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Pedal hard, pedal soft, pedal slow and pedal fast!

The modern bicycle is such a complex device. It sports high-end carbon fibre, deep section wheels, cutting edge disc brakes, powermeters, GPS devices and electrical gears to name a few. 

Many will assist in aerodynamics - everyone’s route to free speed! Yet when it comes to the bio-mechanical input from us, the engine, we find we can literally only do four things: Pedal hard, pedal soft, pedal slow and pedal fast!

Power - a word for all purpose. 

Ever since powermeters became the relative norm it seems power became a buzz word in every coffee stop conversation. ‘What was your power?’ ‘He can’t do that power!’ ‘I need to increase my power’. I’m just managing my power’. 

But what actually is this word for all purposes and how is it derived?

Allow me to break it down in terms of Physics.

Power is the product of applied torque to the crank and angular velocity of the pedals - cadence in bike terminology. Not such a complex subject, after all, is it. Yet the way it is presented you'd be enticed into believing we re-invented the art of pushing on the pedals.

Push or pull

So where is the real work done in a pedalling motion? 

In terms of pure muscle power, the largest contributors to crank force are the muscles of the hip extensors, knee extensors and plantar flexors in that order, all of which contribute to the downstroke. Hip flexors, knee flexors and dorsiflexors all work in the upstroke and contribute significantly less to pedalling force. They also have less fatigue resistance properties, meaning they will not last as long as their opposite numbers. 

Is there a correct pedalling technique I can train? It's a question I am asked quite often by cyclists

The answer is a little more complicated and is, in fact, a different answer for different cyclists or different event components. What is fact is that the downstroke of any pedalling motion is higher in force than that of the upstroke.

But does this mean we should work to improve the upstroke? 

If your goal is to achieve maximal power over a short time the answer appears to be yes. The reasons lie in the metabolic efficiency of the muscles which contribute to the upstroke. They are less efficient but still produce force, so if short-term explosive power is what you desire then working to improve the pedalling force of the upstroke is a performance gain. This can be achieved off the bike with hip and knee flexion exercises or on it with high force - low cadence accelerations and focusing attention on to the upstroke movement.

Whilst it would seem logical this lends itself more to a track sprinter or standing-start track discipline it does have a place in any form of cycling which requires a maximal acceleration to a degree.

Conversely, if sub-maximal cycling is your focus then the efficiency of the prime movers of hip extension and knee extension should be your focus, as they are designed to take large loads and are more trainable in efficiency. A controlled strength and conditioning programme can raise forces achieved by these muscles up to a higher level while being complemented by structured training at varying cadences.

Pedal like a Pro

Finessing the pedals like an artists paintbrush running across canvas making his next masterpiece - professional cyclists pedals don't jerk, the motion is pure fluidity. 

There must be a secret! 

A lesson to be learned which teaches us all how to perfect this motion. So we can pedal as metronomic as a plectrum on a guitar’s strings. 


But the truth is that pedalling has more in common with learning to play a guitar than you may think. The lifting of the plectrum and the clipping of the pedals is where the thinking ends. Pedalling a bike is a motor skill, which when learned, will be processed by the central nervous system to find the most efficient pedaling technique.

The brain has preset neural response mechanisms which will fire muscles in advance of their use in the pedalling circle. Any effort on our part to re-train this only increases brain activity to the inefficient muscles. 

It's much better to work on training at an even cadence in a medium to low power for some proportions of your training to groove this perfect pedaling motion. 

We all know that clunky feeling if we've had a long break from cycling: it feels laboured. 

Consistency will assist in grooving a smooth motion, not single-leg drills. Rollers are an excellent aide to training this consistency: they offer little resistance and maintain an even cadence well.

Spin to win! that part is right, yeah?

Ask yourself the question. If two cyclists are at a fixed point and required to travel a distance with equal weights, aerodynamic drag and the same equipment will the man who spins faster win?

Only if the other man doesn't grind out more power on a lower cadence.

It rhymes but it ain't actually correct.

Both fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres have a finite ability to contract and relax, fatigue will occur at some point when under constant load. How we manage fatigue and train it is relevant to our event and the profile of those events.

I'm giving her all she's got, captain!

You may have noticed while carrying out leg-speed drills your heart rate is at a much higher bpm than normal for a given power/effort level. Conversely, you see a much lower heart rate at low cadence high power/effort setting. The reason is that the slower the cadence, the greater the emphasis is on the muscles producing the power. These will fatigue at a higher rate but when the chips are down in the gutter or the hill gets steeper are you really going to buzz away while your competitors blow you off their wheel. This is the time you may want to lean on that transmission system.

Resistance is futile!

With higher fatigue rates of the muscles at low cadence, we can't rely on using these low-speed, high-power settings too often in longer duration events so we must, therefore, place more emphasis on our engine - the cardiovascular system. Make the most of times in your races or events where there are lower power demands and use a normal cadence for you, and train accordingly.

Most peoples normal cadence is in the range of 85-95rpm but it is personal to you. Factors which will influence your normal cadence range from cycling history to the disciplines you partake in. MTB and track cyclists tend to have a higher cadence as do riders who rode up through the restricted gears as youths. 

Pedaling. It's like riding a bike.

  • Train the muscles which extend the hip, extend the knee and flex the foot downwards off the bike for endurance.

  • Work to improve knee flexion and hip flexion for pure explosive power and sprint power.

  • Practice makes permanent - rollers to roll like a Pro!

  • Use a variety of cadences in your training and alter focus depending on the event. Low cadences  (70rpm) are seen more in steep classics type courses with a repeated nature. Normal cadences (85-95rpm) are the most efficient in peleton situations in road races and Time-trials. Higher cadences (100-120rpm) tend to be seen in track racing, short time-trials where metabolic efficiency is less important and MTB. 

If you want to speak to one of the coaches at Elevation coaching where we can give you the benefit of our experience to maximise your training get in touch at or call us on +44(0)7545965391

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