Pedaling a bike looks simple, but a lot goes into doing it correctly

Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport
Pedaling a bike looks easy. After all, the legs just go around in circles and the crank arm length is fixed so you cant really do anything "incorrect." Or can you?

Research, however, shows that there is a lot that goes into pedaling a bike economically. For example, imagine two riders pedaling side by side at exactly 200 watts and 90 rpm in a lab, each with a force detector built into the pedals. In this lab we have their pedal force detectors hooked up to sophisticated computer software that allows us to see the wave-like pattern that each stroke produces.

At the 3 oclock position, each is producing the highest force of their strokes, while on the recovery side the force is quite low. Thus, this oscillating wave could show exactly what each rider is doing at different points in one given revolution of the crank arms.

While they are averaging the same power output 200 watts rider As instantaneous force at the 3 oclock position produces 225 watts while rider Bs is 215 watts.

Based on this, we can say that rider B is more economical he is wasting less energy.

VW or SUV?

And thats what pedaling economy is all about: conserving fuel. An economical rider uses less energy compared with a sloppy pedaler.

What that translates into is that improving your economy means you can ride farther or faster on the same amount of fuel. Youve become a VW instead of an SUV.

I believe that its possible for most riders to improve their economy by at least 5 percent, even for experienced riders, and perhaps as much as 20 percent for beginners. And every percentage point of improvement translates into a percentage point of improvement in race fitness.

How many intervals and miles would you have to do to boost your VO2max or lactate threshold by 5 to 20 percent? That would be a lot of sweat and suffering. But economy can be improved just by working on it a bit every day. No sweat!

What makes for an economical pedaling stroke?

Proper bike set-up is the starting place for improving your economy. Working on all of the ideas Ill give you here does little good if your bike is not adjusted to your body. Make sure you have the optimum fit and then begin boosting your economy with these techniques and drills.

1. Pedal horizontally

Dont think about the pedal stroke as being up and down, or even circular. Think of it as horizontal, for its at the top and bottom of the stroke where your legs are transitioning to go the other direction either forward and down, or back and up. A slight increase in energy output here decreases the need for a very high effort at 3 oclock.

There are several elements of the stroke you can focus on to develop this horizontal-pedaling skill. The best mental focus for most riders has to do with driving the toes toward the ends of the shoes at the top of each stroke.

Another mental cue that works for some is "scraping mud off" at the bottom of each stroke. Yet a third focus involves throwing the knees over the handlebars. Concentrate on only one of these at a time.

Here are two drills that will help you become better at pedaling horizontally.

The first is called the Isolated Leg Training (ILT) drill. While riding on an indoor trainer, place a chair on either side of the bike. Place one foot on the chair and pedal with the other for 30 seconds focusing on your critical stroke mental cue from above. Then switch legs and pedal for 30 seconds with the other, still thinking about your technique.

Keep your cadence at around 90 rpm throughout. After doing both legs as ILT, pedal normally for another minute with both legs keeping the same sensation of proper technique going. Repeat the drill several times.

Its not safe to do ILT on the road, but heres a drill thats almost as good, which can be done anywhere you may ride. Its called the Dominant Leg drill. While pedaling with both feet clipped into the pedals, use one leg to do most all of the work for 30 seconds. The other is lazy. Otherwise, this drill is just like the ILT drill. Pay attention to the road dont watch your feet.

2. Heel slightly above pedal

Dont allow your heel to drop below the level of the pedal on the downstroke keep the heels slightly elevated. This effectively rotates the crankset forward and sets you up for horizontal pedaling. It will take some getting used to, and youll probably find that your legs fatigue sooner for the first few days after you adopt this technique if youve been an ankler in the past.

3. Increased cadence

Mashing is not economical. Thats what rider A was doing in the scenario above. Continually working on raising your cadence improves your economy.

Each of us has a comfortable cadence range. Any time we get outside of it we feel sloppy. By discovering what yours is and staying near the top end of it several times each week you can shift your comfort range upward. One way to do this is to buy a handlebar computer with a cadence monitor and check it during your rides.

A drill that helps you to become more economical at higher cadences is the "spin-up" drill. Either on the road or an indoor trainer, while riding in a low gear, gradually increase your cadence over a 30-second period until you begin to bounce on the saddle. When that happens, slow the cadence until you are no longer bouncing and hold it for a few more seconds.

The key to this drill is relaxation. Relax your toes, your grip on the bars and your face. Try to be as smooth and relaxed as possible. Make it seem almost effortless. Do several of these within a ride separating them with a few minutes of normal cadence.

4. Unweight pedal on recovery

What you do with the leg that is on the recovery side of the stroke is critical to your economy. If this leg rests on the pedal, the other leg will have to work harder to lift it. But also be careful not to pull up with the recovery leg (except when climbing or sprinting). This will cause a tremendous waste of energy.

Instead, try to simply unweight the recovery pedal. In other words, if you werent clipped in, the weight of that leg would be taken off of the pedal as it came back up. In reality, this wont happen due to the centrifugal force of pedaling, but we can move closer to this ideal. Unweighting spares energy.

Consistency and patience

Just as with any other aspect of fitness, to improve your economy you must work on it consistently and patiently. Doing an ILT drill a couple of times a month wont hack it. Improvement demands frequent repetition.

I recommend working on some aspect of pedaling economy every time youre on the bike, but especially in the base period when drills make up much of what you do.

You also must be patient measurable results will take months. With economy work youre training the nervous system. Teaching the nerves to contract and relax muscles at just the right times doesnt happen quickly. But if youre consistent and patient, I guarantee that youll start riding faster.

Joe Friel is the author of the Training Bible series of books and is the founder and President of Ultrafit Associates. He may be reached at

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