In Part 1 I explained why your power output is likely to be lower when riding an indoor trainer as compared with riding on the road. And I also touched on the how this is related to the skills of pedaling a bike. Making some slight changes to how you pedal can benefit not only your indoor power but also your on-the-road performance.
So how do you change your pedaling technique? Let’s take a look at a “square-pedaling” novice and a “circular-pedaling” experienced rider. The novice starts applying a downward force to the pedal at about the 2:30 or 3 o’clock position. And the force application ends very quickly at around 4 o’clock or perhaps even sooner. The rest of the pedal stroke is usually also wasteful as it typically involves the novice letting his or her foot rest on the pedal except for that very brief episode of force application. The “recovering” leg resting on the pedal on the backside of the stroke simply means that the other leg, the one now driving the pedal down, has to work very hard for a very short period of time to keep the pedals turning and maintain speed or power. That’s a huge energy waster.
The experienced and economical rider, however, applies force on the downstroke very early—starting at about 1 o’clock. And force is applied all the way down to about 5 o’clock. Of course, the force applied becomes greater as the foot approaches 2:30 and is reduced after 4 o’clock. But force is provided to the pedal at some level throughout nearly the entire downstroke. He or she also doesn’t let the recovering leg “go to sleep” on the backside of the stroke. Nor does the experienced, economical rider pull up on the pedal as many think they should do (the exception is when sprinting). That would also be very wasteful and result in extreme fatigue in the hip flexor muscles within a few minutes. The experienced rider simply “unweights” the pedal on the upstroke (from 6 to 12 o’clock).
If this circular pedaling technique is new to you or you feel your pedaling could be improved, how do you make the changes in order to be more economical? Note, again, that this is not just an indoor pedaling skill change. It is intended to be applied in both indoor and outdoor rides, on flat terrain, and when climbing hills. In fact, you’ll probably discover that you climb better once you master this pedaling technique.
Let’s start by looking at the downstroke. Remember that the goal is to start the force application to the pedal early in the stroke—at around 1 o’clock. The key to doing this is your heel. As your foot passes through 12 o’clock the heel should be lowered a little so that it’s level with the ball of the foot, or even a bit below it, by 1 o’clock. That will allow you to drive the pedal slightly forward and slightly downward at the same time. As the foot approaches the 5 o’clock position the heel is raised somewhat so that it is just above the ball of the foot. This may only be about a half inch or a centimeter. That foot position is maintained all the way through the backstroke. And then, as mentioned before, you should feel like you’re taking the weight off of the pedal—not pulling up on it. The slightly high heel will help you do this.
Let me toss in a caveat here. If you are a triathlete or time trialist who rides a very upright bike with the seat tube at about 76 degrees or steeper, you may find it very difficult to get your heel below or even perhaps level with the ball of the foot when on the saddle and in the aero position. That’s normal for this type of bike since you’re seated farther forward relative to the bottom bracket. Just get your heel as low as you can get it at 1 o’clock without putting undo stress on the calf muscle, Achilles, or ankle. And make the downstroke last as long as you can.