Pedaling technique is a hotly debated topic in the world of cycling: the internet is riddled with articles on how to pedal properly. What most of them fail to mention is that your ability to pedal properly is directly linked to your bike fit and mobility. Most of the articles on pedaling technique expound a variety of the “pedaling in a circle” style. However, we are going to describe a different and much better way of pedaling. Watch the pros in the World Tour: they use it too!
The pedaling technique we teach at The Cycling Gym has two interrelated elements. We use the numbers on the clock as a model to describe foot and pedal positions:
1. Focus on the power stroke—the forward and down motion of the pedal stroke—between the 12 and 4:30 positions.
The power stroke starts at 12 o’clock—top centre—and ends at a position around 4:30. This is the area of the pedal stroke where you can transfer the maximum amount of force into the pedals. With the focus on the power stroke, we no longer worry about pulling through or back up on the pedal once we pass 4:30. After 4:30, the rest of the pedal stroke is about unweighting the pedal so that you are not resisting the power stroke as it occurs in your other leg.
An important part of the power stroke is to make sure you are applying force to the pedal for as much of it as possible. Work on starting to put force into the pedal as early in the power stroke as you can. When you're initially learning, think of putting force into the pedal at your downtube. Once this is comfortable, think of starting at your bottle cage, and then finally at the top of the pedal stroke. The sooner you start applying force into the pedal, the longer the power stroke phase will be, and thus more power can be transferred to your pedals. Another important tip: think of generating power from your hip sockets rather than from your knees: this helps to apply force to the pedal early in the power stroke.
2. In conjunction with applying power throughout the power stroke, work on your ankle position and keep your heel stable and slightly elevated above the ball of your foot.
An analogy for optimal foot position is to use a forward motion to scrape mud off your shoe onto a stair. You would maintain a heel up position and rub the foot forward. This translates into an oval pedal stroke, where the power stroke is a forward and down action starting at 12 o’clock.
Does keeping your heel up really make a difference?
Bart Egnal, the columnist of Notes from the Gruppetto in Canadian Cycling magazine, was at The Cycling Gym to finish his bike fit. He had gone away for three months to do his stretching homework before returning to dial in the last of the fit. Bart has a set of Garmin Vector pedals, which we thought was a perfect opportunity to test the differences between the heel up vs. heel down pedaling techniques.
We had Bart pedal normally (he has a heel up pedal stroke) and found that his power on the Garmin pedals tracked consistently with the power on the Wahoo Kickr we were using. We then had him pedal with his heel down. His perceived exertion went up quickly. And interesting: he was putting more power into the Garmin pedals than into the Wahoo Kickr. Thus the extra force he was putting into the pedals was not reaching the rear wheel, making the heel down technique a less-efficient pedaling style.
Try this heel-up technique yourself and then compare it with a heel-level or heel-down technique: feel the difference!