Cycling Economy – Technique and Training

By Jiri Kaloc

Improving cycling economy means going faster with less exertion. It’s the dream of every cyclist. There are many ways to improve your economy. Last time we talked about the gains you can get from improving your bike position and mechanical maintenance. Now it’s time to look at the technique of pedalling and training itself.

More low-intensity rides

There are two types of muscle fibres. Fast-twitch muscle fibres are powerful and allow you to sprint and lift heavy. They get tired quickly and aren’t very economical in energy usage. Slow-twitch fibres are almost the opposite, they aren’t very powerful but they are economical – they allow you to ride for a long time. This means that doing a lot of training at low intensity trains your slow-twitch muscle fibres, which improves your cycling economy.

If you have the extra time, then one of the ways to improve your economy is to simply increase your training volume. The good news is that unlike VO2 Max, which decreases with age, economy can keep improving even as you get older, as long as you spend more time training at lower intensities and increase your training volume.

Improving technique

Let’s be honest, cycling enthusiasts aren’t holding back when it comes to training volume. We love to go cycling every chance we get. So, the advice to ride more is not very helpful unless cycling is your job. Thankfully, we can all improve our technique and it turns out that technique can have a big impact on cycling economy. Everything you do on the bike costs oxygen. If you’re imbalanced, tense, and swaying from side to side too much, you are spending extra oxygen on things that don’t make you go faster.

Cycling Training
Cycling economy is an important determinant of performance. © Richard Johnson / Caia Image / Profimedia

Releasing tension

The first thing that everyone can start working on is tension. It’s very easy to tense the whole body when you’re pushing hard on the pedals. Unfortunately, every muscle that holds tension is costing you oxygen. Those tense shoulders, jaw, and a death grip on the handlebars simply aren’t helping. Relaxing muscles that don’t need to be tense decreases oxygen consumption and improves your economy. You can try popping a sticker on your handlebars to “relax shoulders”. If you remind yourself often enough, it becomes second nature to ride more relaxed.

Refining the pedal stroke

The pedalling motion is not a natural movement for human legs. We evolved to walk, run, and jump, not to rotate our legs in circles. We have to take that into account when learning the most efficient pedalling technique. Improving pedal economy comes down to what happens at the top of the pedal stroke. Most cyclists start applying pressure from about the 1 o’clock position through to the 5 o’clock position. The trick is to pick up the pedal stroke earlier to avoid a drop-off in torque. Here are three things to keep in mind when trying to optimize your pedalling technique.

  • Start the pedal stroke early, at around the 11 o’clock position and focus on generating force till about the 5 o’clock position.
  • Don’t try to apply power at the bottom of the pedal stroke. This puts your hip flexors in harm’s way and doesn’t create much extra power.
  • Don’t focus too much on pulling with your legs either. This could also hurt your hip flexors and won’t add significant watts to your output.

There is one more way to improve cycling economy without adding more rides or focusing on technique. We will take a look at it next time.