Optimizing Pedal Technique

We don't care how hard you are working, if you are not pedaling efficiently, then you might as well walk your bike to the finish line.  Improper pedaling can be the equivalent of carrying an extra rider on your back.  Most riders ride like they did when they were 13.  They push down hard on the downstroke and completely ignore the upstroke.  They also pedal in a very herky-jerky style rather than keeping a steady pedaling pace.  Riding like a 13 year old may be fun and seem natural, but it's not going to help you win a race.

Why?  Pedaling efficiency is so important due primarily to the simple physics theory that asserts a body in motion tends to stay in motion and one at rest tends to stay at rest.  'How does that help you?'  Well, if every time you perform one pedal cycle, you don't exert force during part of that cycle (or worse, you provide excessive counter force), then you will have to work twice as hard during the efficient part of your pedal cycle just to get back up to speed.  If you provide as close to a constant pedaling force as possible during the entire pedal cycle, then you will not have to work as hard to maintain your speed.

Easy Fixes.  The first step to improving your pedaling efficiency is to make sure you have a correctly sized bike and crank length for your body size and riding style.  The next step is to use all the best aerodynamic equipment.

Once you've got all that covered, you can concentrate on what your feet and legs are actually doing.  The first thing to remember is that there is no right and no wrong way to pedal.  Studies on pedaling are few and far between.  The key points regarding pedaling are listed here though.

Harder Fixes / Fighting Yourself.  The biggest thing to note, is that no one, not even Lance Armstrong, has a completely efficient pedaling stroke all the time.  In fact, the studies have shown that virtually everyone pedals against themselves somewhat.  The picture listed below shows the typical force patterns (direction and amount of force) applied to the pedals during a pedal cycle.  As is evidenced by the pic, your foot is always pushing down, even when it is going up.  This means that even the best cyclists don't pull their foot up during the upstroke (as originally thought), they merely push down less hard.  So for you to keep that bike moving, your downstroking foot must overcome your other foot's counterproductive force before it can even begin to move the bike (the only exceptions to this include sprinting and hill-climbing, where a productive upstroke is often seen).

What elite cyclists have been able to do, is reduce the amount of that negative force, in particular, in the lower part of the pedal cycle.  Most of them begin pulling their foot back earlier than other cyclists.  In fact, they started the pull back before reaching the bottom of the downstroke.  And despite the fact that eliminating all counterproductive force in the pedaling is considered to be virtually impossible, we do encourage cyclists to try to minimize this force by consciously trying to pull the foot back during the bottom part of the stroke and up during the upstroke.  In particular, we suggest working the 135 degree part of the stroke to the 230 degree part of the stroke, since this has been shown to be the area where the best riders excel.  You will know you are doing it right if your hamstrings feel the strain from the pullback.

Concentrate on the 'non-power' portions of the pedal cycle and you will reap some big gains in your speed and endurance.  Keep the pace steady and try to utilize all the muscles in your leg as you try to apply to proper force to the pedal at every step of the down and upstroke. By utilizing more muscles, you will increase speed and decrease fatigue.  And, if you follow our advice and still can't beat those 13 year olds, then you better stay off the bike altogether!