How to pedal efficiently

Make the most of every pedal stroke with our expert advice on maximising your cycling efficiency and power. Words by Marc Abbot

It’s one of the most basic functions of riding a bike — whatever kind of bike you favour — but many of us don’t give the efficiency of our pedalling a second thought. Or, even worse, follow outdated guidelines for getting the most out of it. Scott Tomkinson of Kernow Physio lifts the lid on the pedalling myth.

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“For years people always said to pull up as well as push down, and make circles with your legs,” says Tomkinson. “After studying this and performing in-depth analysis of riders’ pedal strokes, I found that this, far from making you better, actually slows you down.”

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Tomkinson has worked with WorldTour and domestic professional racers, so is used to being tasked with getting the maximum power and optimum efficiency from his customers. How does he do this? “The evidence now shows that maximising the power at the 3 o’clock position, when the cranks are both parallel to the ground, is the most beneficial for forward movement,” he advises. “Pulling up on the pedals jeopardises this, so don’t do it.”

Lunges and other off-the-bike exercises can help build the strength needed to pedal efficiently

Lunges and other off-the-bike exercises can help build the strength needed to pedal efficiently

The essentials

  • Don’t pull up
  • Maximise power
  • Push for 3 o’clock
  • Strengthen glutes

He offers some help on how best to arrive at this phase of the pedal stroke with the most power: “You need to start pushing your foot forward at the top of the pedal stroke from the 10 o’clock to 1 o’clock position. Then push to the floor.

“This ensures the power is maximised at the correct phase of the stroke. If you’re pulling up with your pedals all you’re doing is delaying the delivery of power.”

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You can help even further by ensuring your muscles are best equipped to lay down the power, especially your glutes. It’s these muscles that you need to squeeze in the direction of your pedalling motion to get every watt to the ground.

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Tomkinson explains why strong glutes are essential: “If your glutes are tight and weak, this can cause the iliotibial band to tighten up, which can also cause knee tracking issues. Performing some strengthening exercises such as lunges and squats will strengthen them.”

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So, pedalling myth busted, next time you get on your bike, concentrate on that 3 o’clock sweetspot. Do your exercises, and you might just be surprised by how much quicker and stronger you get — whether in the local 10-mile time trial or your next all-dayer.

Bradley Wiggins in overall lead, Criterium du Dauphine 2012, stage two

Sir Bradley Wiggins is known for his high cadence, smooth pedalling style
(Image credit: watson)

Key points

To pedal smoothly your legs need a strong, stable base to push against, so off-the-bike core work will help maximise your pedal power.

It’s impossible to isolate the individual elements of a bike-fit without giving consideration to the rest of the body. Getting your pedalling sorted relies upon many things such as the position of your seat and reach to the bars.

Your glutes are big, powerful muscles and contribute most to your pedal stroke. Get your glutes firing by doing some off-the-bike exercises such as squats and lunges.

If you’re setting up your own cleats, mark off the cleat positions independently on each foot. We’re not all perfectly symmetrical so don’t be surprised if your feet are slightly different shapes or sizes.

As a rule of thumb, place the cleat under the middle of the ball of your foot. Measure where this is while wearing your shoes, and then mark off a line on their underside.

Thanks to Scott Tomkinson of Kernow Physio
article first appeared in the May 14 issue of Cycling Weekly