Fast, smooth, seemingly effortless cycling is the goal of any time trial, sportive, or triathlon competitor. Is good pedal technique born or made? Luckily for us all, there is plenty you can do to vastly improve your pedal stroke even if you weren’t blessed with long levers and a cyclist’s frame.
Good pedal stroke technique means more power output and better endurance, whilst reducing your risk of injury and decreasing the effort you put into every revolution.
Here’s how to do it:
Why Is Pedal Efficiency Important?
A lot goes in to fast, efficient cycling: from the position of your hands to the streamlined line of your back, to (of course) the way you get those wheels turning.
Pedal efficiency means you get the most power out of each revolution, with minimal loss of energy from yourself or the bike. Smooth pedalling means less risk of injury, imbalance, and bad habits. And your bike will fare better too, with less uneven wear and tear.
What Does A Good Pedal Stroke Look Like?
Remember when you first rode with cleats? Being clipped in automatically means a smoother pedal stroke, with more of an even application of pressure throughout the stroke (compared to the up/down pressing motion of toe-clips). When you are clipped in, you will even out extreme spikes in the torque of your stroke and help you maintain a smoother power output.
Set your turbo trainer up in front of a mirror, or film yourself riding from this front view. Your hip, knee, and ankle should be in a straight line, going up and down like pistons. If your ankles or knees go in or out, or if your hips rock from side to side, you will lose power that could otherwise be going into that pedal stroke.
The power phase of the pedal stroke is from the top of the stroke to about 5 o’clock (if your entire stroke was a clock face). This is the part of the stroke where the most muscles are activated, including your hamstrings. So think about dropping your heel as you get past the top of the stoke, so you can get the most power through that downstroke.
As you transition from the downstroke to the upstroke, your calf muscles will come into play, so think about pointing your toes slightly as you go through the bottom part of the stroke. On the upstroke, think about getting your foot out of the way (rather than actively pulling or lifting that foot). And start initiating your next downstroke before the upstroke has completely finished. As you come through the top of the stroke, push your knee forward and keep your hips stable to set up for the next powerful push.
Pedal Stroke Drills
1 Single Legged Drills
Practice this in a low gear on a safe stretch of road, or on a turbo trainer. Simply unclip one foot and ride using one leg only, focusing on a smooth pedal stroke with no stop/start clunkiness. Do this until the leg fatigues and then swap over.
2 High Cadence Work
Increase your normal workaday cadence by around 20rpm and see how smooth you feel in the saddle. If you find yourself bouncing around more than usual, this could be a sign that your pedal stroke has some inefficiencies to iron out.
3 Low Cadence Work
Now work at around 20rpm less than your regular cadence, and see whether this feels smooth or like a grinding effort of pushing down on the pedals. You shouldn’t feel yourself disengage from the pedals throughout the stroke.
4 Turbo Work
Work on cadence during turbo sessions by adding 5rpm to your riding every 1-2 minutes, until you reach a point where you are bouncing in the saddle. Ease back until your riding is under control, and hold this cadence for 5 minute blocks (with recoveries in between).
Try A Pro Bike Fit
Perhaps it’s time to treat yourself (and your bike) to a professional bike fit. Check out your local independent bike shops - many will have an in-house fitter and the rest will be able to recommend someone. If your saddle is too far forward, you will be trying to pedal behind yourself, and if your saddle is too low then your knees will be too high, making it difficult to have a good pedal stroke. Even crank length could affect how efficiently you can pedal.
Find Your Cadence Sweet Spot
There is no golden rule for cadence, but it’s obvious that too slow (or too high) will have a negative impact on your pedalling efficiency.
Power is (cadence x torque), so it’s crucial that you find the sweet spot between how fast those pedals go round and how much force you can put through them. Play with pushing a lower cadence, and spinning a higher cadence. Your ideal cadence might be somewhere you haven’t gone before.