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