How Pedaling Technique Works

By: Brian Boone
Lance Armstrong pedals during the 13th stage of the Tour de France cycling race on Friday, July 15, 2005. His efficient pedaling increases his power output.
AP Photo/Alessandro Trovati

Cyclists are only as good as their pedaling. That's because everything you do on a bike stems from how you pedal. How fast or how slow you do it, where you place your weight and at what angle you hold your feet, for example, all affect your ride. Pedaling also affects your power, acceleration, deceleration and balance, more so if you're riding a fixed-gear or racing bike.

Cycling quickly, you may pump your pedals 120 times a minute. All that repetitive motion builds momentum and propels you along. It's basic physics: Momentum, such as that from riding a bike, provides continuous power if you pedal at a consistent, steady pace. Changing pedaling speed or pedaling with an inconsistent method uses (and even wastes) more energy.


That's why it's a good idea for a serious bike rider or racer to learn energy-efficient and race-worthy tactics for pedaling effectively. It sounds simple, right? Just pedal harder. But there's much more to it than that, and there are many little movements and tricks involved in pedaling well. Where the foot sits, how it interacts with the bike pedal, how individual muscles naturally act and react, how individual muscles can be manipulated to gain speed and conserve energy: All of these things affect pedaling technique.

Legs aren't like the pistons of a car's internal combustion engine, furiously moving up and down repeatedly. Muscles can be trained and worked to create maximum energy efficiency, as well as to create a smooth, fluid (but elaborate) circular motion called full-stroke motion. By more effectively using the body's natural energy-consuming and energy-distribution tactics, among other tricks, you can reduce muscle strain and increase speed and endurance while providing more watts (units of energy) transferred from the body to the bike's back wheel, which propels the bike naturally.

Read on to explore full-stroke motion, and then we'll look at how the different types of bike pedals can give you that extra edge.


Full-stroke Pedaling

Bikes with clipless pedals, like this one, help you achieve greater efficiency and power when using full-stroke pedaling.
Polka Dot Images/Thinkstock

In a normal pedal stroke, you push down at the beginning and then pull your foot up at the end. The full-stroke motion technique applies energy from the beginning of the stroke and turns it into momentum and energy that propels the bike through the ending pull-up phase. To get an idea of how full-stroke motion works, imagine the face of a clock with each time corresponding to a different foot position on the pedal. At 2 o'clock, you push down with your foot, triggering the primary energy-creating phase of the pedaling cycle. Your leg should push straight down from 2 until 5 o'clock. Then, your foot and pedal transition from pedaling downward to the follow-through or upward phase, which lasts from 5 until 8.

Eight o'clock to 11 is the upward recovery phase. With your right leg at 8, your left leg is at the 2 o'clock power phase. You apply all of that left leg power (simply by pushing down) to the rear wheel, which moves the bike forward and helps your right leg move.


Full-stroke pedaling continues momentum at every time on the clock, pushing you smoothly through the dead zones of 12 and 6. These places are the very top and bottom of the pedal stroke, where no energy is generated, leaving you to find the energy -- either through pushing your muscles or using your own momentum -- to push through.

Here's how to power through those dead zones. At 5 o'clock, begin to pull your foot back a little as you pedal, so that you feel a slight tightening of your hamstring. Now, as you move your foot back and up on the pedal, imagine that you're scraping the ground with the ball of your foot, which should be parallel to the ground with your toes pointing downward. Why? This all serves to move the energy from your leg to your foot, and then to the bike as your foot pedals upward.

Proper position is key to making sure this technique works. You should raise your heel upward to allow for a more direct application of force. This reduces strain on the arch of your foot during the prime power phase, and the ball of your foot should be turned slightly upward. And since this repetitive motion may lead to muscle fatigue, many long-distance riders continuously move their ankles around in tiny circles to spread the tension.

But what kind of pedals are the best for you?


Clipless Pedaling Technique

The type of pedals you use can help you pedal more effectively, and there are different types more suited to different biking activities. Commonly used by long-distance or road racers are clipless pedals. These pedals require riders to snap in, or clip in, their shoes before use.

Riders wear lightweight, flexible cycling shoes. On the bottom of these are two mounted cleats, which attach securely into enclosures on the clipless pedal, keeping you locked into the bike. This probably sounds familiar to skiers, as it's similar to the concept of boots and ski bindings; modern-day clipless pedals are a direct outgrowth of the ski binding technology and concept.


One major advantage of the clipless pedal system is that it allows for float -- the shoes are slightly loose, allowing for side-to-side foot movement, toe movement and ankle rotation, which are all important for utilizing the full-stroke technique. These pedals are also lightweight, which helps your bike be more aerodynamic and energy efficient. More importantly, because you don't have to press your foot down with your own weight to keep the foot in place on the pedal all the time, energy efficiency increases. Then, that energy is used in the back end of the upward stroke. Because energy flows from the beginning of the stroke to the end, the result is a pedaling technique that distributes energy evenly and consistently from start to finish.

Your movement may feel restricted at first because you're locked in, and it's more up to you to keep the bike balanced. Clipless pedals aren't the best idea for mountain biking -- bikers have to walk over difficult terrain occasionally, and it's hard to detach yourself from your bike and walk with metal brackets on the bottoms of your shoes. But practice makes perfect, so try clipping in and out of the pedals while you're against a wall to practice balancing. Next, try them out on soft ground or grass for a softer landing in case you fall. If you've never used clipless pedals before, you'll notice right away the more forceful way that the bike pulls your foot upward. It's as if you're part of the bike's mechanics. Once all this is familiar, it's time to test out the full-stroke motion.

If clipless pedals have clips, then what are clipped pedals like?


Clipped Pedaling Technique

This mountain biker uses flat pedals because they offer a freedom of movement that clipless pedals don't.
Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

Pedals that are referred to as clipped pedals sometimes, but not always, offer a toe loop, or clip. But since these don't really hold in the foot very well on hardcore bike journeys or races, they're more commonly known by a more logical name: flat pedals. These resemble regular, recreational bike pedals because they don't offer anything to secure your foot. It's up to you to keep your feet in place as best you can.

While that might sound like an unattractive option compared to clipless pedals, clipped pedals have their advantages. They're the pedal of choice for mountain biking and cross-country riding. When the terrain is inconsistent or unsuitable for riding, the freedom of clipped pedals allows you to put your foot down for balance or even to stop whenever you need to without crashing or trying to unclip mid-ride. Trick riding lends itself to flat pedals, too: You can plant your feet on the pedals with full force when attempting to do a trick rear-wheel lift, for example. With clipped pedals, special binding-enabled shoes aren't necessary.


Clipped pedals are the ones to use when practicing new or different pedaling techniques, such as the full-stroke motion. New maneuvers are easier to learn on the more familiar flat pedals, while clipless pedals make experimentation difficult because they so aggressively lead the foot.

The main disadvantage of clipped pedals is that they require you to keep your feet held down, in place. This means you'll have to reposition your feet every time they slip. By using all your energy on foot placement and pushing down on the pedals, the full-stroke motion is more difficult because energy is lost in the upstroke. You expend more energy with these pedals instead of relying on momentum. Clipped pedals aren't ideal for bike racing, but they're great for times when the journey, or the ride, is the point.

Check out the next page for lots more information about pedaling technique.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Burke, Edmund R. "Practice proper pedaling technique to maximize your mtn-biking." Active. com. (Aug. 11, 2010)
  • The Care Exchange. "Do I Need Clipless Pedals?" 2006. (Aug. 11, 2010)
  • Liandi, Nichole. "Clipless Pedal Care for Road Bikes." (Aug. 11, 2010)
  • McCormack, Lee. "Benefits of Flat Pedals." 2003. (Aug. 12, 2010)
  • Smartt, Michael. "What is Good Pedaling Technique?" Holistic Performance Newsletter. September 2006. (Aug. 12, 2010)
  • Strauss, Rich. "Pedaling Technique and Drills Summary." BeginnerTriathlete. Dec. 7, 2006. (Aug. 10, 2010)