Improving your pedal stroke should be a major goal of every mountain biker. The better your pedal stroke is the more power you can produce and the less energy you’ll burn doing it. In other words, a better pedal stroke will help you go faster and further.
Gaining an efficient pedal stroke is more like growing a beard than chopping wood – it is something that you allow to happen, you can’t make it happen.
This makes it a priority for any mountain bike training program.
But what if I told you that two of the most popular methods used to improve your pedal stroke may actually be making things worse for you? What if you found out that the key to improving your pedal stroke wasn’t in trying to control and change it but instead in trying to let your body naturally acquire what works best for it?
Well, if you buy into the idea that you need to pull up on the backstroke and/ or carefully control the foot position while pedaling to create a pedal stroke with little to no variation in it then this could be the most important thing you ever read as a mountain biker.
Last week I picked up the book 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald. Matt is the same guy who wrote the book Run – The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel which I’ve wrote about before. Matt is really into the new science of how the brain affects performance and I really enjoy his holistic look on what it really takes to improve as an endurance athlete.
While the book itself deals with a specific type of training protocol (more on it when I finish the book) I read a chapter on the skill of running that I thought had a lot of carryover for us as mountain bikers. As a former runner I see a lot of parallels between the skill acquisition of the running stride and the pedal stroke and Matt talked about some really fascinating studies that tell us a lot about how to better approach training the pedal stroke.
The first set of studies looked at the effects of trying to purposefully change a runner’s stride. Like cyclists, a lot of runners are under the impression that there is “proper” and “technically correct” running form. From stride rate to where the foot strikes the ground and how much they bounce up and down, sports scientists have identified the “best” way to apply it all and if you can just change your running stride to emulate that then you will be a better runner.
But what they’ve found is the exact opposite.
When you try to get a runner to purposefully change a runner’s stride it results in a decrease in efficiency even though they improve their form from an outside perspective. In fact, they’ve found that any conscious manipulation of the running stride will reduce efficiency.
The theory for why this happens is because the body will settle on what works best for it based on where it is currently at. It assesses its physical capacities and experience and self-selects the best running stride for it. That stride will change over time to become more efficient as the runner gains fitness and experience but the important thing is that those changes happen unconsciously rather than being a result of conscious change.
I see this as relevant to us as mountain bikers because we’re told by the cycling experts that, even though we made it around just fine as kids, we don’t really know how to pedal a bike. We’re told that we need to fix our pedal stroke by focusing on creating a brand new pedal stroke, namely by pulling up on the backstroke.
We’re also told that this is a major reason why you “need” to ride clipless pedals and a top reason given by riders for why they use them. They’re told they need to start trying to pull up on the backstroke or keep even tension on the pedals or something else that isn’t what they would naturally do unless someone told them to do it.
But the science would seem to say that we instinctively find the best pedal stroke with time and experience and trying to consciously change it results in a decrease in efficiency. If you didn’t naturally try to pull up on the backstroke until someone told you to do it then the truth is it probably isn’t the right pedal stroke for you. Trying to force yourself to consciously learn it and use it while riding can actually reduce your efficiency.
As an interesting example of this I point you to this video where a rider who had years of experience using a “proper” pedal stroke tried to prove that pulling up was superior to not being able to pull up. But instead he found that when he rode flat pedals and was forced to pedal naturally he was actually more efficient.
Remember that this rider had much more experience trying to pull up. He had years to adapt to this “better” pedal stroke and yet his body was still more efficient with a less familiar but more natural pedal stroke that occurred when he stopped thinking and just pedaled.
All of this reinforces what I have been saying for years – you can and should pedal the same way on clipless pedals that you do on flats. Trying to change your pedal stroke just because you are on clipless pedals results in a less powerful and less efficient pedal stroke. There is no magical pedal stroke that is only available when you have your feet attached to the pedals no matter how badly someone wants to believe there is and not a bit of science exists to prove otherwise.
The second thing brought up in the book was that more experienced runners actually have more variability in their running stride, not less. It seems the theory that you want a perfect and repeatable running stride proved to be just that – another theory with no real basis in the real world.
The reason for this was the acquisition of what he called a “relaxed, smooth ease” that came from running more on reflex than conscious thought. What science has found was that as a runner gained experience their brain activity changed and what once took a lot of the brain being engaged started to use less of the brain.
As the brain stopped trying to micro-manage every movement, the body was able to relax and let the reflex sensors the body has in the limbs allow it to adapt and change the running stride to best retain efficiency. Tied to the first point I mentioned earlier, trying to change the pedal stroke or use an un-natural pedal stroke requires more thought while it looks like a major goal of training is to decrease conscious thought.
There were some pretty interesting studies and examples he brought up but one of the best was how this applied to walking robots. The first attempts at creating a walking robot centered on have the computer control for everything. They were programmed with as many scenarios as possible and could calculate which one to use almost immediately.
But the results was something that didn’t move anything like a human and it still ran into problems it couldn’t solve because it didn’t have a specific program for it. Eventually the scientists realized that the answer wasn’t more central control, it was less. They started using sensors in the limbs to give feedback to the computer, which had a much simpler program to help it use that data to pick the right way “solution” to the movement problem it was presented with.
All of this was based on applying how the human body monitors and creates movement. Suddenly, robots that weren’t programmed to deal with external problems like inclines could navigate them with ease. Plus their movement looked smoother and more natural.
The conclusion was that trying to tightly control how we move might result in some short term improvements compared to someone who is figuring things out with much less control but that over the long run that tight control will actually hinder their development.
This is exactly what you see when you put a new rider on clipless pedals right away. Sure, their choppy pedal stroke smooths out and they see some increase in pedaling power but at what cost? By trying to tightly control the pedal stroke right away they take away from their body’s ability to develop a better, more efficient pedal stroke in the long run.
The same goes for riders who never use flat pedals. They are taking away from the “noise” their body needs to help it choose and develop the best, most efficient pedal stroke.
As Matt put it in the book, gaining a good running stride – or pedal stroke in our case – is more like growing a beard than chopping wood. It is something that you allow to happen, you can’t make it happen. Trying to “make it happen” by tightly controlling the pedal stroke and/ or changing the pedal stroke itself simply is not the right way to go about it.
So, you may ask, what is the best way? Good question, glad you asked…
The best way to improve your pedal stroke is to make sure you have the physical tools you need and then apply them frequently. In other words, do your mobility and strength training and then ride your mountain bike.
You see, even though you don’t want to try and change your natural pedal stroke, you do need to make sure that you can actually apply your natural pedal stroke. You can’t do that if you have a glaring mobility and/ or strength deficit. You end up compensating for that deficit, which isn’t the same as being able to apply your natural pedal stroke.
A lot of riders have bad pedal strokes but not because they need to fix them with pedals, bike fits or changing their technique. When they fix the real strength and mobility issues causing the problem they will see a change in their pedal stroke but not because they thought about or practiced anything. It happens because their body created more efficient movement patterns based on the new and improved “tools” it has access to.
Coupled with making sure you have the mobility and strength to get into the most efficient positions and allow for you true natural pedal stroke is applying it on the bike. Just spending time on the bike is a vital part of giving your body the environment it needs to learn better efficiency. This is also why I’m such a big advocate for spending as much time as possible on your mountain bike since that will help your body develop the specific efficiency it needs better than a road bike.
This is also why I’m an advocate for doing some of your training with flat pedals. Flats have much less control over your pedal stroke and give your body the sensory rich environment it needs to develop improved, more efficient movements during the pedal stroke. Simply put, just riding flats will do more for your pedal stroke than all the single leg pedaling or crazy cranks or whatever else you’re told can improve your pedal stroke.
Now, because this is the internet and someone out there will twist all of this to mean that I hate clipless pedals and road riding I have to insert my usual “that’s not what I said” statement.
I think that clipless pedals have an important part in mountain biking, particularly for certain racing applications. I just don’t feel that new riders need to worry about them for at least a year or two and riders that do choose to switch should spend some time on flats each year to help them improve their skills and pedal stroke.
I also think that riding on the road is a good training tool, I just don’t think you need to do it on a road bike. Since the efficiency you gain is very specific to the movements and postures you use in training it only makes sense to keep those things as close as possible to what you will use on the trail. Using a mountain bike to ride on the road helps you do this much better than riding a road bike, which is much lighter and puts you in a different position.
With that out of the way I’ll wrap this up. Once again, all I am trying to do is help free my fellow riders from the lies and myths surrounding the value of clipless pedals so they can unleash their own natural pedal stroke. You will be a better rider if you learn to ride on flats and you continue to use them to improve your pedal stroke and skills. This approach will also improve your clipless pedal skills as well should you choose to use them.
When you look at the pedal stroke from a natural movement and brain training perspective you see some major problems with the current views on improving the pedal stroke through tight control of the foot and conscious effort to change the pedal stroke. Give your body the tools it needs to unleash its own natural pedal stroke and then focus on giving your body a chance to learn and improve. This will help you improve your riding more than anything else you can possibly do.
Until next time…