Form comes from lots of different places. In the first article in this series, I wrote about being grateful for your starting point. About a year ago, my starting point involved sitting on the bike and slowly learning to pedal again as part of the recovery process for a complicated injury. I was allowed to pedal for five short minutes. Every single second felt wonderful.
Slowly, under the perceptive, insightful guidance of a remarkable physio, I’ve been building the muscle control to pedal further, more often, and with increasing strength and control. A thorough bike fit has made the world of difference too, something I wrote about last week.
Ready to get fit again, I recently started training with power leading up to L’Etape Australia. By trying to smooth out the numbers on my Garmin, I’ve felt my pedal stroke develop further as my left leg starts to feel, and act, more like a whole again. Through this whole process, I can’t help but wonder what riding might have been like if I had previously known some of the (very cool) lessons I’ve learned recently, and how some of these lessons may benefit other riders in their own journeys.
In order to discover more about what goes into a healthy pedal stroke, I got in touch with Damian Mason, a senior coach and Retul bike fitter working alongside Mark Fenner with FTP Training. (If someone won a medal at nationals, in just about any cycling discipline, there’s a high chance they’ve been working with this crew.)
While I was curious to learn more about pedalling efficiency, Mason’s experience as a coach and bike fitter showed that what’s just as valuable is learning to spot inefficiencies early and knowing where to seek help to correct them.
Why wait ‘til your injured to learn this stuff? With luck, there are a whole stack of pedal strokes between now and then. You may as well get the most of them.
When it comes to pedalling, I'm often surprised how many riders I see out there with rocking hips, tense bodies or knees that wander around all over the place. What are some of the giveaways of a poor or inefficient pedal stroke in your view?
A bad pedal stroke can be the result of several factors. Bike position (predominately saddle height and set back), bad cleat positions, incorrect crank lengths, or physical issues, for example, a bad back or old leg injuries. Visually, you might see rocking hips, knees kicking out, rigid ankle movement or laboured pedal stroke.
What's going on in an efficient pedal stroke?
To have an efficient pedal stroke everything needs to be working in unison. All the muscles should be working together to deliver pressure to the pedals.
If one or more of these muscles are doing too much or not enough the whole stroke becomes inefficient. This can cause increased fatigue in a particular muscle or force it to overwork, which can result in injury. An example is if your saddle height is too low it places more pressure on the quadriceps, it loads it up causing pain or fatigue whilst the hamstring is now under worked and underutilised.
Does optimal pedalling technique differ between riders of different cycling disciplines? Or even within the same discipline?
From a numbers perspective, the angles of the pedal stroke remain very similar from bike to bike. There are some differences from a road position to a time trial position in terms of leg extension and saddle set back. This change in angles does create small differences but the basic pedal stroke is the same.
What are some of the things riders can do or think as they're pedalling to build better technique if they don't have access to fancy equipment?
It depends on the rider. There are a few things they need to identify first. Their preferred cadence; do they grind or spin? Are they getting any localised muscle soreness after a ride, such as tired hamstrings but not quadriceps? Does their stroke get messy? Or do they feel like they are pedalling in squares rather than circles?
I prefer to make sure their position is correct first, ensuring the muscles have every chance to operate within the required ranges, then depending and the style of stroke they have, I will advise drills to either improve or correct the fault.
Some riders mash the pedals putting all their effort into the downstroke ignoring the upstroke, once fatigue sets in this gets worse and worse, cadence slows power or speed drops. I would get them do a five-minute effort focusing on the uplift, bringing their knees up. Simply by thinking more about the upstroke shifts the load elsewhere. Bringing other muscles into play gives the quads a break and allows cadence to increase.
If they were toey or had a high heel lift, I’d get them to think about wiping something off the bottom of their shoe at the bottom of the downstroke.
If a rider has a muscle imbalance either from injury or other circumstance, single legged drills, etc. may be of some use to put some focus on the weaker side. It's not something a do a lot of. I am not a big fan of single legged drills as they can be very difficult and depending on the rider it would be easy to overdo it and cause injury.
(A word of warning before trying this at home)
Any drill needs to be specific to what the problem is so my recommendation is to avoid generic advice unless someone has identified a specific exercise related to your problem. To me if you don’t have the right tools to gather the relevant data or a coach to monitor it, it would be impossible to gauge effectiveness and how much of a drill you need to do. Plus the imbalance may have nothing to do with cycling. You need to identify the cause then rectify it. The list of reasons are too many and varied to isolate a solution here.
If you suspect you have a problem I would consult a physio first then see a bike fitter then maybe a coach who can take all the information gained and give you the right approach to rectify it.
Are there any myths about pedalling that riders should stay away from?
The biggest myth a beginner can be told is this cadence is the best one, i.e. one size fits all. I hear advice given all the time as to which method is best. What’s best for one isn’t necessarily best for others.
Beginners to cycling do tend to push bigger gears to begin with. A higher cadence generally needs to be trained.
Is there anything else that you think would help riders get more out of their time on the bike as far as their approach to pedalling is concerned?
Most people are not aware unless you point it out to them. The human body is amazing at coping with bad set up or technique.
You need to try and get the rider to focus and relay to you what they are feeling when discomfort or trouble starts for them when they ride. It could be injury, soreness, fatigue or loss of performance. All these things could point to a bad or inefficient pedal stroke.
Once the rider can describe what they are feeling, you can begin the diagnosis of what you need to do to correct it. If you can ride with them then it can sometimes be pretty obvious, I typically like to get them under heavy load, then any inefficiencies become pretty obvious.
One of the biggest challenges with developing your pedal stroke is that the way we pedal feels so normal, it can be hard to know whether it’s right or wrong. If you’re concerned or curious, take note of any pain or not-quite-right sensations you experience while riding or afterwards. Speak to your riding mates for their feedback on your form as a starting point or ask someone to video you from behind to see if anything stands out.
As Mason suggests, see a physio to understand what’s happening at a bodily level, a bike fitter to investigate any setup issues and speak to a coach for drills that address your specific needs.
While an optimal pedal stroke is one thing, the information you can pull from a bad pedal stroke can be just as important.