Going round in circles
Improving the way you turn the pedals could help you go faster for less effort, but is it possible to re-learn your pedalling technique, and if so, what changes should you try to make?
If you go out for a two-hour ride, by the time you get back you will have likely turned the pedals more than 10,000 times. It’s obvious, then, that if each pedal stroke could be a bit more efficient, delivering a little more power for the same effort, the increase in overall performance would be significant. Cycling is sometimes described as ‘the beautiful sport’, but that’s probably got more to do with the natural backdrops of the Grand Tours than the physical act of cycling itself. Pedalling isn’t generally regarded as skilful or elegant; it doesn’t require the finesse and precision of, for example, a perfectly executed volley in tennis or a spin pass at rugby. It’s mechanical, repetitive, boring even. Most cyclists probably haven’t given their pedalling style much thought since their parents first removed their stabilisers – it’s just something done automatically, like breathing. But if that’s the case, is it worth trying to improve or even re-learn your technique?
Like riding a bike
There are those who believe that your pedalling style is inherent. Phil Burt, bike fitting guru at Bespoke Performance Lab in London, says, ‘It’s like walking – it’s parked away in a part of your brain you can’t reach.’ But there are plenty of others who believe it’s worth investigating the benefits of adjusting your technique.
‘Why not?’ says coach Tim Williams of Perfect Condition Coaching Consultants, who includes former world time-trial champion and Olympic silver medallist Emma Pooley among his clients. ‘People see swimming coaches. There’s no sense that if you grew up swimming badly you can’t learn how to swim well,’ he says. ‘But somehow when it comes to cycling and running there’s this notion that it’s just a natural thing: you do it how you do it and that’s it. Good pedalling is eminently trainable.’
Chris Carmichael, former pro rider and US Olympic cycling coach who now runs a coaching network for ‘time-crunched’ athletes, agrees: ‘When you work on improving an athlete’s pedal stroke, it’s a matter of enabling the athlete to generate more power for a longer period of time in a position they can sustain. I haven’t met a rider yet who hasn’t wanted to achieve those goals.’
True enough, so where do we start?
Hip bone’s connected to the knee bone…
In a brightly lit basement in Liverpool is the sports and exercise performance lab of John Moores University.
Lecturer Dr Jos Vanrenterghem is doing his best to make pedalling sound exciting: ‘You want to use as much muscle volume as you can,’ he says, lifting his leg and gripping near his right buttock. ‘You have a lot in your hip, so you want to use the hip extensor, or gluteus, for pushing down. But it will only be able to contribute if the muscles that connect it to the knee – the rectus femoris, part of the quadriceps set, and the hamstrings – are working too. You want all those muscles working together.’ And what about the bits below the knee? ‘Calf muscles are mostly important for stabilisation of the foot. Previously, people thought they were an important component in actually pushing your foot away, but actually that’s not necessarily the case, although they need to be sufficiently developed to transfer the effort from the hip and knee to the pedal.’
To maximise your power transfer from leg to pedal, the position of your foot on the pedal is vital. Received wisdom says you should position the cleat of your shoe under the ball of your foot, but some experts now believe it should be a bit further back, towards the arch of your foot.
Götz Heine, a German former road and track cyclist, even developed a shoe featuring a ‘mid-foot’ position for cleats, the Biomac. Though endorsed by Ironman World Champion triathlete Paula Newby Fraser and two-times Race Across America winner Dani Wyss, his shoes never caught on in the pro peloton, and he claims to have hit a ‘brick wall’ in negotiations with major shoe manufacturers (which may have been as much to do with their €500 price tag as anything else). However Tim Williams is one of several coaches – including internationally renowned bike fitter Steve Hogg – who agrees with the principle behind Heine’s design, that the ‘mid-foot’ position enables riders to apply pressure in the downstroke zone for longer than riders using the conventional position.
‘If the cleats are too far forward, your quads, calves, achilles and knees have to do much more work to stabilise your foot and get it over the top of the stroke,’ says Williams. ‘My advice to newbies would be to put the cleats as far back as they will go. I’ve had no adverse reactions from anyone doing this. In fact, the only issue I’ve had is that occasionally they won’t go back far enough so we’ve had to drill more holes in the shoe.’
It could be worth experimenting with your cleat position, but be warned – Vanrenterghem suggests any significant deviation from beneath the first metatarsal joint (ball of the foot) could cause more problems than it solves: ‘Further back, and you won’t be able to transfer the forces from your hip and knee effectively. And if you put the cleats too far forward, you’ll get increased loading of your calf muscles.’
One possible solution to this could be adjusting your saddle height. Heine recommends that riders adopting his ‘mid-foot’ position should lower their saddles by a couple of centimetres.
Knee bone’s connected to the ankle bone…
There’s one other factor to consider when positioning feet – the effect it will have on the movement of your knees. Sarah Rowe, a former Olympic cyclist who now lectures in sport science at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, says a typical club run will feature lots of pairs of knees knocking against top tubes. She has used 360° 3D imagery to analyse pedalling styles and says, ‘It’s interesting to see how much knees move from side to side, up to as much as six centimetres. This not only makes you question pedalling efficiency – the bow-legged position is hardly aerodynamic – but which other muscles are unwittingly being used to support that movement.’ Once you’ve sorted out the position of your feet and knees, it’s then a case of simply forcing the pedals around, relentlessly and repeatedly, hour after hour.
‘Cycling is a highly repetitive motion and many riders will maintain a cadence of around 90 revolutions per minute for hours at a time,’ says Chris Carmichael, who was a member of Team 7-Eleven, the first US team to compete in the Tour de France in 1986. ‘If your position on the bike can be improved so you get a bit more power out of each pedal stroke, that can make a big difference in performance and how much you enjoy riding your bike.’
The term ‘ankling’ is often used to describe a pedalling style defined by dropping the ankle/heel at the top of the stroke to push forwards. Sports scientist Rowe has been intrigued by the ankle joint ever since one of her own was shattered after a car ploughed into her during a training ride in 1997. It left her unable to walk for a year and finished her cycling career.
‘Ankles are overlooked,’ she says. ‘But ankle extensors, while not necessarily major power producers, provide a stable link between the foot and the other joints. The ankle is also the last pivotal point of a rider’s leg before the pedal, making it extremely important. If there’s not the stability in the ankle, it takes its toll on the hip, knee, pelvis, etc. If you’re having to use other muscles to stabilise your ankle, you’re wasting energy.’
Tim Williams is wary of ankling: ‘The danger is if your ankle comes down too much below the horizontal after you’ve pressed through the three o’clock position, you’re dragging it back as if scraping dog poo off the sole of your shoe, and that’s using your hamstrings when you should be using your quads and glutes, which are much stronger.’
Williams teaches a method he calls ‘lift, flick, claw’, where the ‘lift’ is the recovery phase before the next stroke and sees the hip flexors – muscles around the front of the pelvis – lift your knee out of the way of the pedal that’s coming up. The ‘flick’ phase is the start of the new stroke and sees the tibialis anterior – your shin muscle – flick your toes forward through the ‘dead spot’ at the top of the pedal arc. This is followed immediately by the ‘claw’ phase, a ‘curved push combining continued downward acceleration of the knee with a forceful extension of the ankle’.
Vanrenterghem takes issue with the use of the hip flexors to ‘lift’ the knee out of the way. He believes this part of the pedal stroke should be purely about relaxing: ‘You want to make sure the muscles get the oxygen and nutrition they need to keep going over long distances, so you relax on the upstroke,’ he says. ‘If you continuously contract muscles by pushing and pulling, you prevent the pumping of blood through the legs.’
Hard or fast?
Which brings us to the million dollar question that exercises some of the finest minds on the Sunday club run. Which is better: pedalling harder or faster?
‘There’s no shortage of studies that have looked at the relationships between pedalling rate and power production, metabolic cost, efficiency and economy,’ says Carmichael. ‘What it boils down to, however, is that at a very low cadence a cyclist is producing too much force per pedal stroke, while at a very high cadence the metabolic cost – oxygen consumption – is too high.’
Ernst Hansen, a former Danish national cyclocross champion, is professor in biomechanics at Aalborg University. He co-authored a research paper that concluded a lower cadence ‘would definitely save energy and possibly even improve performance’ during the major part of a typical five-hour stage race at submaximal pace (when riders are exerting 60-70% of their maximum effort and not anticipating any sudden bursts of acceleration). But cyclists ‘typically choose a cadence that’s considerably higher than the energetically optimal cadence’, resulting in excess energy expenditure of about five per cent. Switching up a gear would solve that.
One reason so many riders prefer a higher cadence may be the Armstrong effect. ‘I’ve seen people pedalling themselves silly because they’ve been influenced by Lance Armstrong [who famously developed a high cadence],’ says Rowe. ‘But the right cadence for you is down to your body shape, the length of your limbs or width of your pelvis – things you can’t change. There’s no one-size-fits-all. It’s all very well looking at the science but a lot of it’s down to what feels right.’
For some riders, argues Carmichael, switching to a higher cadence could be beneficial. Larger riders who ‘self-select a big-gear, low-cadence, pedal-mashing style’ would definitely benefit from making more frequent visits to the small ring: ‘You can understand why they gravitated to that style in the first place – they have long levers, lots of muscle mass and plenty of weight to put over the pedals – but their skeletal muscles fatigue the same way a lighter, smaller rider’s do, so they would benefit from getting their legs to turn over faster.’
Vanrenterghem also warns of the dangers of grinding out hard revolutions in the big ring. ‘A substandard bike might break down under repetitive actions. The same applies to your body,’ he says. ‘Your body, especially the cartilage in your knee, can degenerate under strong, repetitive forces when riding a big gear. This could take place gradually, without you even noticing, because you only start feeling pain when it has reached critical levels.’
Practice makes perfect
So if you’re convinced that a good pedalling technique can be learned or improved, what are the best exercises? ‘Pedalling very slowly is useful for developing ankle co-ordination, and pedalling very fast – spinning – is useful for hip flexor coordinaton,’ says Williams. ‘Focus on your range of motion through the hips, knees and lower back,’ suggests Carmichael. Ride a fixie, says Rowe. ‘My coach told me I had a very smooth pedalling technique, which I put down to riding a fixed-gear bike on the undulating roads around Aberdeenshire during the winter. It really makes you concentrate on your technique.’
Here is one method to for improving your pedal stroke