3 Drills to Practice Pedal Efficiency

Pedaling Drills

Choose drills before each workout, and, after warming up, focus on them throughout that training session.

Spin through Zone 3

Note: For the purposes of this drill, "zone 2" refers to a heart rate corresponding to a "very light" to "fairly light" effort (perceived exertion 9-11 on a scale of 20), and "zone 3" refers to a "somewhat hard" effort (perceived exertion 12 - 14).

  • Find a course with steady terrain. Choose a course that is mostly flat and free of stops.
  • Find a steady pace at the top end of your zone 2. Check your speed and then shift down into the next easiest gear (for example from a 17- to a 19-tooth cog). Then maintain the same speed by increasing your rpm. Your heart rate will start to climb through zone 3. When your heart rate reaches the top of zone 3, slow your pace until it recovers back to the top of zone 2.

Focus on keeping the leg muscles relaxed and the spin smooth. Relax your toes and ankles. Don't force the movement. Try to release the tension in your legs and let the energy flow.

You're looking for a smooth, fast, yet effortless motion. If you find yourself bouncing on the saddle, back your cadence off a bit until it smoothes out.

The objective is to teach the muscles in the legs to contract and relax in harmony. Muscles that fight each other will create resistance to the pedaling movement. This resistance will consume, or waste, energy and inhibit your performance.

Single-Leg Pedaling

Do this on a stationary trainer. Unclip one leg and rest it on something and pedal with just the other leg. Keep the cadence, resistance and duration low until you develop your technique; start at 60 rpm. Alternate legs about every 30 seconds (or when you get fatigued) and gradually (over several weeks of practicing) increase the duration, cadence and then the resistance.

Pedaling with one leg will force you to move the pedal in full circles. You will notice right away how much work it is to pull through the bottom of the pedal stroke and lift the pedal back up and over the top.

Try to eliminate the dead spots at the bottom and top of the pedaling circle, and keep the pedaling motion as even and smooth as possible. You should begin to see some improvement after a few weeks. Don't make the mistake of using momentum to "throw" the pedal up over the top. Move it purposefully.

Back and forth

This drill emphasizes the application of pedaling force in the areas that are usually in the most need of improvement (the top and bottom of the pedaling circle).

During this drill you'll be focusing on pushing the pedals over, or across, the top of the pedaling circle, and pulling them back through the bottom. Think about moving the pedals back and forth rather than up and down.

After a while you'll begin to develop a better overall pedaling force application by learning to apply force over the top and through the bottom of the stroke. As with the other drills, work on keeping the muscles relaxed.

This drill can be done on any ride at any time. Try and include it as often as possible.

Lifting your knee

When climbing, focus on lifting your knees. This will unweight the pedal and you'll notice less resistance; this is good. Think about bringing your knees straight up and pushing straight down over the top of your foot.

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Thomas Chapple is a licensed elite level USA Cycling coach, certified USA Triathlon coach and Ultrafit Associates coach. He coaches regional and nationally competitive athletes and has competed at the national level in downhill mountain-bike racing.

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