We have all seen it at our local club ride or on TV, athletes with a seemingly effortless pedal stroke, turning an incredible cadence, power flowing to the pedals without any wasted motion or energy. Smooth and efficient transfer of energy from body to bike results in quicker times in the bike leg and leaving more reserves for the run leg. Armstrong harnessed a quicker and more efficient pedal stroke to help in his domination of the last three Tours. Competitors could not overlook his obviously quicker and more efficient pedaling style. Yes, we have seen it, read it, and heard it but have we practiced what is seemingly a key to success in the cycling discipline?
Triathletes spend incredible amounts of time and energy into refining swim stroke technique and an energy saving running style. The pedaling stroke is often overlooked; after all we have all been riding bikes since childhood. This is akin to saying you won’t drown and that’s good enough. And since the bike leg is always proportionally longer in time than the other legs of a triathlon, it starts to make sense that efficiency on the bike may warrant some serious thought and effort in your training regime.
Where do you start on your quest for that energy efficient smoothness? First off has to be bike fit. All talk about pedaling dynamics doesn’t matter if your bike fit doesn’t allow you to use your muscles in an effective manner. Correct fit makes learning and utilizing good pedaling mechanics much easier and will keep you more efficient (and injury free) in the long run. Proper bicycle fit will allow you to use the most of the correct muscle mass to apply force to the pedals.
The next step is to develop an efficient application of force. What this involves is applying force to the pedals during then entire 360 degrees that make up the pedal stroke. You can utilize a simple drill to help teach your nervous system and ready your musculature to apply force all the way around. This one legged pedaling drill will make you aware of deficiencies in pedal stroke and will stress the muscles in your legs that are not being used to their potential. Set your bike up on an indoor trainer and place a chair on each side of your bicycle. After a warm up period, place one foot on a chair, make sure that your hips are still square, and pedal a short interval with one leg only.
Concentrate on the top and bottom sections of the pedal stroke, the areas where it is the most difficult to apply force. You should attempt to slide your foot forward inside your shoe as you clear the top of the stroke and slide your foot back inside your shoe across the bottom. As your foot starts to come up again, just try to carry the momentum back to the top. You are not attempting to apply an upward force, you are just unloading the weight of your leg from the pedal so that the opposing leg does not have to waste any energy lifting that dead weight. A cue you can use here is to attempt to throw your knee over the handlebar.
A visual indicator you can use during this drill is to look at the top run of your chain. If the chain droops momentarily, that is a point within your pedal stroke where you are not applying tension on the chain, which indicates you are not applying the correct force to the pedal. Start this drill at a slow cadence so you can concentrate fully on correct form. Gradually increase your cadence while maintaining this form and continue the interval only a long as this form holds true. You can start with 30-second intervals and work up to one minute per leg. Alternate legs and periodically use both feet concentrating on the form you were using with one leg. More than likely you will feel fatigued in strange muscles that you have been underutilizing, usually the hip flexors (in front of your hip joint) and anterior tibialis (in front of your shin). Remember to only perform this at a cadence and time interval that allows perfect form.
The next factor to consider in your quest for efficiency is cadence. Practicing and implementing a higher cadence during your cycling will give you a deadly double-edged sword: First, the higher your cadence, the less force you must apply at the pedals to generate the same power. Less force applied to the pedals means less stress applied to the musculature of your legs, leaving you more reserves for the run. You can, of course, apply the same force with a higher cadence to achieve a higher speed as well. Second, the higher speed at which your feet move through a pedal cycle results in a smaller time interval during which you have to apply this force.
Basically you have less time to apply the force during each crank revolution since you are getting through the cycle faster. The effectiveness of this one-two punch can also be better understood if we think about some physics here. Power is defined as the product of force and velocity. A higher cadence diminishes the force and the length of time you apply this force per pedal stroke. The result is less power produced per pedal stroke. This is what saves your musculature. Just ask Professor Armstrong about that equation. You can use high cadence drills to teach your nervous system to operate in this more efficient manner. Use a low gear that keeps you well in your aerobic HR zones and do 5-10 minute intervals at a cadence between 107 and 130. Relax your upper body and feet, be smooth and supple with your legs.
No bouncing in the saddle! Remember that you are specifically stressing foot speed here, not force, so the force you apply to the pedals should be very low. Recover for the same amount of time at a lower cadence of 90 to 100. Use various hand positions during these drills to make sure you can use a fast cadence no matter how your body is positioned on your machine. You can also stress using correct cadence while fatigued by doing these intervals at the end of a long ride. Recovery rides provide another opportunity to do these drills since the muscular stress is so low. The ultimate goal of this drill is that you engrain this fast cadence into your neuromuscular system and employ it in all your rides. The accompanying chart describes a sample workout for both the single leg pedaling drills covered earlier and these high cadence drills. This chart is only a sample of the many variations that you can add to these very effective drills.
The optimal part of your training year to focus on your pedaling skills and the described drills is during the early base building periods. During these periods intensity is low so it is much easier to focus on efficiency. Also, the skills and motor patterns that make up an efficient pedal stroke must be learned at lower force and aerobic intensity levels before you can carry them over at high force and aerobic intensity levels.
Once you have mastered the efficient application of force and adopted a quicker pedaling cadence you will be well on your way to harnessing more power, higher efficiency, and less leg fatigue on the bike leg. You will be able to sustain a higher average speed during the bike and feel less muscle fatigue when you leave T2. Your competitors may notice something different about your pedaling style as you scream past them on the bike leg in all your efficient glory or float past them on the run on your fresh and springy legs. You will definitely notice the improved results brought to you by your newly acquired skills.
Single Leg Pedaling Drills:
Set 1: 30 seconds right leg, 30 seconds left leg, 30 seconds both legs focusing on form at a comfortable cadence. Repeat 3 times
5 minutes easy recovery riding
Set 2: 45 second right leg, 45 seconds left leg, 30 seconds both legs focusing on form at comfortable cadence. Repeat 3 times.
5 minutes easy recovery riding
Set 3: 1 minute right leg, 1 minute left leg, 1 minute both legs focusing on form at comfortable cadence. Repeat 3 times.
A good goal is to try to get 6-9 minutes on each individual leg per workout. Remember to only use a cadence and interval length that allows you to hold perfect form. Gradually increase interval time and cadence and decrease the recovery period as your skill improves and your neuromuscular system adapts.
High Cadence Drills:
Set 1: 5 minutes at cadence of 107-115, hands on tops and brake hoods.
8 minutes easy recovery riding
Set 2: 5 minutes at cadence of 115-125, hands on brake hoods and drops or aero bars.
8 minutes easy recovery riding
Set 3: 5 minutes at cadence of 115-125, with 20-second bursts of 125-130, hands on brake hoods and aero bars.
Remember that your goal here is foot speed, not force. Relax that upper body and feet and no bouncing! Gradually increase the length of the interval and reduce the recovery interval as your body adapts.