How to Optimise Your Pedal Stroke When Cycling Indoors

There are many articles describing how cyclists can improve pedal stroke efficiency. There are in-depth explanations with graphs and charts of real-time data from power-based software that examine and define the most efficient pedal stroke. Yet with all the studies performed, most researchers seem to agree on the fact that there is no magic form that can be applied to every cyclist. There are so many contributing factors that play a role in producing the most efficient pedal stroke such as individual physiology and neurology coupled with the correct bike setup and fit. For new cyclists however, there are some simple tips and exercises to help connect body and bike and maximize pedaling comfort and help reduce injury.

Indoor Bike Fit:

You wouldn’t run a 5k race in a pair of shoes or shorts that fit too snugly and the same can be said for your indoor bike. You want to enable your body to move comfortably without restriction or irritation. Having a professional bike fitter fit you on your bike and set up your touchpoints, (stem, handlebar, seat post height, saddle position and cleat position) will add to a more comfortable and efficient ride. A bike fitter will set your seat-post height to allow for a leg extension that is appropriate to your individual flexibility and range of motion. Many bike fitters now offer virtual services.

Saddle Fit:

Most cyclists are no stranger to saddle discomfort, but did you know that there have been significant advancements in saddle shape, width, and size? There are many options available, and most companies allow you a trial period with a saddle or offer a test saddle to, “try before you buy”. A quick way you can tell if you should consider a new saddle, is of course pain. Do you find yourself moving around on the saddle during a ride? Do you find yourself pushing your bum back on the saddle? When you pedal do you feel your pelvis roll off either side of your saddle? Do your hips wiggle with each pedal stroke? Do you find yourself tucking your tailbone? Do you feel pressure on the sit-bones or soft-tissues of the genitals? All of these could be signs that your saddle is not the correct shape or size to support your pelvis. Watch professional road cyclists and notice how still their pelvis and upper body remain while they pedal. Your legs will struggle to be the piston you want them to be if the engine they are attached to is wiggling around. The worst thing you can do for your pedal stroke is grit your teeth and suffer through the pain from an improperly sized saddle as this can in fact cause injury to tissue and muscles.

Cycling Technique:

Its common for beginners to solely push down on the pedals, also known as “mashing,” the pedals. It may feel easier than engaging the entire leg but it’s far less efficient and it becomes more taxing on the isolated muscles involved. It’s much more efficient to connect with every point of the revolution of the pedal stroke because it results in engaging more muscles and it balances out the energy transferred from body to bike. While technically your foot will be pedalling in circles, I find it easier for new cyclists to make the bike-body connection by imagining you are pedaling in the shape of an egg on its side. Imagine pushing your foot forward and down and sweeping up and over the back of the pedal stroke rather than pedalling a perfectly round circle. I have also found the quickest way to learn the most efficient pedal stroke is to ride in flat pedals because it forces you to claw the pedal with your toes to pull the foot back and up around without having your foot slip off the pedal. Even if you currently clip your feet into pedals, try periodically swapping them for flats to see if you can perform the same movement of the foot and ankle without sliding off the pedal. The most translatable advice I give new cyclists is to imagine that you are scraping something off the bottom of your cycling shoe as you push the foot forward and down and then back up and around while pointing the toes slightly. However, it should be noted that if you over point your toe like a dancer, then you run the risk of calf tightness and cramping; adversely if you drop your heel, you can restrict muscle engagements from calves and hamstrings and you put more pressure on the pelvis.

Indoor Cycling Gear Selection:

One of the most common rookie mistakes I see is pushing a hard gear. While it may feel like you’re getting a tough resistance workout, you will fatigue much faster and potentially risk injury. The other common mistake is pedalling with a cadence that is too high; you’ve seen the cyclist who pedals this way and who’s upper body thrashes back and forth while seated. Instead, try to find an easy spinning gear that gives enough resistance to make it easy to maintain form, typically smaller chainring in front and one of the middle cogs of the cassette at the back. This is the best way to start your workout and is the best gear selection for long, flat endurance workouts. If you’re aiming for a specific cadence, then I would suggest 70-90rpm’s, (revolutions per minute). With 0-2 degrees of elevation, 70-90rpms is a cadence at which you can easily hold a conversion.

Power Balance:

As a bike fitter and coach of indoor cycling using real-time power data with compu-trainers, I have witnessed that most cyclists have an imbalance of power from left to right. Just as most of us favour a side for swinging a golf club or baseball bat, we also favour a side for delivering the most amount of power on a bike. The difference is that most cyclists are unaware which side is more dominant. So how do you determine your own power imbalance? It’s been my experience that isolation or one-leg pedal drills illustrates this immediately and they can be performed without any expensive software or power-meter pedals.

Try the following exercise before your next indoor cycling workout:

  • Pedal an easy to slightly moderate gear, (use the small chainring in front and middle chainring in the back)
  • Pedal at 70 rpms with both feet on the pedals for 3 minutes.
  • Pedal at 70 rpms focused on left of right pedal stroke for 1 minutes.
  • Alternate sides.
  • Pedal at 70 rpms with both feet on the pedals for 3 minutes.
  • Unclip or remove on foot from one side and pedal with one leg for 30 seconds.
  • Pedal at 70 rpms with both feet for 1 minute.
  • Unclip the alternate side and pedal with one leg for 30 seconds.
  • Take note of which side felt smoother and which side felt more awkward and possibly made a clunking noise from the crank.

I recommend skipping the high-cadence drills until you can perform smooth pedal strokes with no knocking or clunking during each revolution. Perform this isolation drill weekly or before a longer, endurance-based workout.

Written by Ryan Petersen, an NCCP Cycling Coach and IBFI and Retul Level 2 Bike Fitter and a 15-year veteran in bicycle retail and distribution. She has coached beginner and intermediate athletes in road cycling, mountain biking and indoor cycling. She has competed in road cycling, triathlon, cyclocross, ultra endurance cycling, downhill and cross-country but her heart belongs to bike packing and cycle touring. She is shade-grown on the west coast of beautiful British Columbia, Canada.

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