Cycling Efficiently: Perfecting Pedal Stroke Power
November 6th, 2017
November 6th, 2017
Clinical exercise physiologist, sports scientist and lover of two wheels Annabelle Dougall has teamed up with Bikesoup to show you how science can solve your pedalling problems.
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Pedalling is something that a lot of us do without even thinking! We jump on our bikes, clip in and away we go. But if you're not giving much thought to how you push your pedals, then chances are you're probably not pedalling as efficiently as you could be. So how can we perfect our pedal stroke and why is pedalling efficiently so important? The key to mastering the optimum pedalling technique and becoming a more efficient cyclist lies in utilizing as much of the 360 degree pedal stroke as possible to produce power by eliminating 'dead spots'. Efficient pedalling not only allows you to maximize your power per revolution, it also means that you can produce more power with the same or less energy output and reduce your risk of injury. The best way to assess your pedalling technique is through an analysis tool such as the Wattbike polar view or other power measuring devises. With these incredible pieces of equipment there really is nowhere to hide! With real time feedback these tools allow us to visually see if any 'dead spots' or surges exist throughout each revolution, as well as left to right power balance and the angle of peak force generation.
Analysing Your Stroke
So what exactly goes into a single pedal stroke? The Wattbike polar view diagram below represents the power produced throughout one complete revolution. The diagram can be divided into left and right sides with each side demonstrating the power produced throughout the respective down strokes. This means that the top of the diagram represents the power produced when the foot is at the top of the left stroke and bottom of the right. Conversely the bottom of the diagram represents the power produced at the bottom of the left stroke and top of the right. The line across the middle of the diagram shows us the angle at which peak force is generated, and should be the same on either side with the correct technique. In order to pedal efficiently most cyclists will focus on creating the shape seen in this diagram by engaging the correct muscle groups throughout each pedal stroke, ensuring smooth, even pressure and power, eliminating 'dead spots' which often occur at number 1 and 2, as they transition from left to right down strokes.
Now as anyone who’s been on a watt bike will tell you, creating this perfect shape is far more difficult than it looks. So let's take a few steps back and have a look at the most common diagram created through less efficient pedalling techniques and how we can change our technique to optimize each revolution. Below is a diagram of what is known as the 'figure 8' shape. This shape is produced when the rider is essentially stamping on the pedals and driving down through the quadriceps muscle on the front of the thigh. At the same time the rider is not driving through the top of the stoke between 1 and 10'oclock, caused by lack of glute activation, and therefore loses momentum when transferring from the left to right downstroke. The lack of glute activation and forward drive are shown in the obvious power 'dead spots' labelled 1 and 2. Now for those without a power analysis tool or for when you're out on the road, you can assess your pedalling technique by unclipping one foot and pedalling single legged By isolating one leg you will be able to feel and also hear if there are any downward surges and dead spots throughout each revolution. For those with a Garmin, your torque efficiency percentage is the best tool for assessing your pedalling technique. This number demonstrates the percentage of the 360 degree pedal stroke revolution you are utilizing to generate power. Therefore the closer to 100% this number is the more efficient your pedalling technique will be.
Eliminating Power Dead Spots
With all my cycling clients I take a two pronged approach to perfecting their pedal stroke in terms of power. First and foremost is creating an awareness of your technique and focusing on each phase of the pedal stroke. Whether you're on the Wattbike or out on the road, if you're a classic 'figure 8' shape cyclist you should focus on driving your foot forward towards your handlebars as go over the top of the stoke between 1 and 10 o'clock and then pushing all the way through to the bottom. If you're using a Wattbike or stationary bike that has a fan, you can also focus on the sound of your pedal stokes, which, if you’re pedalling efficiently, will sound smooth and consistent throughout the revolution. One common mistake cyclists make when trying to correct their pedalling technique is buying into the myth of the upstroke. Time and again you will hear this misconception perpetuated as riders are advised to activate through the upstroke by imagining scraping mud off their shoes at the bottom of the pedal stroke and pulling up. Unfortunately the myth of the upstroke not only inhibits pedalling efficiency but also causes unnecessary tightness through the hip flexors.
To practice your pedal stroke you can incorporate specific cycling drills into your program, focusing on eliminating your power dead spots. If you're on the Wattbike try focusing on your shape for short intervals of 1 minute, with 2 minutes of neutral cycling between, for 6-10 repetitions. Over time you can increase the duration of these intervals and drop the repetitions. It is important to note that cycling at a higher resistance, ie: with bigger gears, makes it easier to maintain the correct shape without having to concentrate as much on your technique. For this reason you should start out at the lightest gear available and work our way up.
While initially it is essential to actively focus on the perfect pedal stroke, it can be extremely difficult to sustain or even achieve the muscle activation required to alter our technique, especially over a longer ride. This is where the second part of the program becomes vital. The aim here is to utilise specific off the bike exercises to transition from conscious muscle activation throughout the pedal stroke, to an automatic or subconscious activation. With the right exercise prescription we can improve pedalling technique by creating stronger neurological or mind to muscle pathways, strengthening the glutes and hip stabilizing muscles, rectifying any left or right power imbalances and improving hip mobility so that more power is accessible throughout a bigger range of motion. So there you have it, a few tips and tricks to help you perfect your pedal stroke and push power like a pro! To find out exactly what you should be doing off the bike to improve your pedalling performance, watch this space for the next article in our Cycling Efficiently series.