Perfecting Your Pedal Stroke

As a cyclist and coach I have developed a love and appreciation for the finer details in cycling, including the pedal stroke. Having ridden with and/or coached riders from beginner to professional, I get excited when I see a cyclist with a beautiful pedal stroke. It looks so smooth and efficient that you start to question whether the rider has to exert any effort at all to turn the pedals over! On the flip side, some pedal strokes look very inefficient if not downright painful. This begs the question, how does one perfect their pedal stroke?

While I have done my fair share of research on this subject, the science and general consensus continually change. Nowadays, we know riders can achieve profound pedal stroke improvements from: 

1) Understanding what constitutes an efficient pedal stroke.

2) Applying mental cues on how to move our bodies properly while on the bike.

3) Being set up properly on our bikes.

4) Continually working on improving our pedal stroke with drills and practice.

Let’s have a closer look!

So, What is the “perfect pedal stroke“? The overwhelming consensus is that there is no perfect pedal stroke that can be applied to every rider universally. Even the pros don’t have a perfect pedal stroke – and that’s okay! As a coach, I have often instructed riders to think of pedaling in circles, but it turns out this advice has some short comings. In fact, striving for a perfect circle is not sustainable, and over time will likely reduce one’s efficiency of movement. The best and most consistent advice I’ve found is to focus on optimizing your economy of movement and your economy of power.

Let’s discuss these last two points: “economy of movement” and “economy of power”. When we think of “economy” we think of total energy expenditure for a given effort. Thus, when one improves their economy, this means that they are spending less energy for a given effort. In the cyclist’s case, we are talking about optimizing movement between the body and the bike. For example, producing the same amount of power with less effort/energy (i.e. “economy of power”).

However, in order to get our bodies working more harmoniously with the bike, we need to start with how we think about moving our bodies while on the bike. Here are two mental cues that can help: 

  • Imagine the motion of scraping mud or gum off from the bottom of your shoe. You will find that this specific movement begins with driving downward from the heel and following through at the bottom of the pedal stroke. This imagery works well for many riders. 
  • Think about executing your pedal stroke the same as you would the front crawl (or freestyle) when swimming. In freestyle, we don’t actually scoop up water in the back of the stroke to propel ourselves forward, just like we should not think of pulling up on the backside of the pedal stroke to create power. Instead, think about initiating your pedal stroke earlier just like in freestyle when we bring the arm back up over the top to complete the stroke. 

Why is a proper bike fit essential to developing a good pedal stroke? This is where things start to get personal. Often you’ll hear me talk about engaging the glutes, relaxing the shoulders and avoid solely relying on the quads for power. This is all much easier to accomplish when you are set up properly on your bike and vice versa. Without proper set up, you may never fully harness the compounding efficiencies that come from using all available muscle groups. For questions about your set up, contact a professional bike fitter in your area or schedule a virtual appointment with a Team Wilpers’ bike fit expert here.

What are some drills that riders can do to improve their pedal stroke? Drills help us reestablish, reinforce and refine proper movement. Here are some simple drills you can include in your training to help improve your pedal stroke: 

  • Spin-ups: I know many of you won’t be surprised to learn that I love spin-ups. A ‘spin-up’ is where you pedal at a high cadence and low resistance for 30 sec to 1 min and focus on using your body to control the pedals and avoid bouncing. Spin-ups are great to do as a drill to get your mind, body and bike working together efficiently and 3-6 of them usually do the trick. I like these because the higher cadence efforts force your brain and body to communicate so that your legs find the path of least resistance to a smoother pedal stroke. I can always tell when my brain and body are not getting along because these will feel really rough haha! 
  • Single-leg Pedal Strokes: If you have taken any of my Low Impact classes at Peloton, you’ve done these. Here you are just focusing on isolating one leg at a time to pedal with. Just like in weightlifting, isolating sides helps you uncover and correct any imbalances and inefficiencies that would otherwise remain muted or too subtle to notice when both sides are working together. You can keep both legs clipped in or even unclip the leg that you are not pedaling with. However, in both cases it is important to keep the hips level in the saddle as if both legs were clipped and being used. I like to do 2-4 sets of one minute or longer on each side. In terms of cadence, I recommend starting slow and then working your way up to higher cadences. 
  • Practice Thoughtfully: Likely the best drill of all is just getting on the bike and riding more. Afterall, more pedal strokes = more practice! But, while you are getting after it, remember to keep working at smoothing out your pedal stroke, especially during warm-ups and cool-downs.

Team, I hope you enjoyed uncovering some of the nuances of pedal stroke! For more practice and tips on perfecting your pedal stroke, please check out my Low Impact classes at Peloton. And to get your fit dialed-in, schedule an appointment with a member of Team Wilpers Bike Fit. Until next time, remember to train hard, train smart and always have fun!