Two peo­ple may have very dif­fer­ent move­ment pat­terns yet have the same PES.”

Try moun­tain bik­ing

For­mer Bri­tish Cy­cling phys­io­ther­a­pist Phil Burt (philburtin­no­va­ agrees: “Ped­alling is an ac­quired skill. Ev­ery­one ped­als in a dif­fer­ent way, de­pend­ing on what we have been ex­posed to, our ge­net­ics, our biome­chan­ics, our in­jury his­tory. Ev­ery hu­man be­ing com­pletes tasks in dif­fer­ent ways, in terms of move­ment.”

So there is no uni­ver­sal op­ti­mum tech­nique? “Some peo­ple are bet­ter at the task than oth­ers. To say there is a

“We all just turn a crank in a cir­cle but per­sonal anatomy dic­tates dif­fer­ent move­ment strate­gies”

per­fect ped­alling style would be com­plete rub­bish be­cause it is all task-de­pen­dent.”

Though Wat­tbike gives di­rect and vis­ual feed­back to help im­prove pedal stroke, it’s also pos­si­ble to get feed­back from your ped­als in a real-world set­ting. “Ped­alling is a task that hu­man be­ings ap­proach in many dif­fer­ent ways,” stresses Burt. He is in favour of Wat­tbike guid­ance, but also rec­om­mends moun­tain bik­ing: “Moun­tain bik­ers are con­sis­tently shown to have the most even pedal stroke of all cy­cling dis­ci­plines. This is be­cause they need to main­tain power through the up­stroke to have grip at the rear wheel.”

The key is feed­back: in­sight into the ef­fects of your tech­nique. “Any feed­back mech­a­nism, whether Wat­tbike or moun­tain bike, is a good thing,” says Burt, “the only dif­fer­ence is, if you don’t hit the num­ber on the Wat­tbike, noth­ing dis­as­trous hap­pens. On a moun­tain bike, you lose trac­tion.”

Get­ting feed­back

Telling some­one to pull up as well as push down doesn’t work, in Burt’s opin­ion: “Stud­ies have proved that ask­ing some­one to pull up — to de­crease the neg­a­tive torque seen on the re­turn­ing ped­alling leg — is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and re­sults in an over­all loss in ef­fi­ciency. That’s not to say there isn’t a bet­ter or worse way to pedal, just that coach­ing on tech­nique makes no dif­fer­ence.”

If you don’t fancy get­ting off road and don’t have ac­cess to a Wat­tbike, rid­ing the rollers is an­other way to get feed­back on how you are ped­alling. Quite sim­ply, with­out a smooth, even pedal stroke, you will find it hard to main­tain your bal­ance.

An­other op­tion is track. “Ev­ery­one who came to Bri­tish Cy­cling had to ride the track,” says Burt, re­flect­ing on his time at Bri­tish Cy­cling, “even if they were a road en­durance rider. Ben Swift, Geraint Thomas, Mark Cavendish, they all rode the track. The phi­los­o­phy was that track in the win­ter taught them how to pedal bet­ter, which would trans­fer onto the road.”

What is it about track rid­ing that im­proves ped­alling? “A fixed gear, and no brake, chal­lenges you to pedal in a dif­fer­ent way. It teaches you to be more con­stant, im­prov­ing your ped­alling.”

Burt has one more tip: “You can

ma­nip­u­late bike-fit pa­ram­e­ters such as sad­dle height and set-back to help cer­tain key mus­cle groups, such as your glutes, mak­ing them con­trib­ute more to your ped­alling.”

Sort your set-up

Wain­wright’s ad­vice chimes with this: “An ob­sta­cle to im­prov­ing your ped­alling ef­fi­ciency is your bike set-up. Sad­dle height mas­sively af­fects your abil­ity to con­tract mus­cles through­out your pedal stroke.”

Be­fore be­gin­ning on any pedal stroke train­ing, there­fore, it is a good idea to get your bike po­si­tion checked and make sure it is op­ti­mised for your body and your goals. Poor po­si­tion will likely have a greater ef­fect on your power out­put at the ped­als than will your ped­alling tech­nique — to re­it­er­ate, set-up mat­ters more than tech­nique.

We come back to the big ques­tion: will chang­ing your pedal stroke im­prove your per­for­mance?

“It’s dif­fer­ent for dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” says Wain­wright. “When I test the me­chan­i­cal ef­fi­ciency of ath­letes, the range is mas­sive. A rider might be try­ing to in­crease their power out­put by 10-15 watts or re­duce their aero­dy­namic pro­file by 10-15 watts, which are quite big changes at an elite level, but they could have 20-40 watts more by chang­ing their ped­alling style and get­ting bet­ter me­chan­i­cal ef­fi­ciency. The op­por­tu­ni­ties for per­for­mance gain are mas­sive.”

How­ever, with lit­tle con­clu­sive ev­i­dence, it is hard for any sci­en­tist to give a de­fin­i­tive an­swer on how to im­prove your ped­alling. Wain­wright again: “Anec­do­tally, from our ex­pe­ri­ence, if you were to do any time du­ra­tion-based power out­put ef­forts, such as an FTP test, us­ing your nor­mal ped­alling style, then did a pe­riod of train­ing to im­prove your ped­alling ef­fec­tive­ness score, you would see an im­prove­ment, given enough time for your mus­cles to adapt to the new tech­nique.”

If the newly adopted tech­nique sticks, the rider sees a per­for­mance im­prove­ment. “They will al­ways bet­ter their power out­put, be­cause they are elim­i­nat­ing a dead-spot, cre­at­ing more force and re­cruit­ing mus­cles in a bet­ter way around the whole pedal stroke.”

Anec­do­tal or not, that seems like a good enough rea­son to at least make a con­certed ef­fort to op­ti­mise your ped­alling.

“A rider could gain 20-40 watts by chang­ing their ped­alling style and boost­ing me­chan­i­cal ef­fi­ciency”

Wat­tbike’s Po­lar View maps your ped­alling ef­fi­ciency

... and Si­mon Yates

Dif­fer­ent strokes: Froome...

Cor­rect bike set-up is es­sen­tial for per­fect ped­alling

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