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How to pedal efficiently

Pete Bonfield explains how to develop the perfect pedal technique so you get the maximum output from your effort

Good pedalling technique isn’t simply a matter of pushing down with all your might on each pedal in turn – it’s much more of a refined art than that. Your pedalling technique will have a major influence on the power you generate and on your cycling efficiency. It will definitely influence speed, and will also have a significant effect on muscle fatigue and your ability to run off the bike. Your pedalling efficiency also affects the comfort you feel – so it’s vitally important that you get it right. We explain the most proficient pedalling technique and how you can achieve it...

The complete pedal stroke

How to pedal

As we’ve said, pushing down as hard as possible with one leg, then doing the same with the other, isn’t the way to achieve greatness on the bike. Although the main power comes from pushing down with your quadriceps (thigh muscles), if you only do this your pedalling technique will be inefficient, will not enable you to exploit other
leg muscles and will create other biking inefficiencies like shoulder bobbing. 

Good pedalling technique requires a continual and smooth transition of forces applied to the pedals, and exploits your quadriceps, hamstring, gluteus maximus and calf muscle groups. The Step by step box at the top of the page show
you how to use your legs to power the pedals most effectively. You can see from the pictures that efficient pedalling requires you to push forward, down and to pull back and up on each pedal revolution.

When looking from the front or back (see left), your legs should be going vertically up and down like pistons. If your knees move laterally (in or out) as they’re moving vertically (up and down), you’re losing power and risking injury to your knees or ankles. 

Your hips

Your hips should remain stable and level during each pedal revolution. Unfortunately, many triathletes have their saddles too high. This means you lose power because your leg is already extended before the pedal reaches the bottom of the stroke. You can’t then continue to put power down using your quads and need to rely on dropping your hip down to reach the pedal. This is weak, and also is a common cause of lower back pain because it causes your pelvis to continually rotate around the base of your spine. It’s also a common cause of shoulder dipping or side-to-side movement, which reduces the stability of your shoulder, back and hip platform against which your legs push.

Your feet

Your feet should remain almost flat throughout the pedal stroke with your heel slightly raised. A common fault, especially if your saddle is too high, is to raise your heels and point your toes down. Try to avoid this because it doesn’t enable you to use your whole calf efficiently. It also excessively loads the top of your calf restricting your ability to run off the bike. And, finally, It can contribute to cramp occurring in your calf when you start the run.

Body/hips/shoulders

Your body, hips and shoulders should remain still and strong when pedalling because together they provide the platform against which your legs push. An unstable (bobbing or moving) platform will reduce your efficiency and ability to generate power. Make sure that your pedalling technique doesn’t cause your hips/back/shoulder platform to become unstable – avoid only pushing down, sitting too high or an erratic stroke.

Going hard

The more power you put into your pedals, the more likely deficiencies in your pedalling actions are to show up. Start by looking at your technique. Get someone to video you, use the turbo trainer in front of a mirror, or ask friends to come out with you on your bike and give you feedback. Look at your body – is it still? It should be. Look from in front or behind at your legs. Are they going straight up and down? They should be.

Are you knees moving in and out? They shouldn’t be Looking from behind. Are your hips level through the stroke? They should be. Or are they moving up and down? If so, it could be because your saddle is too high. Are you feet almost flat (heels slightly raised) throughout the stroke? Are the pedals going round at a constant rate? If they’re accelerating each time you push down, you’re not pulling up, pulling back or pushing forward. These are all factors you need to spend time thinking about and working on.

Start riding along gently to determine your technique. Start to try to solve any weaknesses and then build up the effort – some characteristics only show up when you’re going really hard. Single leg riding can help you improve and help you identify the pushing/pulling action. But don’t do too much – you need to pedal with both legs and too much one legged riding can give you an uneven technique. 

If you have problems with your technique, they may be difficult to solve initially and the improved technique may feel strange at first. Don’t try to change all at once. Try with 10 pedal revs every so often, build to 20, then try a minute. Keep on building over a few rides until the technique becomes automatic. 

Related

Pedal like the Pros

A triathlete's guide to bike cadence

Triathlon cycling technique: 10 common mistakes on the bike leg


 
 

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