Training > Bike

How to use your gears to improve cycling technique & strength

Bike gears aren’t just for increasing speed or getting up hills – overgearing and undergearing can also be used as training aids. Mark McKay explains…

Whenever you’re riding in a gear higher or lower than that which allows you to pedal at optimal cadence, you could be said to be ‘overgearing’ or ‘undergearing’. However, the two terms usually refer to two specific types of training workout. One focuses on improving strength, the other on perfecting pedalling style. Both should certainly help to improve your time-trialling technique and the discipline required to ride well alone. 

Bear in mind these are strictly training exercises: over- or undergearing has limited use when racing as you should always try and race at your optimum cadence (and therefore optimum gearing) for your fitness and ability, especially when riding alone in non-drafting events. You might gear down (undergear) slightly when entering and exiting corners, on the start of climbs or when approaching T2, but overgearing is never appropriate in a race situation because it categorically will not lead to optimal performance.

So when and why should you practise under or overgearing? In a nutshell because undergearing while training can help you develop the most important cycling technique – a good pedalling action – while overgearing will help you develop bike-specific strength (as long as you have a good pedalling action nailed to begin with).

How to pedal efficiently

So now let’s look at both training techniques in a little more detail…

      

Undergearing

     

Undergearing will teach you to spin your legs quickly, which will pay off in breakaway situations

This is useful for perfecting a smooth pedalling action and is good for warming up/down either side of a hard effort. Use it also to save energy when riding in a group and to develop the ability to accelerate fast.

Novices and developing cyclists/triathletes should master this technique before attempting overgear work. This is because the focus is on perfecting pedalling style and introducing good habits, rather than solely chasing fitness first with overgearing and then trying to change bad pedalling and/or cadence habits later.

Undergearing means lessening the resistance required to pedal, achieved by using the smaller front chainrings and the larger sprockets on the rear cassette. It has the effect of reducing muscle fatigue and is the main reason you might undergear as you approach T2, in order to prepare for the run by (in a sense) warming down on the bike. Incidentally, this means the smaller ring in a two-ring set-up: even if your bike has a third ‘granny ring’, it’s best avoided as using it with the largest rear sprockets can put too much stress on the chain. 

In terms of a training exercise, I encourage athletes to spin fast (often above 120rpm) in a small gear, so that their legs don’t fatigue too much because the resistance is small. With less fatigue, you’re able to better concentrate on pedalling well in smooth circles with both legs. The basic premise is to pedal at high revolutions, in a gear small enough that your heart rate doesn’t go too high. The skill lies in doing this exercise with the only movement coming from below the waist: keep your arms, torso and head still and spin the legs. 

Many top cyclists will spend two to four weeks at the start of a winter base-training phase (after returning from an autumn break) by riding a small fixed gear at high revs, simply to return to a perfect pedalling action before moving onto fitness work. If you have the experience, are confident in your bike handling and can get access to a fixed gear bike for the road, I’d highly recommend this approach next winter.

Get into the habit of starting rides in a small gear, pedalling fast in order to warm up and do the same at the end of rides to warm down. When going for long rides in a group, make sure that you undergear a little when sitting on a wheel. This will help you to save energy and last a little longer, thus improving your endurance capabilities. Similarly, if you are left behind at traffic lights while out with a group, try to get back up to them by pedalling faster in a small gear. Do this a number of times and your ability to accelerate will improve enormously. This could be beneficial when trying to get quickly over short or steep hills in a race.

Essential Effort

During an endurance ride, use the same gear on descents that you used to go uphill. Try to keep pedalling on top of the gear. 

Overgearing

Looking to strengthen up your leg muscles? Then it’s time to hit the big ring…

This is a popular method of training to help build bike-specific strength. It uses high resistance in the pedalling action and, therefore, helps create powerful cycling-specific muscles, with potential for improved power output and/or greater resistance to fatigue in the racing environment.

Overgearing generally means using the big chainring with the smaller sprockets on the rear cassette, although use of the small chainring might be equally appropriate when overgearing on uphill sections. The longer-term effect of a good plan of overgearing is that you should be able to use bigger gears and go for longer at your optimum cadence.

Overgearing is a training staple among elite performers but can be useful for all abilities. However, it should only be included in your training programme once you’ve mastered pedalling well at optimum cadence (around 90rpm – especially when racing). Otherwise, you could be in danger of ‘running before you can walk’ and develop a bad or inefficient pedalling style. The focus in successful overgearing is on turning a high gear inefficiently at a low cadence but, crucially, still with the smooth, circular pedalling action that you have developed through perfecting optimal cadence riding. 

As for how long you should dedicate to an overgearing session, well, that depends on a number of factors: your current level of fitness, the length of the session planned for, the time of year, and the terrain and weather conditions. However, this is an endurance exercise and the basic idea is to spend a period of time turning a big gear at around 50-60rpm while riding in a zone approximately 15-30% below threshold (or normal race pace) heart rate. Chatting to a training partner should still be possible. 

Olympic-distance athletes would benefit from doing overgear work lasting from 15-45mins; Ironman performers from around one to two hours or more. I once read that US cyclist George Hincapie would build up to sessions of 2.5hrs, seated in 53 x 14, continuously on rolling terrain before the ‘Classics’ racing season. Be warned, though: this big a gear for so long might not be appropriate for everybody. 

Staying seated for the whole session is, however, definitely better for building strength, as standing up allows you to reduce the effect by adding your entire bodyweight behind the effort. This approach also allows you to
perfect the mental discipline needed to ride hard and efficiently alone for long periods – essential for Ironman.

In terms of when you should do it, in my experience overgearing sessions work best if they’re introduced in the second half of the base period approaching the racing phase, and then used regularly throughout the
racing season.

Essential Effort

On a hilly route, try to stay seated on climbs and use a gear three sprockets harder than you would normally use for optimal cadence. The longer the climb, the better!

Sub-1hr bike workout: the big gear

Get better at hill climbing on the bike

   

Jargon buster


53 x 14 gears are expressed in terms of the front chainring and rear sprocket that they use. This specific ratio is used by some pros on hills – it’s normally used by age-groupers racing on the flat!

Base training phase The period at the beginning of the training cycle, when the emphasis is on developing efficient
technique and overall fitness, rather than on high-power performance.

Optimal cadence The rate of pedalling that enables you to cycle the most efficiently. For most athletes this will be around 88-95rpm.

Measuring cadence

The exercises described in this feature require you to pedal at specific ‘cadences’, expressed in revolutions per minute (rpm). But exactly how do you measure this?

By far the easiest way is to use a cycling computer. If funds don’t allow this, a simple method is to count your pedal revolutions. For instance, every time your right foot is at the bottom of the stroke, count this number against a short time span of, say, 6secs. You can then multiply this by 10 to get the revolutions per minute. This is perhaps most easily done on a friend’s turbo trainer. (If you can afford a turbo trainer, of course, you’ll have the cash to buy a bike computer!)

Bike computer: what to look for

10 of the best bike computers

   

Do this over a number of weeks to get the ‘feel’ of what 80, 90 or 100rpm feels like. After that, you should be able to guess your cadence on the road. To check, go back to the turbo, ride at what you feel is a certain cadence and get your counter person to tell you what you’re actually doing.

   

A triathlete's guide to bike cadence

  

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