Pedaling circles by Sean Burke

 

Sacred Cow:  Pedaling circles is efficient, and you should try to pedal all the way around the pedal stroke.

My take:   You don’t pedal  circles and you shouldn’t try, bcause it is actually  less efficient than just pedaling.

Humans did not evolve to ride bicycles, they evolved to walk and run.     When you walk or run, the majority of the power    that is applied goes into applying  force against the ground.  When you pedal a bike,   the majority of the force that you apply is on the down stroke, and trying to do anything else is a waste of energy. ( Most of the time!)

Here  is the research:    Jim Martin is a biomechanist  and professor at  The University of Utah in Salt Lake City.   He’s done more research on pedaling biomechanics than just about anyone, and he’s also a former masters national champion.  So his knowledge and interest is more than just academic, it’s practical.    In 2007, Jim authored a paper in the European Journal of Physiology:   “Effect of pedaling technique on mechanical effectiveness and efficiency in cyclists.”     In this study, they basically had cyclists pedal under 4 different conditions:  preferred pedaling (just pedaling as they normally do), pedal circles, concentrate on the upstroke, and pound the pedals on the downstroke.    Martin found out that when he asked cyclist to pedal circles, efficiency went down.   Their bodies used more energy to try and pedal circles compared to when they just pedaled.     Jim has done other research to show that  even elite cyclists produce the majority of their force on the downstroke, and the group  of cyclists that “mashed” the pedals more than any other group may be counterintuitive to most.   It was the  track sprinter group, a group that is very good at pedaling very fast with a lot of force.       The group that “pedaled circles” more than any other group was the elite mountain bikers.   If you ever ridden a mountain bike up a loose dirt climb, you’ll understand why.    A road or track rider on pavement or wood never has to worry about the ground slipping underneath them, but a mountain biker on a loose uphill will find they quickly lose traction if they mash the pedals too hard rather than   apply a  “ smooth power”  throughout the pedal stroke.    This is going to be more inefficient in terms of energy used to apply force to the pedals, but the advantage is that there is less energy wasted due to spinout, as the cyclist  keeps  the rear tire firmly on the ground, moving the  bike and rider forward.    Other researchers have had findings similar to Martin.    In 2008, and group of German researchers published a paper  and showed that pulling up on the pedals   elicited lower mechanical efficiency that “ just pedaling.”  More recently,  a 2010 study in the European Journal of applied physiology, Stig Leirdal  essentially said that force effectiveness ( applying force throughout  the stroke) was not an indicator of gross efficiency  ( the amount o oxygen required to produce pedal power).   So the fact that “just pedaling” is the most efficient way to pedal  a bike is well a established and has been repeated in multiple studies.

 

Much of the confusion comes from a misunderstanding o f exactly what it means to be efficient.  For a car, this would mean going farther on less gas    For a cyclist, efficiency means doing more work  ( or going faster) with a lower  energy or oxygen requirement.       Applying force throughout the entire pedal stroke  doesn’t  make  a rider more efficient, because it doesn’t  reduce the required amount of  oxygen/energy.   In fact Martin’s research shows that it can have the opposite effect!

 

Riders (except mountain bikers pedaling up dirt climbs at low RPM) don’t need to pedal circles.  What they  need to do is make sure they are applying force on the downstroke  but then NOT applying  downward force on t he  upstroke, essentially fighting against the other leg that is pushing down.   You’ll see that beginner riders or exhausted  experienced riders sometimes look like they are “pedaling squares”.      In this case the riders have poor neuromuscular coordination and are still applying downward force   after the downstroke.   The beginner rider has yet to develop that coordination and the experienced rider has lost that coordination due to exhaustion.     As a coach that teaches the developmental classes at the San Diego Velodrome, , I also see this at high RPM.  Riders that have the coordination to pedal efficiently at 90-100 RPM, may not have the neuromuscular coordination required to pedal efficiently at 130.     In the case of track cycling, practice and drills can help a rider to develop the skill to be efficient at high RPM.     In fact the ability to efficiently produce power across  a large spectrum of RPM is a great tool for  any cyclist to have in  his tool belt.

So pedaling circles does not mean greater efficiency.  Spend your time just pedaling and you’ll go farther and faster with less energy.

Bonus  Sacred Cow:  Fixed gear training during the winter is great for  your   pedalstroke.

My take:  I’ve  explained  why you shouldn’t  try to pedal circles,  and even the fastest pedalers in the world  are pedal mashers.     On top of that, pedaling at 150 RPM on as you ride your fixie down the hill does not train you to pedal faster while applying force.  It trains you to move your feet fast enough to keep up with those spinning pedals.   Keeping up   and applying force are not the same thing.

 

Sean Burke is the Head Coach for Crank Cycling in San Diego

 

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Comments

  1. Lionel Space says

    Let’s see; do tests with people that have not practiced pedaling circles and we’re surprised that they are not as efficient or more efficient than if they pedaled in their familiar and muscularly developed methods. No surprise there. Yet you mention that people that can not pedal efficiently at 130 rpm, can use practice and drills to be efficient at high rpm; why not jump to the same conclusion that anything beyond 100 rpm is inefficient and should be discarded? These findings on the lack of pedaling circles need to be applied over a long period by coaches that can properly instruct them how to use practice and drills to be efficient at pedaling circles along with the increased muscle strength for those muscles used in the non-mashing portion of the stroke, and then do the tests compared to their mashing days. I know from personal experience that if I were only a masher, I would not be winning the numerous races I do each season, I would not have a kick that gaps others consistently, and I would not have a standing start that many can not match.

  2. Scot Hinckley-Danielson says

    Nice article, Sean. It’s good to see someone of your stature keeping this conversation open rather than just letting “conventional wisdom” sit static in the world of competitive cycling. If it gets too controversial, we could just do a “helmets or no helmets” article to take the heat off, haha.

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