by Thomas Chapple
During the "off season" you should be working on developing your aerobic base, strength, and efficiency. One way to develop efficiency is through drills designed to improve the coordination and synchronization of the muscles used in cycling. You can accomplish that by practicing correct pedaling techniques.
The purpose behind doing efficiency drills is, oddly enough, to become a more efficient cyclist. The advantage of being more efficient is that you use less energy to produce the same results. That makes you a more "economical" athlete. That translates into moving the bike at the same speed at a lower level of exertion, or moving faster at the same level of exertion. So, the athlete with the highest maximum aerobic capacity (VO2 max) will not always be the fastest. If, for instance, two cyclists have the same VO2 max, but one cyclist is more efficient, then the more economical cyclist will have the advantage. Even the development of power is dependant on the ability to accelerate the pedals quickly and with less "effort."
In order to become more efficient you have to practice. As with any new motor skill being learned you'll actually find that it will take more energy to perform the movements until your body develops the neurological pathways and muscle memory of the improved movements. That's why you want to develop your pedaling technique during the early part of the training season and then keep practicing it all year. You should incorporate efficiency drills into your training schedule. They should include; leg speed, single leg, back and forth, fixed gear, upper body relaxation, and breathing techniques. The following are the specifics of efficient pedaling mechanics and descriptions of the drills designed to help you improve your technique.
Push the pedals up over the top (or across the top) of the pedal stroke, or circle. This will create a longer power stroke by starting the application of force before the down stroke begins. After you begin the power stroke, move the pedal with a lot of force. One thing that separates average cyclists form great cyclists is how hard they can, and do push on the pedals.
Always apply force to the pedal in a direction that is 90 degrees to the crank arm. That means that at the top of the pedal stroke (12 a clock) you should be moving the pedal forward. At 6 a clock you'd be moving the pedal backwards. The only time that you should be pushing directly down on the pedal is at exactly 3 a clock. At 2 or 4 a clock you'd be moving the pedal slightly forward and down, or slightly back and down respectively.
Pull through the bottom of the pedal stroke. This will assist in keeping a constant force throughout the entire pedaling circle and help the leg that's moving the pedal up over the top of the stroke.
Un-weight the pedal that's on the up side, or back side, of the circle. If the leg is just resting on the pedal it creates more resistance for the leg that is pushing down on the other pedal to overcome. It's not necessary to pull up on the pedal with a great deal of force (leave your foot in your shoe), but be sure that you "un-weight" the pedal. Try "lifting" your knee like you're stepping up onto a box. Of course, you won't be able to accomplish this if you're not using a clip-less pedal system (or toe clips). Duct taping your feet to the pedals will work if you're on a budget (this is a joke, of course).
Don't try and improve all of these areas at the same time. Work on one of these aspects of more efficient pedaling at a time. By focusing on only one portion of the pedal stroke you'll be able to improve it more quickly and then gradually piece them all together as one cohesive movement.
As with any workout these drills should be preceded by an adequate warm-up. I suggest choosing a drill before each workout and focusing on it throughout that training session.
Do these on a stationary trainer or outside on a slight downhill. Use light to moderate resistance. Gradually increase your rpm's until you begin to bounce on the saddle. Back off to the point where you smooth out and then hold that cadence for about 20 seconds. Gradually bring your rpm's back down to about 90. You can do leg speed drills throughout long rides, or as a transition from warming up to high intensity training.
The focus should be on keeping the leg muscles relaxed and the spin smooth. Think about relaxing you toes and ankles and don't force the movement. Try and release the tension in your legs and let the energy flow. You're looking for a smooth, fast, yet effortless motion.
The objective is to teach the muscles in the legs to contract and relax in harmony, or synchronously. If the muscles are fighting each other they will create a resistance to the pedaling movement. This resistance will consume, or waste energy and inhibit your performance.
If you do these on an indoor trainer you should be listening to the whirling, or whooshing, sound that the tire makes on the roller. If the sound is whoosh-whoosh-whoosh then you're applying power on the down stroke only. Try and get the sound to be continuous/constant. That means that you're transferring power from on pedal to the other smoothly, and pedaling in one single motion rather than two independent circles.
This is very important for off road cycling. When you're climbing on loose and/or steep terrain, that whoosh-whoosh will become slip-slip as your rear tire loses traction. Spinning your tires was cool in high school, but it's a waste of energy in cycling.
These are not intervals. Heart rate and effort levels should be in a comfortable zone. What you're doing is developing the neurological pathways responsible for instructing the muscles to fire at the appropriate times. As you practice this you will be developing muscle memory. Eventually, it will happen automatically, but like any other skill it takes practice.
Do these on a stationary trainer. Place short stools, chairs, milk crates, or small children on both sides of your bike. Unclip one leg and rest it on the small child and pedal with just the other leg (I am available for baby sitting during my Tuesday single leg pedaling drills). Keep the cadence, resistance, and duration low for these until you develop your technique. Alternate legs about every 10-20 seconds at first and gradually (over several weeks of practicing) increase the duration, cadence, and then the resistance.
Pedaling with one leg will force you to move the pedal in full circles. You will notice right away how much work it is to pull through the bottom of the pedal stroke and lift the pedal back up and over the top. You'll really feel these in your hip flexors (the muscles responsible for lifting your upper leg toward you chest). Try and eliminate the "dead spots" at the bottom and top of the pedaling circle, and keep the pedaling motion as even and smooth as possible. This will seem difficult at first, but you should begin to see some improvement after a few weeks.
Again, focus on keeping the legs relaxed and smoothing out the transition from one direction of pedaling movement to another. As with the leg speed drills, you should listen for the consistent, steady whirling sound that the tire makes on the trainers roller.
You can practice this on the road to some degree as well. Just focus on favoring one leg at a time. Pull through the bottom, un-weight the pedal as it's coming up, and push your foot up over the top. Be sure to give each leg equal time. Try doing 3-5 revolutions with one leg then alternate to the other leg.
I feel that this is one of the most important of the efficiency drills because it really emphasizes the application of pedaling force in the areas that are in the most need of improvement (the top and bottom of the pedaling circle).
During this drill you'll be focusing on pushing the pedals over, or across, the top of the pedaling circle, and pulling them back through the bottom of the circle. Think about moving the pedals back and forth rather than up and down. This will feel odd at first, but after a while you'll begin to develop a greater amount of overall pedaling force by leaning to be more comfortable with applying force at the top and bottom of the stroke. As with the other drills, work on keeping the muscles relaxed.
This drill can be done on any ride at any time. Try and include it as often as possible.
A fixed gear bike (like those used for track racing) forces you to feel the pedaling motion throughout the entire 360 degrees. It's a great way to develop the habit, or muscle memory, of moving the pedals in complete circles rather than just focusing on the down stroke.
If you haven't ridden a fixed gear bike before I'd recommend starting out on a stationary trainer until you get accustomed to the fact that you can't coast or pedal backwards (actually, you can pedal backwards, just not while you're moving forward). For most, just riding a fixed gear bike on an indoor trainer will be sufficient to help them develop better pedaling mechanics. For the cyclist that specializes in track racing, ridding a fixed gear bike out on an endurance/muscle endurance ride will be useful as well. Be sure that you're comfortable on such a bike before attempting to ride on public roads. Be sure that the bike has a brake!
As with other drills on the indoor trainer, listen for the smooth, constant whoosh that indicates a continuous amount of force is being applied to the pedaling motion.
One area that is often overlooked in attempts to become a more efficient cyclist is in the use of the muscles other than those that are used to actually propel the bike. Any unnecessary, or nonproductive muscle tension or motion consumes energy (that includes flipping off motorists). If you can learn to keep your hands, arms, and shoulders loose and relaxed then you will reduce their energy consumption, and you'll reduce the likelihood of developing aches and pains in your neck, shoulders, arms, and hands.
Practice relaxing your grip on the handlebars, keeping your elbows slightly bent, and your shoulders dropped and relaxed and you'll be on your way to becoming more efficient and more comfortable. You'll probably have to keep reminding yourself to do this for a while before it becomes a habit. I suggest a "post it" sticker on your handlebars that says, "just relax".
For some reason we're taught to expand our chest when we breathe (large chest syndrome). This is not how our bodies are designed to inhale. The diaphragm is the muscle designated to expanding the lungs and bringing air into them. It's located, as if you didn't already know, under the lungs. To breathe efficiently by using the diaphragm, think about drawing air into the bottom third of your lungs as you expand your belly like a balloon. Try doing this while inhaling through your nose and you'll notice a relaxing sensation throughout your body.
Take a few moments before each workout to sit quietly and practice breathing through your nose and with the diaphragm. This will start your workout in the right frame of mind and breathing correctly. Keep reminding yourself how to breathe with the diaphragm throughout your workout and return to it if you fall back on incorrect breathing.
Another breathing aid is to focus on exhaling during climbing and hard efforts. Once you've developed the habit of filling your lungs by breathing with the diaphragm your body will take care of the inhaling portion on it's own. By forcing the air out of your lungs you'll develop a more complete, efficient breathing cycle. Short breaths don't completely fill or empty the lungs.
You can also practice diaphragmatic breathing while you're lying in bed. Breathe through your nose and expand your belly. It'll help you develop the habit and relax yourself to sleep.
Thomas Chapple is a licensed USA Cycling coach, a Certified USA Triathlon coach and a Certified Personal Trainer. He coaches regional and nationally competitive athletes and has competed at the national level in downhill mountain bike racing.