Going in circles: everything you need to know about pedaling efficiency

Turning the pedals on your bike might seem like the most effortless of actions, something that comes so naturally that you don’t even need to think about it. But pedaling is actually a complex interplay of biomechanics, muscle activation, and technique. Working on your pedaling efficiency can significantly impact cycling performance.

Whether you’re a casual rider or a competitive cyclist, understanding the intricacies of a proper pedal stroke is essential for maximizing power output, conserving energy, and reducing the risk of injury. In this article, we’ll dive into the science behind pedal efficiency, explore techniques to improve your pedal stroke, and discuss the other factors that might be impacting your pedaling. Let’s go!

Your pedal stroke matters

A smooth and consistent pedal stroke is the cornerstone of efficient cycling. When you apply force unevenly throughout the pedal revolution, it results in what’s known as “torque spikes,” where power delivery is erratic rather than steady. Research suggests that torque fluctuations during pedaling may lead to increased energy expenditure and decreased efficiency. Therefore, mastering a smooth and consistent pedal stroke could help you maintain a steady power output and improve overall efficiency.

Spotting the inefficiencies

We’ve all seen that cyclist on club rides whose knees and ankles seem to fly all over the place while they pedal, but in reality we all have inefficiencies in our pedal strokes – they’re just much more difficult to spot and require keen observation and sometimes specialized equipment. Using a mirror or videoing yourself while riding indoors can help you identify some of the movements that you may not be able to detect while riding outside. Tools like the TrueBike provide valuable and real-time data on pedaling dynamics, such as left-to-right power distribution. 

You can also try simple assessments, like single-leg riding, which can reveal imbalances and weaknesses in your pedal stroke. Research into the effects of pedaling technique on overall efficiency have found that cyclists with more symmetrical pedaling patterns exhibit higher cycling efficiency, emphasizing the importance of addressing any left-right imbalances.

Finding your optimal cadence

The debate over the ideal cadence for cycling continues among researchers and coaches. For a long time, it was de rigueur to advise cyclists to ride with the highest possible cadence, with coaches citing the success of Lance Armstrong, who often rode at 100 rpm or more. However, Lance’s great rival at the time, Jan Ullrich, mashed a bigger gear at closer to 80 rpm , which goes to show that there is no universal cadence that suits every cyclist.

Norwegian researchers demonstrated that pedaling at higher cadences does tend to lead to improved cycling economy and reduced metabolic cost, but even that study noted that individual differences in muscle fiber composition and neuromuscular coordination mean that cyclists should find their optimal cadence through experimentation and training.

Perfecting your pedal stroke

Although the likes of Jacques Anquetil and Fausto Coppi may have got close, the reality is that tehre is no such thing as a “perfect” pedal stroke. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive to optimize your technique for efficiency and greater power output. A number of studies have shown that maximizing force application during your strongest phase of the pedal stroke, the downstroke, and minimizing dead spots in the less powerful parts of the stroke (essentially, getting the pedal back into place ready for the next strong downstroke) are key factors in improving cycling performance. Techniques such as ankling, where you actively engage ankle dorsiflexion and plantarflexion during the pedal stroke, can help smooth out power delivery and reduce energy losses.

Drills for the win

By now, you should be convinced of the benefits of improving the efficiency of your pedal stroke. So what can you do to become a more fluid and efficient rider? The good news is that the science tells us that pedaling efficiency is trainable. Incorporating regular and specific drills into your training plan will help reinforce proper pedaling mechanics and address weaknesses. 

Those drills should include fast cadence drills, one-legged pedaling, and over-gear pedaling, as well as time spent focused on the various phases of the pedal stroke. These exercises improve muscle recruitment patterns, reduce dead spots, and promote a more fluid pedal stroke. It can be hard to add even more training sessions to the schedule, so include 10 minutes of dedicated pedaling drills to your warm-up every time you train indoors – the smart bike or smart trainer is the ideal place to do these drills as you can focus entirely on technique and form without distractions.

The role of bike fit

While there’s no silver bullet for achieving peak pedal efficiency, getting a good bike fit is a very good start. The research suggests that incorrect saddle height can lead to decreased cycling efficiency and increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries. So, Saddle height, fore-aft positioning, and cleat alignment all influence investing in a professional bike fit that also assesses your cleat position will up your pedal stroke mechanics and power transfer, and reduce your chance of injury. Result!

Cycling can be as simple or as complex a sport as you want it to be and focusing on pedal efficiency may feel like one training tip too many; or you might already be thinking of how to add drills into all your Zwift rides. But, either way, hopefully we’ve increased your knowledge around the biomechanics, technique, and equipment considerations that play a role in the pedal stroke. By understanding the science, you can incorporate the drills, cues and assessments that will enhance your cycling performance and enjoyment.