Cycling Technique: Indoors & Out
Over the past 10 years while teaching over 5,000 hours of indoor cycling classes throughout various fitness facilities across the USA, I have found that in order to get the best workout on a bike, you must have the right technique whether you are cycling indoors or outdoors.
The leg drive on a bicycle is a relatively simple process. You may either pedal with greater force, more pedal velocity along with resistance in gears or brake, or both to achieve greater speed and power. In order to accomplish this, you must first transfer your body’s energy to the pedals. How much of this energy you transfer is determined by your efficiency and technique during the pedal stroke. There are many ways to increase power and efficiency. It is possible to be a fit and powerful athlete, but not necessarily a fast one if you are inefficient.
Proper Cycle Set-up And Pedal Interface
First, let’s look at how your foot connects to the crank arm. The widest part of your foot should be roughly in line with the pedal spindle. Some cyclists prefer to be slightly fore or aft of this point, but generally the more efficient position is in line from the forward front part of the knee cap to with the head or beginning of the big toe. The more solid the pedal platform driving straight down through the legs, the more force and power you will be able to create through to the crank arm.
A Shimano SPD clip carbon-soled shoe is very rigid and will transfer more power than a typical rubber-soled athletic shoe. A soft athletic shoe will actually cause you to be very inefficient and not be able to create much power through to the crank arm. Make sure to obtain the proper cycling apparel and equipment in order to be more efficient, comfortable, and set to burn more calories. If your foot is rotated to the inside or the outside as you pedal, more force will be directed medially or laterally and therefore will negatively effect your power and efficiency going through to the crank arm. The rotational angle of your cleats should face straight forward but also match your natural bio mechanics and leg alignment.
Some pedal systems have a high degree of “float” built into them and it is not necessary to adjust for rotational angle. If you are a “pigeon-toed” or “duck-footed” cyclist, it is important to not lock your foot in a position that is contrary to how you are naturally built. This will cause compensation in your pedal stroke, wasted energy, and perhaps an overuse injury.
Proper Cycling Pedal Form and Force
With proper cycling form, you can ride your bike more efficiently, ride your bike faster, and ride your bike with less elbow, hand, neck, knee, lower back or butt pain. From toes to head here are five tips on proper cycling form and utilization of force.
1. Pedal In Squares
When an individual cycles the feet are moving in circles, but if you can think in square rotation technique, you’ll improve your pedaling efficiency. Push your foot forward along the top of the square, and then down against the front side of the square. Next, scrape the bottom of the square as if your scraping mud off the bottom of your foot and then pull up the backside of the square.
Optimally, force should be applied perpendicular to the crank arm. Any force that is applied in a different direction does not directly work towards your speed. Most pedal force is produced from the top to bottom of the pedal stroke. If you can imagine looking at a traditional clock, an efficient cyclist will begin producing force at 1o’clock position or just over the top of the cycle stroke. If an individual attempts to produce force by “pulling up” on your pedals through the bottom of the pedal stroke, one leg will fight the other.
Through the bottom of the pedal stroke you simply need to un-weigh and apply a little of force while pulling up the pedal to keep the momentum going so that it can move at equal velocity to the crank arm on the upstroke. Use the hip flexors to accomplish this. They are the muscles you touch when you put your hands in your front pockets. Hip flexor strength and developement are extremely important when it comes to being strong and powerful on the bike. Some energy is lost in the pedaling cycle while using the core and other muscles to balance and some energy is used to stabilize your joints to produce force but the objective is to direct as much energy as possible directly into the crank arm. Be as consistant as possible while trying to drive as many watts as possible into the crank arm of the bike!
2. Proper Seated And Standing Cycling Form
An efficient cyclist works within the limits of his or her own natural bio mechanics to optimally produce pedal force. What does this mean? Everyone has differnt body mechanics and composition and will have a slightly different pedaling style based on how they are built. Some cyclists are wide-hipped, duck-footed, sway-backed, overpronators, etc. It is important to not attempt to correct something that is natural as injury can occur. Keeping this in mind, there are ways to put more power to the pedals.
Make sure your heels are not moving back and forth as you pedal. A small degree of float is needed in the pedal stroke, but if the heel moves excessively towards or away from the crank arm, energy is wasted. Dropping your ankles as you pedal or pedaling with your feet (ankling) does not produce force effectively. The muscles of the lower leg play an important stability role, but the bigger muscles of the upper leg are the prime force producers.
“Knees out” pedaling is another more common form issue that can lead to some possible leg and knee injuries. Your knees should track roughly within a line from the hip to the foot. When the RPMs' (Revolution's Per Minute) get to be too fast sometimes or when there is a lack resistance an individuals whole body may tend to 'bounce' in the saddle while pedaling, this translates to more lost energy and a very inefficient way of cycling. The hips should be engaged and connected to the seat without much 'bounce' at all.
A straight back is a more stable platform for force production than a rounded back. However, there are occasions when you will lean forward in order to cut down on wind resistance for outdoor riding in order to increase speed and efficiency. When using the indoor cycling bikes there are many times when the use of your upper body muscles assist by pulling the body into the pedal stroke to create as much force as possible while leaning from side to side. While doing this, try to avoid a tight grip on the handlebars and be efficient and light up top so that the upper body won't atrophie and consequently last longer throughout a long ride. An individual can and will burn more calories while using the legs.
Overall, pedaling form should be fluid while the body relaxed. A relaxed body absorbs road shock and vibration, whereas a stiff body fatigues from it. Video analysis and slow motion video visuals is a great way to prevent bad habits from forming and identify multiple form issues.
3. Proper Cycling Fit On The Bike
An individual's bike fit must consider your comfort, aerodynamics, and power. The combination of these positions will depend on the type of cycling you are doing, your biomechanics, and competitive level. A poorly fitted bicycle, however, does not allow you to produce force effectively. A seat that is too high, low, or positioned too far forward or aft will affect power that can be produced through the crank of the bike. A seated position that is too condensed or stretched will be uncomfortable and may cause neck, shoulder, back, shoulder, or hip-flexor strain.
A bike that is too big or small will not be nearly as effective as the proper frame size for your hieght and weight. Only when you are on the right bike, comfortable, and lined up correctly, can you really put the power to the pedals. All of these variables affect how you concentrate and produce energy to that relatively small area near your big toe. Setting up the bike to an individual's needs and adjusting for cycling efficiency translates to tons of “free speed.” You don’t necessarily have to work harder, just smarter.
4. Proper Cycling Grip
When cycling indoors or outdoors remember to keep a light grip on the handlebars. Beware of the white knuckle syndrome where an individual tries to grip the handlebars way too tight and consequently could cause tremendous upper body stress or injury. Instead, hold the handlebars (or aerobars) with a light relaxed grip, which will save energy, keep the neck and shoulders loose, slightly lower blood pressure, and keep you from feeling too tight on the bike. It’s a small adjustment, but can make a big difference in your comfort especially during long rides and events, which will ultimately improve your performance. White knuckling the handlebars like this can lead to numbness in the hands as well as attrriphy throughout an individuals enitre upper body.
Tightness in the chest will restrict breathing which will reduce oxygen consumption. Oxygen is essential for both removing waste products and bringing fresh supplies of energy to your working muscles. Also remember that the more an individual can relax the face and upper body while breathing in more oxygen the more energy they will be able to produce. Just like a muscle car uses a super-charger to obtain more oxygen faster in order to gain more horsepower the more an individual can breath in and utilize more oxygen the more that individual has the ability to produce more power. When a cyclist or athlete is short of oxygen the legs will tire more quickly and that individual will have a harder time finishing the climb if they are not breathing freely.
5. Proper Forward Leaning Cycling Form
While a cyclist pumps the crank up a hill the muscles being used will become exhausted as waste products produced by straining muscles accumulate faster than they can be carried away in the bloodstream. It doesn't take long to clear these waste products if you can make less use of the muscles for a moment. There is no such thing as 'chilling' or 'coasting' on a climb and the solution is to briefly work different sets of muscles throughout the climb to give particular muscle groups precious time to recover. There are several ways to do this.
If you typically ride with toes pointed down or feet flat, drop your heels for a bit to bring your hamstrings and glutes more into play and give your quadriceps and calves time to recover. Likewise, if you usually ride with your heels dropped, raise them so your feet are flat or point your toes down thereby taking the load off the hams and glutes and shifting it onto the quads and calves. Shift forward and back on the seat. Sitting on the front of the seat accentuates the quads, sitting on the back accentuates the hams and glutes. Stand up for a brief interval and then sit back down. Just before you stand, shift into a bigger gear and then shift back to the smaller gear when you sit down. You will have more power when you stand and if you stay in the smaller gear you will lose momentum. Use these techniques for 10 to 30 pedal strokes periodically throughout the climb to buy recovery time.
Be Efficient And Remain Seated While You Climb
Standing is terrific for short bursts of power or for a change in muscle use (and hence a bit of muscle recovery) on a very long climb. However, it is less efficient than sitting and will tire you out faster in the long run. You will be stronger at the end of the ride if you climb sitting at the beginning. Less efficient to begin with, standing becomes much more inefficient if your technique is not good and good standing technique is much harder than it looks. Many riders with poor technique weave back and forth across the road when they stand and thrash back and forth, twisting at the hips. This wastes a lot of energy and is hard on the lower back possibly leading to back soreness or tightening on long rides.
Experienced riders are likely to disagree with this advice to climb while seated because standing on the climbs is a standard practice among advanced riders. Having developed the ability to climb efficiently while standing is one of the many skills that separates the advanced rider from the novice. If you stick with road cycling, you’ll learn to climb in a standing position but when you’re just starting out, I think it’s better to learn to climb efficiently and well while sitting before learning the more difficult skill. In many of my own cycling classes I see all the benefits in the standing position while cycling and climbing in order to maximize power and stength, especially on the Evo indoor cycle with the sway frame that shifts back and forth and causes instability that forces you to use the core muscles to engage and burn more calories throughout the ride. More and more resistance can be added while in riding in the standing position and consequently more watts are produced and more calories will be burned!
Jack created Powerhouse Fitness after winning numerous medals in various events on the international stage. He was a gold medalist in 2007 at the first ever Concept 2 Team Indoor Rowing challenge, held in Essen, Germany. In 2006, he took silver at the Masters Nationals Open Single Event. As a member of the US Rowing National Team from 2001-2004 he placed second at the 2003 Pan American Trials in double sculls and had an outstanding 2002 that saw him claim a gold medal in Senior 8 and a silver medal in the Elite Double at the US Nationals. He was also a silver medalist in 2001 in the Nations Cup (now the U23 World Championships) 8 in Ottenshiem, Austria. Find out more.