Perfect Pedal Stroke – Drills to increase efficiency and understanding

There’s been a lot of interest in my Spinning Profile which focuses on pedaling technique, Endurance Profile – Smooth Riding.   It seems that many of you are interested in improving your technique on the bike and I applaud you!  It can be tedious and academic to actually LEARN how to do something and to fully understand the mechanics of it.  Rest assured that time spent understanding these fundamentals will pay off in the end.  Since these are more focused activities that work the heart between 65-75% typically, they work well with your endurance rides.

In order to help “sell” this work to your class, we want to get them into the right frame of mind.  If your class is serious, dedicated, and willing to put forth the effort you might skip this.  If you’re like the rest of us and have to coax it out of them, ask your students to think of the most accomplished athlete they know.  What are some traits that make that athlete a success?  They are focused, powerful, and talented, but what most often gives them an edge over the competition are traits that are learned, namely solid technique and efficient movement patterns.  Those athletes work on the fundamentals in order to deliver record-setting results.  You might even ask your students to pretend that they are that athlete as they work through the drills you’ve planned for them.  If they can imagine that they are a world-class athlete, then they can begin to train like one.

Now that you have a room full of Tigers, Jordans and Lances, you can explain to them how the pedal stroke works.  Don’t stress them out with a lot of technicalities — it is important that you read up on what the mechanics of the moves are and then translate that into palatable terms for your audience.  Check out the links at the bottom of the post for further information about pedaling so that you can be a knowledgeable teacher.  Basically, you want them to know:

The effective force is applied perpendicular to the crank arm at any given spot along the ellipse.
The ineffective force is applied parallel to the crank arm.
The negative force is the force applied in the opposite direction of the stroke.

But even that is pretty dry.  How are we going to help them understand it without breaking into a Physics lecture?  I use the following drill to help them begin to connect to this idea:  We are going to break the infinite circle into four basic pieces: front, bottom, back, top.  There are a total of six drills that you can perform with them to help them isolate these various pieces of their stroke.  I usually start by doing each drill for 60 seconds or so, with 1-2 minutes of rest and explanation in between.  Repeating is up to you, but I usually don’t (at least not the first time I’m introducing it) since it takes a good 15 minutes to get through the whole thing.  You can introduce it in stages over a course of classes to make it more palatable and then start to focus on putting it all together after a couple of weeks.

Drill 1:  Start with the first thing everyone does when they get on the bike: Mash.  This will correlate to the front of our circle.  Imagine the pedal circle as the face of a clock.  In order to apply the perpendicular force you need, you must push down as your foot crosses 3 o clock.  Tell your students to isolate just this motion: pushing down past 3 clock.  Practice pushing only for about a minute, then pedal naturally for a minute.

Drill 2:  Let’s now isolate the opposite of front: back.  This is similar to pulling, or lifting the foot up as it passes through 9 o clock on the back side of our circle.  Have your students lift or pull their feet up without any mashing.  A trick to have them imagine they have a tack in their shoes and any pushing will make their feet bleed.  🙂

Drill 3:  Now have them put one and two together:  one foot pushing as the other is pulling.  This can be a lot for brains to put together the first time (like rubbing your head and patting your tummy) so have them take it slow at first if they need, then build up.  What you are effectively doing when you push AND pull at the same time is eliminating the negative or wasted effort.  The negative force is the equivalent of dropping sandbags on the pedals as you try to turn them, only instead of sandbags, it’s your non-pushing foot that adds the dead weight.  If we pull the foot up and effectively “get it out of the way” then the output of the pushing leg is increased drastically without an increase in effort.  Brilliant!

Now, let’s work on the other two segments:  top and bottom. 

Drill 4: To isolate the top portion of the circle, you’ll want to imagine kicking your foot across the top of the pedal stroke, or 12 o clock. 

Drill 5: To isolate the bottom, think of scraping your foot backwards, like trying to remove gum from the bottom of your shoe as you just work at 6 o clock. 

Drill 6: When you put the two together, you can imagine that you are moving your legs like the fixed bar that connects the wheels of a locomotive.  It moves horizontally to turn the wheels continuously, and fluidly, traversing entire countries without resting or slowing down.

You have now effectively demonstrated how to apply force perpendicularly to the crank arm at four positions around the stroke: 12, 3, 6 & 9 o clock.  The trick now is to put them all together in a fluid rhythm of give and take, balance and coordination.  This is Spinning — applying constant force at each point in the stroke to produce a fluid, continuous, and elegant movement.  It takes practice, and it will take more than one minute per motion to master this technique, but I guarantee that you will earn great rewards on your investment in this skill.

 For further reading, check out the following:

Anatomy of a Pedal Stroke – Spinning Newsletter Article from May 2005

Pedal Stroke Efficiency – An Article by Michele Ferrari

Pedal Like a Pro! – An excellent article with detailed mechanical information about pedalling.

Indoor Trainer “Skill Drills” for Improved Pedaling – A great list of many drills you can employ!


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