“Stop pedaling in squares, pull up at the bottom, and strive for more balance between your right and left leg”. Advice on how to improve your pedaling is one of the first nuggets of wisdom given to beginning cyclists.

In the field of exercise science, research into pedaling efficiency goes back nearly 100 years [1].  Pedaling seems simple, science makes it sound complicated, and uncertainty lingers over its relative importance.

In this article we’ll take a closer look at some of the current research examining the pedal stroke, followed by a few suggestions on how to utilize science and data to make the most of your pedaling prowess.

Metabolically Inefficient

In a 2007 study comparing 4 different pedaling techniques, researchers observed that while pulling up during the pedal stroke created a mechanically more effective pedal stroke, it also decreased metabolic efficiency [2].

This decrease in efficiency is thought to come from the superiority of the extensor muscles (quadriceps) in producing power [2]. In short, your quads are better at producing force than your hamstrings. This study concluded that while you might be able to achieve more even torque throughout the pedal stroke, this “smoothness” results in a decrease in gross efficiency.

Maximal Power

In a more recent (2011) study examining pedaling technique, researchers compared a riders “preferred pedaling style” to one guided by visual force feedback (pulling-up) [3].  This study required cyclists to pedal at a moderate intensity for 45 minutes, interspersed with max sprint efforts at the 15, 30, and 45 minute mark.

Maximal power outputs were significantly higher after 45 minutes of riding in the “pulling-up trial” when compared to the “preferred pedaling trial”. Authors attributed this higher power output to a reduction in neuromuscular fatigue.  This fatigue reduction in the quadriceps was theorized to result from more even torque distribution during the 45 minute bout of cycling.

Examined Together

Between these two studies, this is what we get…

  1. Pulling-up creates a more mechanically effective pedal stroke that is metabolically more expensive [2]. My take: Evidence doesn’t support improved performance
  2. Pulling-up might decrease neuromuscular fatigue, subsequently improving max power output after 45 minutes of riding [3]. My take: A bit of a stretch, but maybe pulling up saves your quads for some added sprint firepower at the finish of a race. Try it out and monitor your sprint performance

From these two studies we’re left with a somewhat murky picture.  Probably not, maybe, not really sure.  That’s about the best we get.  What about pedaling symmetry?

Symmetry

With several power meters generating real time symmetry (L/R) data, many athlete’s are drawn to the perfect 50/50 split.  Before actively training to achieve symmetry, it’s important to ask these two questions.

  1. Is pedaling symmetry possible?
  2. Is pedaling symmetry desirable?

We’ll take another look at some current research…

Leg Dominance

In a 2007 study examining pedaling symmetry, researchers observed frequent pedaling asymmetry in their group of competitive cyclists executing a simulated 40k time trial [4]. Interestingly enough, the harder cyclists rode, the more symmetrical their pedal strokes became [4].

Since cyclists generally produce more torque with their dominant leg [5], research suggests that muscle fatigue inherent to prolonged exercise leads to “common bilateral input” (symmetry) [5, 6]. That’s a fancy way of saying that when riding hard at the end of a race, chances are your pedal stroke is pretty symmetrical.

Before Birth

If a lack of L/R balance is so common, can you get faster by improving your pedaling symmetry? The short answer is “we don’t know”. Since pedaling is driven by your dominant leg, it seems unlikely that small training interventions can reroute a lateral preference that begins before birth [7].

If you’re an experienced cyclist, my hunch is that your 52/48 split might be your body’s most efficient way at producing power.  Having said that, individual athletes require individual solutions.

Individuality

Whatever current research suggests, it’s important to restate the individual component of training.  Intelligent training is founded on principles of exercise science, while retaining an openness to experimentation.  Have the time and focus to work on your pedal stroke? Do a baseline test, execute an improvement plan, and observe your results. Crunched for time? Forget all the pedaling talk and ride your bike.

Summary

  1. Pulling up on your pedal stroke is metabolically more expensive (bad), but it might reduce neuromuscular fatigue giving you extra watts in a sprint finish (good). The takeaway? Looks like a wash.
  2. Individuals respond individually to training. Use research and data to guide your own training experiments
  3. Training interventions take time. If you want to experiment, commit to a new pedaling drill for at least 6 weeks. Don’t dabble.  Dabbling wastes time
  4. Listen to your own data. Get familiar with your numbers. Don’t guess if pedaling drills make you faster, measure your progress and prove it

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete
@ddacoaching

References

1. Garry, R.C. and G.M. Wishart, The efficiency of bicycle pedalling in the trained subject. J Physiol, 1934. 82(2): p. 200-6.
2. Korff, T., et al., Effect of pedaling technique on mechanical effectiveness and efficiency in cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2007. 39(6): p. 991-5.
3. Theurel, J., et al., Effects of different pedalling techniques on muscle fatigue and mechanical efficiency during prolonged cycling. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2012. 22(6): p. 714-21.
4. Carpes, F.P., et al., Bilateral pedaling asymmetry during a simulated 40-km cycling time-trial. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2007. 47(1): p. 51-7.
5. Carpes, F.P., C.B. Mota, and I.E. Faria, On the bilateral asymmetry during running and cycling – a review considering leg preference. Phys Ther Sport, 2010. 11(4): p. 136-42.
6. Boonstra, T.W., et al., Fatigue-related changes in motor-unit synchronization of quadriceps muscles within and across legs. J Electromyogr Kinesiol, 2008. 18(5): p. 717-31.
7. McCartney, G. and P. Hepper, Development of lateralized behaviour in the human fetus from 12 to 27 weeks’ gestation. Dev Med Child Neurol, 1999. 41(2): p. 83-6.

Written by Nate Dunn, M.S.

Nate’s entire career has been spent in education and coaching. As a former teacher and now full-time cycling coach, he is most excited about helping clients discover more about themselves as they achieve their goals on the bike.