Off-season drills to boost your pedaling skills

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Pedaling a bicycle looks like a pretty simple skill. After all, the foot is attached to a pedal that is at the end of a stiff crank arm rotating about a fixed-position spindle.

What could go wrong? Actually, plenty could.

Even though the entire system is rather set, we know from research that some riders are more efficient than others when it comes to pedaling a bike.

In fact, I'll bet you've looked around your cycling group and noticed that some riders appear to be very rough and almost awkward when they pedal while others look smooth and fluid.

The difference has to do with the proper firing and relaxing of muscles while the foot is spinning at 90-or-so rpm. This is much harder to do than you might think. There are scores of large and small muscles that fire for a few milliseconds and then relax.

You may think you're efficient at pedaling, but there is a simple way of finding out. Put your bike on a trainer, warm up and then pedal with one leg only while the resting foot is on a chair next to the bike.

You'll quickly discover dead spots in your pedal stroke -- dead spots that need to be smoothed out if not entirely eliminated.

Now it's time to go to work on your pedaling efficiency while returning to this drill frequently to see how you're doing.

Winter is a great time to improve your pedaling efficiency. This article outlines drills that you can use to improve your pedaling skills. These are essentially "mental" drills that require you to focus on some unique aspect of the pedal stroke.

All of these drills are intended for flat and easy rides or indoor trainer sessions. They primarily concentrate on the top and bottom quadrants of the pedal stroke, which is where we need to improve the most.

The "top quadrant" is the range from 11 o'clock to 1 o'clock as the foot is transitioning from up and forward to down and back. The "bottom quadrant" is the area from about 5 o'clock to 7 o'clock.

The "recovery quadrant" is 7 o'clock to 11 o'clock. This also requires some concentration to avoid resting the foot on the pedal. But other than when climbing or sprinting, you should also not pull up on the pedal in the recovery range. Your goal here should be to "unweight" the pedal.

The downstroke quadrant is the easiest to get right; even a cadaver can do this. There is no need to work on smoothing out this quadrant. Just allow it to happen.

Here are a few drills.

Top of foot pedaling

Keep your foot against the top of the shoe and do not push down at all throughout the pedal stroke. This will cause you to emphasize the recovery and the bottom quadrants.

9-to-3 pedaling

When your foot is at the 9 o'clock position, think about pushing it straight forward to the 3 o'clock position. This drill concentrates on smoothing out the top transition quadrant.

Toe-touch pedaling

As your foot goes through the top quadrant, try to touch your toe to the front end of your shoe. You'll find this easier to envision if your heel is slightly elevated relative to your toes.

Spin ups

Over the course of 30 seconds or so, gradually raise your cadence until you start bouncing on the saddle. The bouncing indicates that you have exceeded your highest economical cadence. Essentially, at this time you are still pushing down at the bottom of the stroke and since the crank arm can't get any longer your butt comes off of the saddle. If you have a cadence monitor on your bike you can quantify your improvement over time with this drill.

Drills such as these should be done at least twice a week throughout the Prep and early Base periods. You may also find that a fixed-gear bike or Power Cranks help you to smooth out your stroke this winter.

2004 by Joe Friel

Joe Friel is author of the Training Bible book series and founder of Ultrafit and He may be reached by e-mail at

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