Riding Technique & Cycling Posture Fundamentals
By Ian Buchanan
Founder, Fit Werx, Road and Triathlon Cycling Specialists
You pedal and your bike moves forward, right? Well, yes, but there is a lot more to making a bike move forward efficiently than just pushing on the pedals. Learning some of the fundamentals of an efficient pedal stroke is like improving the fuel efficiency in a car – you travel greater distance for the same energy. Riders that learn how to pedal efficiently and hold their posture properly simply work less than those that do not and are usually more comfortable too.
So, what is an efficient pedal stroke? An efficient stroke is one that allows the body to take advantage of the major pedaling muscle groups available (hamstrings and quadriceps) while smoothly transitioning the legs from the power (front) to recovery phase (back) of the stroke. It allows you to apply power with the big power producing muscles, without over using them.
Some bike set-up variables that are key to encouraging an efficient pedal stroke are:
- Correct saddle height. If your saddle is too low or too high, your ability to fully recruit muscle groups will be limited. For example, a saddle that is too low almost forces the rider to depend on a limited range of the quadriceps and makes it more difficult to recruit the hamstrings. While there are many variables that can affect proper saddle height for an individual rider, in general, correct saddle height will allow for full leg extension without hyper-extension (125-135 degree angle between the hip-knee-ankle) when the leg is at its maximum extension point in the stroke.
- Saddle fore-aft position. If your saddle is too far back or too far forward you will not have a neutral center of gravity on your bike and imbalanced muscle recruitment patterns will be encouraged. Ideally, you want a position that encourages your quadriceps to fire efficiently through the dominant forward phase of the pedal stroke and then allows for smooth and efficient transition from your quadriceps to your hamstrings and glutes. For many riders, a good starting point for neutral stabilization and muscle balance is to align the center of the rider’s knee over the center of the pedal at the front (3 o’clock) of the stroke.
- Handlebar position. Making sure the drop and reach to the handlebar is within your range of motion is important because you will not be able to transition smoothly between muscle groups while pedaling otherwise. For example, if your handlebar height is too low you could exceed your hip flexion range and as your leg enters the top of the pedal stroke. You may not be able to transition smoothly using the glutes at the back-top of the stroke into hip flexion and a “dead spot” will happen as your pelvis deflects to try to create room for your leg to pass. Dead spots equal lost momentum and energy. Likewise, if your position forces you outside of your range of motion, you could have pain as it is like trying to do a stretch that is just too deep for your muscles.
While the positioning based items are important in pedaling technique, it is up to the rider to actually hold their posture and pedal in a way that allows them to recruit the muscles efficiently. Some technique keys to this are as follows:
- Develop a rapid cadence. Especially for newer riders, a slower cadence can feel more powerful. However, this is just a muscle memory issue; the slower your cadence, the more likely you will be to depend on single muscle groups and the harder it is to use momentum to transition to all the available muscle groups throughout the circle. 90+ cadence is a good target for most riders and will help you develop a more balanced stroke that recruits all the muscles available.
- Rotate your pelvis forward (anterior rotation). Your hamstrings need to be at about a 90 degree angle or more to your pelvis to fire effectively. To demonstrate this, think about what you do with your pelvis when standing up out of a chair – you rotate your pelvis forward and that engages the hamstrings so they can balance out the quads as you stand. The same thing happens on the bike. Roll the pelvis forward enough to engage the hamstrings early in the stroke, but not so far as to create undue pressure on the soft tissue.
- Use your core muscles. Many riders don’t think about their core when riding, but it is really important. Accessing deep abdominal muscles, like the psoas, is important to your stroke while stabilizing and supporting the whole pelvic girdle and torso with muscles like the obliques helps to reduce strain on the back, neck and hands.
- Think about circles. It may sound obvious, but you want to think about pedaling as more of a circular motion and not just a lever motion. The front of the pedal stroke will always be where the majority of your power is produced when riding, but you want to unweight (not pull) your foot through the recovery portion (back) of the stroke so that you are not lifting the extra weight of the opposing leg through the active part (front) of the stroke.
By focusing on bike set-up and your posture while riding you can develop your muscles to work efficiently and in harmony with each other on the bike. This means using less energy to propel your bike forward, greater comfort and less fatigue. All things that can make a long ride that much more enjoyable!
Note: Charity riders are eligible for $25 off bike fittings at Fit Werx (just mention this article…) and all bike, equipment and service purchases at Fit Werx qualify for the Fit Werx Gives Back program which will donate up to $100 a year in your name to your ride.