Pedal Efficiency: Round & Round We Go
Surprisingly, pedaling a bicycling is a learned “habit”. And over the length of the Tour, riders will be making many millions of revolutions of their pedals. Making your pedaling stroke as efficient as possible, even if only by tiny fractions, can have HUGE payoffs in the course of a long race or over the season in terms of saved energy. Most athletes believe you get on a bike and the pedaling motion takes care of itself. Unfortunately, this is only partly true. It does take care of itself (as long as you move), but you can also do a lot of things to improve the efficiency of your pedal stoke.
Pedaling efficiency is usually defined as:
“…optimizing the energy output on the bike in such a manner as to derive the maximum power into the drive train with the least amount of energy lost as a result of engaging muscle groups that are not directly related to the pedal stroke.”
Now in English, what you’re aiming at is to eliminate any unnecessary muscle action not directly required to turn the pedals. This means:
• Pedaling smoothly thru the two “dead spots” located at top and bottom of the pedal stroke.
• Having a suppler and less choppy rotation (i.e. no mashing), especially when you are tired at the end of a long workout or race.
• Learning to relax during the stroke
As a simple analogy, think of a golf swing and how golfers spend many hours and A LOT of money to improve their swing “efficiency”. Fortunately, in our sport, we really don’t need to spend that kind of cash in order to improve our efficiency. Improvement can happen relatively easily by using a few time tested methods.
A good place to begin is to have a pedaling analysis done on your individual pedal stroke. This can be done very well with a CompuTrainer or Velotron, which gives real-time graphical and numerical feedback regarding the power transmitted during various parts of your pedal stroke and the relative contributions of your individual legs. You can liken this to an X-ray or MRI, where the results can be evaluated to determine which part of your pedal stroke is inefficient and needs improvement. Perhaps you are not able to apply power at the proper location of the pedal stoke or your legs are not working equally in terms of strength. Having a pedal analysis done will allow us to see these issues and make the necessary adjustments.
After the pedal analysis is done and biomechanical adjustments are made, here are the best ways to improve your pedaling action:
1. I am a BIG fan of setting up a “fixed gear” bike. Be careful, we’re not talking about the increasing popular “single speed”. We are essentially talking about a track bike for the road where there is no ability to freewheel (i.e., spin without pedaling). Using a fixed gear bike forces you to learn how to pedal correctly because you are at the mercy of the movement of the bike and the fixed gear (i.e. 39×17) selection you make. In the winter, I ride my fixed gear two to four times per week, finding that it adds variety to my training program. Then, even the shortest and easiest rides have a purpose – constant pedaling action. It takes a while to get used to not being able to stop pedaling, but just like everything else we do, you get accustomed to it and can go out easily for 3+ hours in the hills! Another major advantage of using a fixed gear is it increases muscle endurance. Just a quick tip if you decide to set one up. Think about purchasing a road bike Rock Shox seat post. It comes in very handy! Trust me!
2. Another way to improve pedaling efficiency is to take the extreme opposite approach. That is to pedal big gears slowly and deliberately (i.e. slow motion). This also helps you concentrate on the entire 360 degrees of your pedal stroke while at the same time, increasing your power. Take a look at videos of two-time World Champ Gianni Bugno in the early 1990s and you’ll see incredibly smooth pedaling action even with his favoured big-gear, low-rpm style. One of the workouts we stress at AthletiCamps is called SFR’s (Slow Frequency Revolutions). Think of them as weight lifting on the bike. SFR’s are best done on a 3-5% grade with a 40-50 RPM’s. They can also be done on a trainer by lifting the front wheel up a few inches to simulate climbing. They are done starting at 2-5 minutes in length (depending on the athlete) with a very low heart rate (around 85% of your lactate threshold HR); start with 3 repetitions and build up to a max of 5 reps. Recover 3 – 4 minutes between reps. Then depending on your goals, the SFR’s are increased in both distance and time. FOCUS ON SMOOTHNESS!
3. Single legged pedaling drills are another great way to improve the complete pedal rotation. This allows total isolation and concentration on each leg, which in turn teaches improved efficiency. Start with 3-5 reps of 30-45 seconds on each leg at a very low HR and cadence around 75rpm. Increase both in time and reps per leg. I do suggest initially you do them indoors on a trainer and the safety of a controlled environment, away from traffic.
So there you have it in a nutshell. A few effective ways you can do throughout the season to improve your pedaling efficiency. Try adding them to your training program and you will see a big improvement very soon.
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com