How to Improve Pedaling Efficiency

Visualize how you should pedal during a race, then put it into practice.
Visualize how you should pedal during a race, then put it into practice.
Nathan Bilow/Getty Images

Pedaling a bicycle seems like one of those intuitive, uncomplicated things in life -- something you mastered as a kid. Why would you ever have to give it more thought or train to do it differently? Well, if all you ever plan to do on two wheels is coast along the shoreline on your beach cruiser, you're all set with the basic mechanics you learned when you were an 8-year-old. But if you plan to participate in a high-speed, long-distance bike race, such as the cycling leg of a triathlon, then you might want to take a closer look at your pedaling.

We've all heard the story of the tortoise and the hare, where slow and steady win the race. However, if that fable were to apply to a triathlon, the winner would be a hybrid of the two -- someone who could combine the hare's speed and the tortoise's endurance. When you're training for the cycling leg of your big race, keep that combination in mind. And if you work on pedaling your bike more efficiently -- using less energy to gain more distance -- you will ultimately be able to marry the two athletic ideals of speed and endurance. In cycling language, improving pedaling efficiency means you will need to overcome dead spots in your pedal rotation, have a smoother, steadier rotation and be able to relax through the rotation [source: PezCycling News].

To meet these goals, it's a good idea to first evaluate your current pedaling efficiency. Don't worry; you don't have to be a world-famous cyclist to have your pedal strokes analyzed. For the cycling perfectionist, there are a variety of computer-controlled indoor cycles available that provide biomechanical feedback on pedal strokes. But regardless of whether you choose to invest in such a machine, there are still some basic drills that will help you improve your pedaling efficiency. We'll cover those training exercises in the coming sections, so consider this article your first step -- er, make that your first "pedal stroke" -- in your triathlon training.

One-leg Drills

Lance Armstrong descends with the peloton during Stage 17 of the 2010 Tour de France.
Lance Armstrong descends with the peloton during Stage 17 of the 2010 Tour de France.
Brynn Lennon/Getty Images

Everything about a bike implies "two." There are two wheels, two pedals and two handlebar grips. Even the name "bicycle" has "two" ("bi") built into the name. So it might come as a surprise that one-leg drills are one of the top ways to improve pedaling efficiency.

Most cyclists can underuse one of their legs during a race. By training each leg individually, you can ingrain efficient pedaling habits into both legs without unknowingly letting one leg pick up the slack. Cycling trainers also find that one-leg drills help you increase your overall cadence. Cadence is your pedal rotation speed, which is calculated in revolutions per minute (RPM). Ideal RPM can vary from person to person, and while there is some disagreement among athletes as to what constitutes the perfect RPM, most agree that somewhere in the 80 to 100 RPM range is best for racing. Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong usually pedals between 105 and 110 RPM [source: Journal of Applied Physiology].

Beyond improving cadence and leg strength, other benefits of one-pedal drills include:

  • Being able to concentrate on every aspect of the pedal rotation
  • Keeping your training routine fresh
  • Improving neuromuscular coordination
  • Learning how to shut off one leg during a race -- if needed for rest

[source: Trifuel]

One-leg drills should be done on a stationary trainer. First, pedal with both legs to warm up. Then, rest the leg that's not in use somewhere out of the way. When you first start your drills, you will want to practice each leg a short amount of time -- such as 30 seconds on each leg -- but you will want to get in six to nine minutes of overall practice on each leg during that training session. Approximately five minutes of easy recovery riding between each set is beneficial.

Keep the practice duration, bike resistance and RPM at a lower rate when you first start training with one-leg drills. For instance, you may want to begin around 60 RPM. By beginning slowly, you'll be able focus better on your form, duration and resistance over the course of your training.

Fasten your toe-clips -- our next drill will challenge you mentally and physically.

Arc Drills

If two cyclists were racing along two parallel paths, but one path was paved and the other was covered in roots, debris and ruts, which cyclist do you think would finish first? With all else being equal, it seems likely that the cyclist traveling the paved path would easily win the race: his or her journey was smoother. While triathlon races can include paved or unpaved paths, this scenario is meant to emphasize the importance of smooth motion. Smoothness improves speed and creates less work for the cyclist. Of course this applies to travel surfaces, but it also -- very importantly -- applies to the rotation of the pedals.

When pedaling your bicycle, the most efficient way to do so is to pedal smoothly all the way through the 360-degree rotation, eliminating dead or weak spots. A smooth pedal rotation increases speed and power, and decreases wasted energy. A great way to ensure evenness throughout your pedal stroke is to practice arc drills.

Arc drills require not only physical work on the bike, but also a great amount of mental concentration. To begin, you must first imagine the full circle of your pedal rotation and then picture it divided into quarters. This will give you four arcs to focus on:

  • Arc 1: Forward and down
  • Arc 2: Scraping the bottom
  • Arc 3: Pulling back up
  • Arc 4: Gliding across the top

[source: 63xc, The Offroad Fixed Gear Site]

When doing arc drills, you want to practice each arc individually. For example, pedal for a while putting force only on arc 2. In the next set, do the same, but this time apply force only to arc 3. In the final set, you will apply force only to arc 4. Because arc 1 is the intuitive part of applied force in the pedal stroke, you generally don't need to practice that arc. Try spending three to five minutes on each set of arc exercises. Remember to keep your toe-clips tight when practicing arc drills.

We have one more tip that will help you improve your pedaling efficiency. Check out the next section to find out what it is.

Slow-frequency Revolutions

Many pedaling exercises require concentration and repetitive, deliberate movements so that, during the big race, efficient pedal strokes will come naturally and without hesitation -- thus ensuring a smoother, faster ride. When a dancer first learns a new routine, he or she doesn't just glide through it the first time. Memorizing the new dance requires slowly and repetitively going through each series of steps, acquiring form and accuracy. As a cyclist, you don't have to worry about complicated routines and unusual footwork, but you and a dancer do have something in common in your training: You must commit your movements to muscle memory.

Slow frequency revolutions are a great way to make efficient pedaling natural to every ride. Practicing in this way allows you to focus on the entire rotation of your pedal stroke. Imagine how you should ideally pedal during a race and then set that vision to slow motion. That, essentially, is what slow-frequency revolutions will do: slow your rotations so that each pedal stroke is deliberate.

You will want your slow frequency revolutions to hover around 40 to 50 RPM. Set your grade at 3 percent to 5 percent, or lift the front wheel of your stationary trainer a few inches. Each set should last two to five minutes, and you should keep your heart rate low throughout. This exercise is primarily designed to focus on the form and power of your pedal strokes, not pure speed. So instead of building up your heart rate, keep it steady and put your concentration toward applying equal force throughout each entire pedal rotation. As you continue training, you can eventually increase the time or distance you spend practicing these revolutions.

Now that you know the techniques to mastering the cycling leg of your triathlon, learn how to improve your swimming and running as well. Check out our other triathlon articles and lots more information on the next page.

Related Articles

Sources

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  • Chapple, Thomas. "Try These Drills to Improve Your Pedaling Efficiency." Active.com. (July 30, 2010)http://www.active.com/cycling/Articles/Try_these_drills_to_improve_your_pedaling_efficiency.htm
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