Three Drills to Improve Your Pedal Stroke

Three Drills to Improve Your Pedal Stroke

I have got some secret training drills for you that will help you ride faster right now without even having to improve your fitness!  

If you have followed CINCH, even for a short time, you know how strongly we feel about training technique.  To me, it is wild how most cyclists know very little about cycling technique.  Just think about how much other sports value the importance of technique.  But for some reason technique is rarely taught in cycling.  

Personally, I learned optimal technique during my pro career riding with and observing my teammates who were at the top of the sport at the time.  Now as a coach, I have found teaching technique to be a way to unlock massive growth and potential within the clients I work with. 

In this blog I am going to share with you some drills you can improve your pedal stroke technique.  To begin I think it is important mentally to separate your pedal stroke into two parts, the downstroke (pushing down on the pedals) and the upstroke (pulling up on the pedals).  The reason for this is so you can isolate the different muscle groups that are used.  

For example, on the downstroke you primarily use your quadriceps while on the upstroke you ideally use the muscle groups of the calves, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors.  After reading this I bet you are thinking you don’t fully utilize your upstroke.  Well, that is normal as most don’t. In fact everytime I post something on pedal stroke, people jump on the comments saying there is no such thing as an upstroke.  I have also had other coaching groups take shots at me saying using your upstroke can lead to injury.  Everyone can have their opinion, and mine is that the upstroke exists and if you train it you can go faster as well as produce more power.

Just think, bringing in four more muscle group movers to the equation has got to increase your speed and power right?  While increasing your power it also distributes the strain on your quads.  A quad dominant pedal stroke also will often lead to overuse injuries in the knees, IT bands, and SI joints.  Heck, I have been there.  Finally, for my racers out there, how many of you have cramped in one of the muscle groups OTHER than your quads in a race before?  I know I have.  Why is that? This is because when you are racing the universe does not care how good your technique is or what muscle groups you are using. You either go fast to keep up or get dropped.  Harsh and real.  So when those precious quads get fatigued and you need more power to keep up you recruit help from whoever else is around. That is right, the upstroke!  Well, if those new friends have not trained to do the work, they try as long as they can until they have to take a break.  They send an “out of office” message to your brain in the form of a muscle cramp!!!  Yes, and we can all agree, those cramps SUCK.  I’ve been there too many times and this is why I am here writing to you.

So what do we do to improve our pedal stroke technique?  Simple.  You train it.  I am going to share with you some drills that I find the most effective in improving your pedal stroke technique.

  1. The heel “stab.”  In this exercise I want you to work on just your downstroke.  The key to activating an optimal dowstroke is dropping your heel when you start the downstroke at the 1 o’clock position.  Dropping the heel down takes the flex out of your ankle and gives the quad a stiff platform to push down with.  Dropping the heel also takes tension out of your calves and allows for them a short period of rest before they work on the upstroke.  For the exercise - Focus on dropping the heel and stomping down on the pedals from the 1 to 5 o’clock, like you are running up stairs. The ball of your foot is stable on the pedal while the heel drops down, just like over a stair. Try your best and get a clear stomp down line with the dropped heel from the 1 o’clock to the 5 o’clock position.  This action will teach you to maximize the feel of a full drive down. Most people cut this short but start it too late. 
  2. The heel “snap.”  On the other side of the pedal stroke, the upstroke, we have the motion of raising your heel from the drive down position.  This motion is optimally down quickly as it can capture the full bottom of the pedal stroke as well as create nice momentum into the full upstroke.  The bottom of the pedal stroke, the transition from down to up, is really where most are leaving power transfer on the table.  With this exercise the focus is to snap the heel up at the 5 o’clock and try to pull the heel up towards your glutes using your calves, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors.  
  3. Low Cadence work.  The final drill that works well for developing pedal stroke ability is pedaling at a low cadence seated and standing. The low cadence works because it slows down the pedaling motion so you can really focus on each muscle group firing.  The other focus needs to be where you connect the up and the downstroke and visa versa.  With the low cadence you can really feel the connection and how well you transfer the effort between the two.  

For these drills I recommend keeping the heel stab and heel snap drills to intervals of 2 mins or less.  On the low cadence drills, I think you can do them up from 3 mins to 5 mins.  Effort level should be medium or less on the stab and snap drills while on the low cadence work can be medium zones or as high as threshold.  

I know there is a lot here but give these drills a try!  The Winter is an excellent time to work on your pedaling technique.

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