Have you heard the cycling expressions pumping oil or pedalling squares? They both refer to a poor pedal stroke. You can picture it in your mind, but do you do it? They usually happen when a cyclist runs out of gas, but not always. Some cyclists develop poor habits from the start, but a few drills and some practice can improve your pedal stroke.
We need to look at the four quadrants of a pedal stroke to get the most out of each revolution. In a world of marginal gains, it just might make the difference.
What’s a quadrant?
A quad designates a set of four. Quadriceps, quadrangle, quadruplets, you get the concept. With a pedal stroke, it refers to one of the four sections that make up 360°, or one complete revolution.
Using a clock face as a guide, the quadrants of a pedal stroke are 1 to 5 o’clock, 5 to 7 o’clock, 7 to 11 o’clock and 11 to 1 o’clock. Different muscles are used in each phase. The dead spots are 12 and 6 when our anatomical position makes it difficult to exert any force on the pedals.
What affects pedal stroke?
Other than muscle fatigue, saddle height and fore-and-aft position are the major factors that influence pedal stroke. If your saddle is too low, pedalling muscles cannot extend or contract fully, which reduces their efficiency. Raising the saddle improves muscle range of motion and increases power transfer to the pedals, but there’s a limit. If a saddle is too high, the hips rock, which decreases power.
A saddle too far back changes the rider’s hip angle, which increases the stress on the hamstrings and glutes (your rear end) as you pedal. In contrast, a saddle too far forward negatively affects hip angle too. Riders tend to stomp on the pedals with the quads. Here, power is lost at the pullback and upstroke which poorly sets up the leg for the start of a new revolution.
The first quadrant is known as the downstroke. It runs from 1 to 5 o’clock. This is when the cyclist engages the largest muscle groups into the motion to transfer power into the pedal stroke. While cyclists use a lot of leg muscles when pedalling, most of the power in this quadrant comes from the muscles that extend our hips, the glutes.
The quadriceps are already involved by now too. But the rider can also incorporate the hamstrings in this quadrant by focusing on keeping their heel down. To do this, maintain the foot parallel to the ground or up to 10 degrees below level as you move toward 5 o’clock.
Referred to as the pullback, it covers 5 to 7 o’clock. This is a short transitional phase, but to get the most here, the idea is to ride on your tiptoes per se. Point your toes down about 20° from parallel to the ground. The calf muscles on the lower leg start the movement before transitioning to the smaller muscles on the front of the lower leg.
This converts the energy created in the first quadrant by larger muscle groups directly to the crank. Some pros recommend cyclists act as if they are cleaning mud or scraping gum off the bottom of their shoes to recreate the motion.
With momentum on their side that pushes the leg and pedal up automatically, most cyclists feel they add power to their stroke in this phase. But in reality, most lose power in the 3rd quadrant. Known as the upstroke, it is potentially the zone that requires the greatest focus to improve.
In this quadrant, from approximately 7 to 11 o’clock, the rear hamstrings and front hip flexors work together to lift the pedal toward the final quadrant. Momentum may be enough for some, but if you want to improve your pedalling technique, it’s important to concentrate on recruiting muscles for a smooth transition.
The fourth quadrant, between 11 and 1 o’clock, is known as the setup. As the pedal moves out the third quadrant toward the fourth, a cyclist should already be mentally and physically preparing for the downstroke.
Starting at 11 o’clock, as you pass 12, think about driving your knee forward toward the handlebars. Ideally, the movement should come from the legs only while the hips remain stable. This explains why correct saddle position and height are so important. Upper body movement should also be kept to a minimum.
You can improve your pedal stroke with a few drills, but you need to analyse it first. Set up a camera to record your stroke from the side, or place a mirror at the level of the pedals to see the movement. A video is handy, as it can be slowed down for an in-depth view of each quadrant.
One legged drill
Remove your non-dominant side from the pedal. Start the leg at the top and sweep gently through the stroke with easy resistance. As you get used to the movement of pedalling with one leg, increase the intensity, paying attention to how you are positioned on the bike. Remember to keep upper body movement to a minimum.
Let the buildup of momentum bring your shoe and pedal back to the top. The energy created floats the pedal over the top, as you sweep through to the downstroke. Repeat with the other leg. Your weak side has less control, so it’s normal for it to feel strange. Now combine the two legs, focusing on the upstroke in the 3rd quadrant on both sides and the setup through the 4th quadrant toward the downstroke.
Yo-Yo drills work the transition in speeds as you pedal. Add 10 to 20 revolutions to your usual cadence, going faster as you pedal, and then bring it back down under control. If there is too much movement in your head or hips at the highest cadence, it’s not ideal for you. Focus on controlling the movement of your head and hips, keeping them still and stable as you pedal. This exercise is also great as a warmup.
Get a bike fit
Improving your pedalling stroke provides marginal gains in power and efficiency. You can try to change your pedalling mechanics, but don’t overthink things either. In the end, the pedalling technique you use naturally is potentially the most efficient one for you. Pedalling styles vary, even among the pros. What may have a bigger influence is your cadence. But there is no one perfect cadence and your level of fitness and personal DNA have a lot to do with it, too.
One of the best things you can do to improve your pedalling efficiency is to get a professional bike fit. Having one by a professional solves most issues from the start. They aren’t inexpensive, but consider it an investment toward your health, performance, comfort and efficiency. It will ensure your saddle height and position, among other details, are ideal for optimal pedalling mechanics.