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How to improve pedaling efficiency

Cycling is technically not a very complicated sport. In essence, cycling is one of the few truly cyclical sports that exist, which actually means that there is a repetition of movement. The stair movement consists of two phases; a downward and upward phase.  Because you fixed to the pedals on the bike, it is possible to provide power (or better; power) during both phases that can be converted into speed by means of the bike.  However, this addition of power during the entire pedaling cycle does not mean that it is also the most efficient way of cycling.  It could be that you are working against yourself.  Your upward leg works against the downward leg against which is currently delivering the power.  Because of this, this leg must actually kick harder to keep the externally supplied power the same.  Obviously not so handy so that the oxygen intake will increase further because the total power that must be supplied further increases.  As a result, fatigue will occur faster, which of course hinders performance.

To prevent this opposition, a lot of sensible but also a lot of impractical techniques can be found on the internet.  A technique that often passes through is consciously pulling rather than unloading the pedals in the upward phase.  Focusing on this during training should in theory improve pedaling efficiency, but does it?

Recent research shows that cyclists who consciously raise the pedals use relatively much more oxygen to deliver the total amount of power (Schücker et al, 2016).  So consciously 'pushing and pulling' on the pedals is therefore inefficient. The reason for this is actually very simple.  The feedback from our nervous system is a lot faster and smarter than our consciousness. The muscles in your left leg are much more aware of what your right leg is eating up before your consciousness is aware of it. The body automatically looks for the most efficient way to move forward, saving fuel that can come in handy later on.  From an evolutionary perspective, of course, it is especially useful and logical.

Example from Today's Plan of analysis of acceleration and cadence.

Does it make no sense to try to improve your pedaling efficiency?

Certainly, pedaling efficiency is often overlooked and assumed to be an automatic process.  It starts with a correct bike fit, the body will always look for the most efficient position.  If the saddle is too high, the cleats adjusted incorrectly and the handlebars too low, the pedaling efficiency will never be optimal.  So start with a good bike fit, where you the bike is adjusted to your body and not the other way around.  In addition, having a good range of movement will keep you flexible on the bike and avoid aches and pains. With good flexibility, a well-trained body should not suffer from a millimeter of saddle height difference (see point 4). 

In addition, there are a number of ways in which you can improve your efficiency;

  1. Hours in the saddle, having a large of base mileage, in principle, the human body is not meant to sit on a bicycle.  However, the body is good at adapting to changing situations. By consistently cycling your body will get used to the unnatural movement, which ultimately makes it a lot more efficient.  It is not surprising that pros score highest on pedaling efficiency!

  2. Train on low cadence, for example by doing sitting power blocks on low cadence - 60 rpm.  Because the speed of movement is a lot lower, the body can get used to the pedal cycle better.  If you ensure that the intensity of these blocks is high enough, your body will work to become more efficient so that no energy is wasted.

  3. Train on high cadence, initially it will not feel comfortable but eventually the body gets used to doing blocks on high cadence.  You start bouncing less in the saddle.  When you return to your old, voluntarily chosen cadence, you will find that it feels a lot easier.

  4. Train on different bikes in different disciplines.  Although in the past it was thought that in order to master something, endless repetition was needed, nowadays the idea is that by regularly changing circumstances, the learning process is accelerated.  Training on a fixed resistance, the MTB or taking the time trial bike from time to time is therefore wise.  In this light, the same crank length on every bike may not be that effective at all.

  5. Strength training in the gym, cyclists who do strength training in the gym in addition to doing a lot of cycling, are developing a proven more efficient pedaling movement compared to cyclists who only cycle.  This is due to the fact that strength training involves neural adaptations such as improved control of the leg muscles (Loveless et al, 2005).  Preferably work with free weights and of course a good execution. Improving your endurance capacity, due to fatigue, the management is considerably reduced.  As a result, you also lose a lot of efficiency (Pasfield and Doust, 2000)

So don't be fooled by special pedaling techniques that you have to master.  Ultimately, it is mainly a question of sitting properly on the bike and regularly bringing the body out of the comfort zone by training a lot at varying pedaling frequencies.


Loveless, DJ. Weber, CL. Haseler, LJ. Schneider, DA. (2005) 'Maximal leg strength training improves cycling economy in previously untrained people.' Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise  37 (7) pp. 1231-1236

Passfield, L. Doust, JH. (2000) "Changes in cycling efficiency and performance after endurance exercise." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 32 (11) pp. 1935–1941

Schücker, L. Fleddermann, M. de Lussanet, M. Elischer, J. Böhmer, C. Zentgraf, K. (2016) 'Focusing attention on circular pedaling reduces movement economy in cycling.' Psychology of Sport and Exercise 27 pp. 9-17

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