Learn How to Pedal Like a Pro this Winter

By Coach Rick Schultz

Ever wonder why the pros are so fast? One of the many reasons – genetics aside – is that they pedal differently than you and me.

But we can all learn the same techniques, and the winter, or off-season, is the perfect time to improve your stroke so that you're ready to put your improved form to work in the new season. You can practice the drills listed below either on an indoor trainer or on a low-traffic road outdoors, so why not invest some of the slow season in gaining a few "free watts?"

What's Different About a Pro's Stroke?

World Tour Pros start applying power to their pedal stroke much earlier in the stroke than the rest of us. They also "power off" much later than the rest of us. They don’t "stab" at the pedals like we do. Instead, they push a high power through the pedals for as long as they can.

As illustrated in the graphic below, pros will start their pedal stroke around 1:30 and finish around 5:30. This equates to starting the pedal stroke at 45° and finishing at 165°, which is a full 33% of the total pedaling circle. Most cyclists I have analyzed in my coaching start applying power at around 3:00 and end around 4:30, which nets only 45°, or 12.5% of the total pedaling circle.

What does this mean? It means that pros are pushing hard on their pedals for 120° of crank arc, a full 33% of the total pedaling circle. The rest of us only use about 45° of crank arc to generate power, or 12.5% of the full circle. So the pros' "power stroke" is nearly 3 times greater than what we recreational roadies do. This does not even take into consideration that pros also pull up hard on the upstroke.


So, How Can I Pedal Like a Pro?

There are a number of drills that the rest of us can do to help improve our stroke, but to me none deliver the bang for the buck that one-legged drills do.

Using one leg at a time makes it far easier to concentrate on the singular goal of pedaling the whole 120° of the circle from 1:30 to 5:30 on every stroke.

Start by concentrating and pedaling for 2-3 minutes – one leg at a time. Ramp up this drill to a full 5 minutes. During this initial phase, you are building muscle memory. (It's not as easy as it sounds, if you've never done it before! At first, you'll be pedaling the proverbial squares. But with time you'll adapt and improve.)

Once you can easily pedal with one leg, go back to pedaling 2-legged. At first you will need to concentrate even more, but you will eventually “feel it” kick in. If you have a power meter, you should be able to see a higher number once you start pedaling smoothly for the entire 120°.

The Nuts and Bolts of the One-Legged Drill

When training outdoors, unclip one foot from the pedal and pedal with the other foot. Switch by clipping in the foot/leg you were resting and unclipping the foot/leg that was doing the work. Continue switching back and forth. Remember, concentrate on applying power all the way from 1:30 to 5:30, for 2-3 minutes at a time, building up to 5 minutes at a time.

Doing one-legged drills outdoors requires finding a comfortable position to place your unclipped foot/leg so it's out of the way. You'll have to experiment to see what works best for you. A couple of options are to place your unclipped foot/leg:

  • Option 1: Directly up and to the rear of the rotating pedal. For me, this is the easiest.
  • Option 2: Directly to the side of the rotating pedal. Several others in our training group like this better.

When training indoors, you can simply set up a step stool or milk crate or anything about that height next to your trainer so that you can easily rest your “off leg” on the stool, out of the way of the crankarm and pedal. Having one one "platform" on each side as you switch back and forth makes it easier to stay in the flow of training, vs. having to move the step stool from one side of the bike to the other.

Once you have mastered this, it will be time to concentrate on the back- or up-stroke, where you can gain even more free wattage.

Coach Rick Schultz is an avid cyclist who trains, races and coaches in Southern California. Rick is an engineer by trade, and in addition to being a coach, he's a bike fitter and prolific product reviewer. He's the author of Stretching & Core Strengthening for the Cyclist and Bike Fit 101: Your Toolset for a Great Bike Fit in the RBR eBookstore. Check his product reviews website, www.biketestreviews.com, and his coaching site, www.bikefitnesscoaching.com. Click to read Rick's full bio.


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