Saturday, December 12, 2009

Pedaling Drills

One of the goals of the Base period is to improve your speed skills - the unique techniques of your sport. At first these are learned by isolating them and making the movements slowly. As the movement pattern becomes ingrained the movement becomes faster and more complex as it is combined with other critical movements.

Pedaling a bike seems like it ought to be simple and require little in the way of skill. That's not the case. In any group ride look around and you can pick out the riders who have good pedaling skills and those with poor skills. Efficiency - how much energy is wasted (or not) - is what this is all about.

Athletes who are efficient at pedaling a bike are especially good at the top, bottom and recovery side of the pedal stroke. At the top they transition efficiently from pedaling up and back to pedaling forward and down. At the bottom of the stroke they do just the opposite without wasting energy. Riders who are not very good at pedaling make these transitions too late. This wastes a tiny amount of energy in every stroke. In one-hour you may make 5,000 to 6,000 pedal strokes. That is potentially a lot of wasted energy.

Efficient cyclists slightly unweight the pedal on the recovery side, or backside, of the stroke. Inefficient riders let the foot and leg on the recovery side rest on the pedal causing the other leg, the one driving the pedal down, to work harder to lift the dead weight of the recovery leg. Again, this wastes a lot of energy.

Note that I’ve not said anything about the front side of the pedal stroke. This side is easy to get right. Pushing the pedal down does not require much in the way of skill. The problem is that inefficient riders focus only on the down stroke. They “stomp” the pedals typically with a lot of excess, side-to-side, upper body movement. This also wastes a tremendous amount of energy.

Let’s get rid of the energy wasters in this Base period. Drills will help you to pedal better. Following are the common ones I use with the athletes I coach. They may be mixed together in a single workout or each may be done by itself as a workout.

* Isolated leg training (ILT) drill. This is the quintessential pedaling drill, the one you should do a lot in the early weeks of Base. It’s done on an indoor trainer. Unclip one foot and rest it on a chair next to the bike so you are left to pedal with only one leg. With the bike in a low (easy) gear turn the crank at a comfortable cadence. The first thing you’ll notice is that getting through the top of the stroke, the 12-o’clock position, is difficult. Focus on smoothing this top transition. At first you may only last a few seconds before the hip flexors fatigue. When that happens switch to the other leg. When it fatigues clip both feet in and pedal for a few minutes applying what you have learned in the single-leg pedaling. Repeat the drill several times throughout the workout. A variation on this drill involves using Power Cranks™. These are cranks like the ones you have on your bike now, except they aren’t connected. So each leg pedals individually. If you get these it’s best to mount them on a spare bike so you don’t have to change crank arms when you want to do different workouts.

* Toe touch drill. In this mind drill you focus on your feet. Every time your foot approaches the top of the stroke imagine that you can push your foot forward in your shoe touching your toes to the front end of the shoe. Of course, you won’t be able to do this, but trying will cause you to transition more smoothly through the 12-o’clock position. Pedal in an easy gear going slowly as you learn how to make this movement. As you master the drill you’ll be able to turn the pedals faster.

* Top only drill. This is another foot-focused drill. Pedal the bike by keeping the top of your foot in constant and firm contact with the inside, top of the shoe. Try not to push down on the pedal at all. The actual pedaling is done just with the upstroke. Don’t apply excessive upward force. Make the pedaling movement gentle and smooth.

* 9-to-3 drill. As you pedal the bike imagine that you can drive the pedal forward from the 9-o’clock position on the backside to 3-o’clock on the front side of the stroke without going through 12 o’clock. Keep the gearing low so that you can pedal easily.

* Spin-up drill. During a ride shift to a low (easy) gear and gradually increase your cadence higher and higher until it is so fast that you begin to bounce on the saddle. Then return to a normal cadence. It should take 30 seconds or so for each “spin-up.” The bouncing is because you have reached and gone slightly beyond your optimal high cadence. You bounce because your foot is still pushing down at the bottom, six-o’clock position, of the stroke. And since the crank arm can’t get any longer, as you push down your butt comes off of the saddle. This drill is best done with a cadence meter on your pedal so you know what your top-end cadence is. The goal is raise your highest, optimal cadence by learning to transition smoothly at the bottom of the stroke.

* High-cadence drill. Throughout a workout insert high-cadence intervals of a few minutes each. During each of these intervals increase your cadence to a level which is just slightly uncomfortable and then maintain it for the length of the interval. Use a low (easy) gear. Recover between the intervals for several minutes while pedaling at your normal cadence. Over the course of several weeks extend the duration of each interval and the combined interval time for the workout.

* Fixed-gear drill. This requires special equipment – a fixed-gear bike. Your local bike shop can help you set up such a bike. This is a bike that has only one chain ring, one cog and no derailleurs or freewheel. When the wheels go around the pedals also go around. You can’t coast. When riding a fixed gear you must learn to relax and let the bike do the work. The first few times you ride it go to some place flat with no traffic and no stop signs. A large parking lot would be perfect. Keep the workouts short at first. Be forewarned that this is a dangerous workout until you master riding the “fixie.”

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At December 12, 2009 8:51 AM , Blogger John said...

Joe, another thing I'll do is set up my trainer with light pressure on the magnetic roller. If I'm pedaling smoothly, I get constant contact on the roller but if I start "stomping", my rear tire breaks contact with the roller and spins out.

At December 12, 2009 12:43 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

John--Good idea. If anyone else has drills they use to improve pedaling please share them here.

At December 12, 2009 5:07 PM , Anonymous Andy Schmitz said...

Do you find that riding the bicycle on the rollers improves pedaling efficiency? I notice that if I ride on the rollers with no hands, that I really have to focus on keeping a very smooth and even pedal stroke. I have heard that some pros are able to ride on the rollers with 1 leg- effectively doing the one legged drill on rollers. Have you heard of this?

At December 12, 2009 5:37 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

andy--No, I've not but sounds interesting.

At December 12, 2009 8:56 PM , Blogger kratka said...

Thanx for the ideas, they will come in handy as I start Base 2. And thanx for all the excellent posts.

At December 13, 2009 7:34 AM , Blogger Adam Beston said...

I do something very similar to John. I take the trainer tire off the drum and try to spin without any resistance. More of a mental focus game then anything. Just makes me more aware for the upcoming workout bc it feels really awkward. Even the lightest resistance smooths things out.

At December 13, 2009 11:10 AM , Anonymous kevin said...

actually, I put my fixed gear bike onto a set of rollers and pedal while sitting up with no hands then progress to one-legged pedaling without any hands. This seems to get a nice smooth pedal stroke going.

At December 14, 2009 2:07 AM , Anonymous Marc said...

Hi Joe,

Could you please entertain and inform us a little bit more about the actual advantages of Fixed Gear riding ? Aerobic advantages ? Muscle coordination ? More efficient training since no +/- 20% "inactivity" while coasting ? More variation in effort and RPM ? etc ? I've picked it up a few weeks ago, but i would welcome all information on this ancient technique to make the most of these workouts... thanks a lot !

At December 14, 2009 6:40 AM , Blogger Jim said...

The best thing I've found to help pedaling efficiency is to use a computrainer. It's expensive, but the efficiency diagram is extremely powerful in improving your efficiency. The CT actually breaks down the amount of power you are applying to the pedals in 1/32nd intervals. It will show you exactly where your inefficiencies are as you go around. Then it will give you an overall efficiency score as you are pedaling. This, coupled with Joe's drills, have really helped me improve my efficiency in a quantifiable way. A good training objective if you have a CT is to pedaling consistently above 80% efficiency for 30 minutes.

Joe, question: do you do your isolated leg drills in or out of aeros for a triathlete, or is there a progression you move through to get better. I'm finding in the aeros it is much more difficult to pedal efficiently, any tips?

At December 14, 2009 12:36 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Marc--I know of no research that supports fixed gear bikes for improving economy or any other aspects of training. But there are lots of things I have athletes do because they seem to help (massage, yoga, stretching, weights, etc). I believe the biggest advantage that comes from fixie is learning to relax as your legs make smooth circles. Relaxation is critical to economy I believe. Good luck with it.

At December 14, 2009 5:52 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Jim-- I don't use the aero position for this drill. It is very difficult in that position as you suggest.

At December 15, 2009 11:16 AM , Blogger aham23 said...

great info Joe. really enjoy your blog.

At December 15, 2009 7:50 PM , Blogger Redeemer said...


I have to say the best solution for all things pedaling are Powercranks. I have used them for 11 months. I had good form before, but now my power, endurance, efficiency and speed have all increased. I went from doing 15 min on these things to 2.5 to 3.0 hr rides. It's like doing one legged drills for the whole ride.

Thanks for the webinar today and for all your info.

At December 22, 2009 5:28 PM , Blogger Rodrigo Langeani said...

What about powercranks, how much do you thing they improve pedaling technique?

At December 23, 2009 1:36 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Rodrigo--See first bullet point in this post for PowerCranks comments.

At December 29, 2009 7:49 AM , Anonymous Götz said...

sorry to say that no, there is no benefit in efficiency and even less in perseverance when training with systems which add an athlete's hip tensors to the muscle-chain.
In fact, from a bio-mechanic point of view they are even counter-productive. Why? Imagine adding a comparatively tiny muscle to a chain where huge muscles do most of the workout. Now figure what must happen to the chain if these tiny muscles start weakening...That's one of the reasons why pedalling bio-mxc²/midfoot is more efficient because it automatically shifts the negative proportion of lifting:pulling into positive zone (check
and see what I am aiming at).
What is correct though is that apart from some rather home-made concepts such as riding without hands on your rollers, Computrainer's Polar Graph/SpinScan presents a helpful tool for those who want to develop a rider's pushing performance into a well-balanced and perfectly smooth spin.

At December 31, 2009 12:28 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joe, could the ability to reach high RPMs be used as a gauge for pedalling efficiency/economy?

At December 31, 2009 2:21 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

anon--Yes, I think it could.


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