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Pedal Stroke, Power, Fatigue
Over some years of cycling I had become so accustomed to having a highly efficient pedal stroke that I thought little about it. But in 2011 as I began training for the Everest Challenge, I gradually realized that I would have to regain not just my strength and endurance, but my neurological efficiency in my pedal stroke.
To be sure, strength is related to neurological efficiency; the two are intertwined. But without careful attention to the pedal stroke, fatigue can set in early, and much power can be wasted.
If you don’t have clipless pedals— the kind of shoes that snap into a pedal, you’re suffering needlessly. You simply won’t be efficient with plain pedals, or those that strap over a shoe. Clipless pedals are must-have, for a road or mountain bike. know that you’re a dilettante if you don’t have clipless pedals.
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Don’t even think about the idiotic compromise of a shoe that’s for both hiking and biking or whatever. For road cycling or mountain biking, an absolutely rigid shoe is a must; it keeps your feet comfortable as well as ensuring perfect power transfer to the pedals. I like carbon fiber for light weight and supreme stiffness, which paradoxically is much more comfortable than a shoe that flexes.
If you’re over 140 pounds, make sure your pedals are absolutely stiff— no fancy ultra-light pedals, only a nice stiff pedal with a steel spindle.
For some years I rode mountain bike pedals on my road bike so that I could share shoes between bikes. Bad idea. When I switched to Shimano road pedals, the platform was more stable and comfortable and secure, especially for sprints.
Hammies and Quads
The legs have a number of muscles, but the two groups that produce nearly all the power in the leg are the hamstrings and the quadriceps ( the gluteus muscles and the back muscles are also critical, but are not directly involved in the leg motion of a pedal stroke).
As you develop strength, you must learn to use it on a bicycle.
The biggest power mistake most riders make is relying far too much on their quadriceps. This can be readily observed with beginner or even intermediate cyclists; a beginner’s pedal stroke is choppy with great emphasis on pushing down from the top of each stroke, and at lower RPMs. The result is much lower power than is possible, along with premature fatigue of the quads, especially on hills.
The key insight I found as my cycling skill developed is that the hamstrings are not just along for the ride— you must actively include the hamstrings in the upward pedal stroke so that the upstroke fully utilizes the hamstring.
Like this: push down with the quadriceps, and pull up (hard) with the hamstring of the opposite leg. Learn to coordinate the two, and watch your power surge on sprints and climbs, with the fatigue level of the quads dropping. Learn to pedal up to 110 rpm this way.
The pedal stroke must be thought of as one smooth motion, with the power coming as continuously and smoothly as possible. The only way to achieve that is to fully utilize the hamstring muscles on the upstroke, coordinated exquisitely with the quadriceps. This is neurological training, and it takes time to develop, but with effort, that improvement can be very rapid (weeks), with an accompanying increase in power far more than anything else could achieve.
The hamstring can never generate as much power as the quadriceps, but with strong hamstrings that work in synchrony with the quadriceps, a substantial boost in total power is achievable.
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Using a power meter for bio feedback
With a power meter, one can measure total power, an excellent biofeedback loop. Watch your power rise or fall based on how well the hamstrings participate in the pedal stroke— it’s an incredibly useful feedback mechanism.
As I resumed training after a few years of minimal cycling, I applied this technique, and found that I was idling 20-30 watts lower than if I concentrated on using my hamstrings, bringing power on an moderate effort up from 200 watts to 230 watts or so— all without any apparent additional exertion in my quadriceps— in fact less perceived exertion. That kind of power boost is hugely important on climbs and in sprints. Faster with less muscle fatigue is a huge win.
Be sure to work on stretching over time. Tight muscles mean that the hamstrings resist the quadriceps, robbing you of power each pedal stroke.