Pedaling in a simple circle is a complex thing, but
mastering it can save energy, says Todd Carver, biomechanist at
for Sports Medicine. He says that with proper ankling (shown here; not the
injury-causing technique of the past), riders can churn out the same amount of
power at a heart rate as many as five beats per minute lower. This stroke is for
flat terrain at threshold, or time trial, intensity.
Hip-Knee-Ankle Alignment Viewed from the front, your hip,
knee and ankle should line up throughout the pedal stroke. "You don't want
knee wobble," says Carver. "Just think pistons, straight up and
down." If you can't correct this, or if you experience knee pain when you
try to restrict lateral movement, you may need orthotics or another type of
Zone 1 Known as the power phase, the portion of the pedal
stroke from 12 o'clock to about 5 o'clock is the period of greatest muscle
activity. "A lot of people think hamstrings are used only on the
upstroke," says Carver, "but a good cyclist uses a lot of hamstring in
the downstroke, because it extends the hip." The key to accessing the large
muscles in the back of your leg is dropping your heel as you come over the top
of the stroke, says Carver. "At 12 o'clock, your toes should be pointed
down about 20 degrees, but as you come over the top, start dropping that heel so
that it's parallel to the ground or even 10 degrees past parallel by the time
you get to 3 o'clock." The biggest mistake Carver sees in novice riders:
not dropping the heel enough in Zone 1.
Zone 2 Using the same muscles as in the power phase, but to
a lesser degree, this phase acts as a transition to the backstroke. "As you
enter Zone 2, think about firing the calf muscles to point your toe,"
Carver says. As you come through the bottom of the stroke, the toe should be
pointed down 20 degrees. "This ankling technique transfers some of the
energy developed in Zone 1 by the bigger muscles to the crank," Carver
says. He uses the advice popularized by Greg LeMond: "Act like you're
scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe."
Zone 3 Even though you feel like you're pulling your foot
through the back of the stroke, you're not. "When you look at even the best
cyclists, they're losing power on the upstroke," says Carver. "The
pedal is actually pushing your leg up, so the goal is to lose as little power as
possible and get that foot out of the way." One fun way to improve the
efficiency of your upstroke: mountain biking. "The terrain keeps you
honest," Carver says. "If you're focusing only on the downstroke,
you'll lose traction and fall off your bike in steep sections." As for
other exercises, Carver advises against single-leg pedal drills--"for
recreation-level riders, they injure more people than they help"--but
recommends hamstring and glute-strengthening lifts, as well as squats,
"done correctly, in a squat rack with someone showing you how."
Saddle Position Proper bike fit, especially saddle height
and fore-aft adjustment, is a prerequisite for a smooth pedal stroke. Without
it, says Carver, you won't be even remotely as efficient as you could be.
"If your saddle is too high, you're not going to be able to drive your heel
effectively," he says. "If it's too low, you'll have knee pain."
In the right position (knee over the ball of your foot with the pedal at 3
o'clock; knee slightly bent with the pedal at 6 o'clock), you'll maximize your
energy output and also be able to adapt your ankling technique to different
terrain, cadence and effort levels.
Zone 4 As you enter the second half of the upstroke phase,
think about initiating your downstroke. "Many riders don't initiate early
enough," says Carver, who often sees riders wait until 3 o'clock--but they
should be starting before 12 o'clock. A tip: As you begin to come across the top
of the stroke, think about pushing your knee forward, toward the bar. But only
your knee, says Carver: "Your pelvis should remain a stable platform, not
sinking down and not moving forward." As the knee comes forward, you should
feel your hamstrings and glutes engage, and your hip extend.