Cul-de-Sac Kung Fu: 3 Drills to Maximize Pedaling Efficiency

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Want to go farther, faster, longer? Stop wasting energy on sloppy pedal strokes.

Given the amount of time we mountain bikers spend pedaling, and for how simple a task as it may seem, most of us are downright bad at efficiently translating muscle power into the cranks. If you enjoy blowing precious energy into the universe, just know that you're contributing to entropy!

Need some less abstract reasons to work on pedaling efficiency? How about the ability to ride faster and farther with less pain and greater ease. A pretty enticing proposition, huh?

Luckily, pedaling is a skill–just like cornering, braking, and jumping–that you can master with some focused practice. Since I started practicing the following drills and pedaling in this more thoughtful style, my sustainable power (the maximum power I can sustain for an hour, aka functional threshold power) is up 50% and my peak sprint power is up 80%.

And I'm a schmuck–just imagine how powerful you'll be!

Setup

[Location] If you're able to ride outside, a steady climb is ideal, whether on road or trail. Unless you have time to burn, I'd suggest working these drills into your regular rides, commutes, or training sessions. And as much as trainers suck, they are great for focused pedaling practice.

[Bike] Road bikes are fine but, as a mountain biker, it's smart to practice on your trail bike even if you're riding on pavement. This is because road bikes necessitate a completely different pedaling position than mountain bikes–an issue that can inhibit the formation of the muscle memory we're after here.

[Electronics] Power meters are fantastic. They fit all bikes, they teach you how to tweak your technique to get the best power, and they give you numbers to chase–especially when you sprint.

Drill 1: Basic Seated Pedaling

The bread and butter movement of any cyclist, pedaling in the saddle is arguably the most important skill to hone if your want to go faster, farther, and longer with more efficiency. When you pedal, there are actually two coinciding cycles taking place: power/recovery and forward/backward.

The actual angles vary depending on body position, terrain and pedaling style, but it’s simple to think about these cycles in terms of a clock: 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. (Check out some helpful visuals here and here)

Power/recovery: Everyone who’s ridden a bike is familiar with the power phase. If you want to move forward, you push the pedal down. And while one pedal is being powered downward, the other is simultaneously recovering upward–the recovery phase.

While clipless riders have all been told to pull up during the recovery phase science shows that, while pulling up increases force for high torque/low rpm situations (imagine bonking into a rock on a climb), it reduces your overall efficiency. You’ll reap the greatest benefit by making your power phase as long and strong as possible and allowing your non-power leg to recover on the upstroke.

Forward/backward: Now things get interesting! Forward-backward is an evolution of the technique of “ankling,” in which you drop your heel at the top of the stroke and point your toes at the bottom. What we do is similar, but we drop our heels earlier with the goal of pushing the pedal in the direction it wants to go. Put simply, when the pedal is moving forward, you should be dropping your heel. When the pedal is moving backward, you should be pointing your toe.

When you practice seated pedaling, focus on dropping your heel and pushing across the top of the circle. Start dropping the heel at 9 o'clock and try to be pushing forward by 12 o'clock. That'll keep you busy for a while.

After that makes sense, focus on pointing your toe as you reach the bottom of the circle. Start extending at 3 o'clock and keep extending until 6 o'clock.

In this video, watch the cyclical motion of the feet and ankles. That’s the key to smooth power—and you can learn it.

Drill 2: Basic Standing Pedaling

When you pedal out of the saddle does your rear wheel slip? Does your front wheel wander? Do your quads burn? These are common signs of poor balance and pedaling technique.

If your rear wheel slips when you stand, you’re too far forward. The vast majority of riders put too much weight on their hands instead of balancing on their feet–a movement fault that can be attributed to weakness or straight-up laziness. This creates arm tension, wastes energy, and bashes your front wheel into every bump. If your front wheel wanders when you stand, or you feel pulling on your arms and back, your weight is too far backward. This is much less common but massively tiring. Finally, if your quads burn when you stand (warning: brutal truth coming your way), you might just be weak. You could also be pedaling too much with your knees and not enough with your hips.

Your fundamental pedaling style should be the same whether you're in and out of the saddle and you should always balance on your pedals: light hands, heavy feet.

To combat any of the aforementioned issues, practice your sit-stand transitions:

  1. Settle into a nice pedal stroke
  2. Sit for five strokes
  3. Stand for five strokes
  4. Repeat many times, all the while striving for a smooth, consistent feel and sound–both in and out of the saddle

In this video, watch the feet and listen to the sound. While the power changes, the fundamental pedaling style stays the same in and out of the saddle.

Bonus: Do this with no weight on your hands.

In this video, watch the neutral hands while sitting and standing. This is really hard to do on a trainer! But the more balanced you are on the trainer, the more balanced you’ll be on a rock garden.

Drill 3: Sprinting

There's more to sprinting than simply pedaling really hard. Sprinting should tap into a fully integrated, full-body movement that's more like Olympic lifting than seated pedaling. While stronger is always better, you can gain significant power by improving your sprinting technique. If you're thinking, "I'm an XC rider, I don't need to sprint," you're missing out. Think of it this way: The higher your 100% power is, the higher and smoother your 50% power will become. Also, some technical climbs (the ones you're not cleaning) require bursts of clean, balanced power. Emphasis on clean. Emphasis on balanced. Finally, sprinting is fun! Well, maybe not, but it's definitely the least stultifying thing you can do on a trainer.

In this video below, watch how Olympic BMX coach Greg Romero drives his hips and his hands toward each other–BAM–then he does it again and again until he's up to speed. This is what we're working toward with this drill.

Lock your core: The initial explosion uses all of your body, all at the same time. Ideally, you’ll start with your power foot forward and your cranks between 1 and 3 o’clock. Practice from low speed and from a dead stop.

Drive with your hips: Here's a fun fact: Your quads are puny and emaciated compared to your glutes. So, to utilize your powerful glutes and achieve max torque, drive your hips forward and stand tall. This should feel like a deadlift. BAM!

Anchor with your arms: While your hips are driving forward, pull your hands backward. Hips to hands. Hands to hips. Feel the connection–the opposition–from your hands through your locked core all the way to your feet. When you do this perfectly, you don’t feel it in any particular part of your body. You feel it everywhere (and nowhere … whoa man that’s deep).

Smash the pedals: When you drive your hips forward, your quads know what to do. They push down. Hard. You should feel significant acceleration. All of this happens in the first downstroke! Pro BMXers spend most of their training time dialing in this one motion. Smart MTBers should dial this in as well: It's the key to great acceleration, and it's the base skill for technical climbing.

Practice very short sprints: Based on my work with thousands of mountain bikers, I'll bet your initial acceleration phase is disjointed and weak. Focus on accelerating as hard as you can for five strokes before recovering fully. Then, do it again. Finish drill is over when your form and/or power drop.

As you get better at the often overlooked skill of pedaling, all of your rides become faster, easier and more fun. Rather than heating up the universe with inefficient technique, save some energy for shredding the downhills!

For more details about these and other riding skills, as well as bike setup and training techniques, join the Lee Likes Bikes Online MTB School.

Cul-de-Sac Kung Fu: At-home drills for on-trail mastery

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