MTB SCP #36: Clearing up myths about the pedal stroke

In this podcast I talk with Steve Lafflin, a road cycling coach from Indiana. Steve breaks down the latest science behind pedal stroke and power/ efficiency and addresses questions about “spinning circles” and other rumors and myths surrounding the pedal stroke.

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-James Wilson-

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  1. Uncle Travelling Matt says:

    Hi James,

    This doesn’t yet appear to be available on ITunes. Is there normally a delay?


    Reply • January 27 at 11:14 am
    • bikejames says:

      Could be, I’m not too sure. I guess if it isn’t posted by this afternoon I’ll check into it.

      Reply • January 27 at 12:29 pm
  2. Shawn Sinskie says:

    Great podcast! I’m still sayin ditch the clipless and live on the edge using skills

    Reply • January 27 at 5:13 pm
  3. chance says:

    Nice I’ve felt that way ever since I started racing BMX with flats and held my own! I’m done with clips! I’m glad you got this guy on here to back you up and maybe muffle some of these neigh-sayers that wont even give flats an honest try

    Reply • January 27 at 6:53 pm
  4. Jeff says:

    That was a great podcast. Steve mentioned several times that the quad is the dominant muscle in the pedal stroke, and you have been teaching that the power comes from the hips and glute. Could you elaborate?

    Reply • January 29 at 9:20 am
    • bikejames says:

      The traditional models used to break down the pedal stroke look at muscles contribution in isolation, while the hips are a combination of the glutes and hamstrings. Steve says “quads”, I say “hips” but we both say “powerful extension of the leg driving the pedal down and through the dead spot”.

      Reply • January 30 at 7:55 am
  5. Daniel says:

    So what is this coach’s take on Rotor rings? Any real advantage to them given that they are designed to work on the down stroke?

    Reply • January 29 at 6:59 pm
  6. Thanks for the positive feedback on the podcast with James. It is hard to cover everything in 30 minutes, but we did get some important ground covered.

    In response to Jeff, it is certainly more than just the quads, so I did not want to give you the wrong impression. See the link that I have attached on what muscles are used in the pedal stroke: http://cozybeehive.blogspot.com/2006/10/what-muscles-are-you-using-to-pedal.html
    The key is getting the muscle groups working together and not against each other. This is how you become efficient.

    In response to Daniel, here is a link to a research paper on rotor cranks: Effect of the Rotor crank system on cycling performance
    In summary, the results of the research study did not show that the cranks improved gross efficiency. However, this is just one study, and I think more research needs to be done on rotor cranks.

    The last comment that I have is for all of you to continue to follow the strength training program that James provides. Whether you are an adventure racer, MTBer, roadie, or triathlete, his program will work for you if you stick with it. The attention that James gives to form and function is crucial, and if you really want to get better, then he has the recipe.

    Reply • January 29 at 10:01 pm
  7. Chris says:

    I think you might be taking the whole pedaling in circles concept a little too literally and/or misrepresenting it. I’ve always taken pedaling in circles to be the oblong style of pedaling you talk about at 14:22. Obviously the quad is stronger than the hamstring since you have 4 muscles pushing compared to one pulling. I agree that if someone were to actually pedal in a “perfect circle” by applying equal force in all areas of the pedal stroke, they would not be maximizing the dominant muscle group, the quad, or have a muscle imbalance of some type.

    Learning to pedal in circles isn’t about attempting to strengthen you your hamstrings to pedal in circles at the expense of neglecting your quads, it’s just about training your body to engage the hamstrings and hip flexors more. Pushing down with your quad is not going to eliminate the “dead spot”.

    You bash PowerCranks, but you’ve probably never used them for an extended period. Yeah, they are hard for a few weeks, but your body will adapt. How does strengthening your inferior leg muscles to help with the work load make you less efficient? How long was the study that debunked them? A week? Also, your hip flexors will not LITERALLY blow up when using Power Cranks. There would be quite a few lawsuits if that were the case.

    You both also talked a lot about sprinting, which is more about power than efficiency. I agree that a cyclist is not going to generate the most power by pedaling in circles. If you’re a BMX racer, downhill mountain biker, or trying to win a sprint finish in a stage race, you probably don’t want to be pedaling in circles.

    Reply • January 29 at 11:12 pm
    • bikejames says:

      I think that you are splitting hairs in the terminology.

      Spinning circles=equal pressure on the pedals=pulling up through the top with the trail leg=any other advice for pedal stroke that isn’t “drive your foot into the pedal hard and don’t worry about the trail leg”.

      Extending your leg will carry you through the deadspot, watch this video I did showing how the hip will carry you through.

      The PowerCranks teach you how to engage the hamstrings and hip flexors more but that doesn’t mean that it is good. That is an unnatural way to power movement. They are supposed to be weak compared to the hips and quads. And really, you’re going to take the “hip flexors blowing up” statement as literal? We meant that you hip flexors will tighten up and start to hurt or cause bad movement in other areas that will cause pain. And I know that getting “weaker” muscles stronger makes sense but it doesn’t work that way in the real world. Instead, you want to make sure that everything is in relation to the other muscles in the movement patter and that they are all working together. You want a strong leg extension and your hamstrings (at the knees) and hip flexors should play a minor role in that.

      I don’t remember talking a lot about sprinting, I mentioned how sprinting helped a rider regain his pedal stroke but that’s about it. We mentioned several times how we were talking about power & efficiency (remember that Steve doesn’t coach BMX, DH riders or sprint cyclists) but you must have missed that part.

      It seems that you listened to the podcast with an agenda – we were wrong and you were going to show us how. You really missed all of the points we were trying to make and instead heard what you wanted to in order to justify your belief that the traditional method of pedaling is right. Despite the fact that we brought a ton of science and the opinion of some high level road coaches to the table (remember that the presentation Steve got a lot of the info from was from Andrew Coggan and this was his conclusion as well) you still want to make excuses for how you do it. That is fine, its your loss.

      Reply • January 30 at 8:05 am
  8. Griffin says:

    This was a great podcast!

    Where can I find the presentation that was being discussed? I would like to read it.

    Reply • January 30 at 4:59 pm
  9. Cookie says:

    Interesting podcast. I like that there is less “passion” and more “objectivity” on the subject now.

    Seems to me that the real advantage of clips is added bike control as the research shows there is no real advantage of one pedal type over the other. True power comes from appropriate training methods and teaching the muscles to co-ordinate in an appropriate way.
    Steve didnt state his thoughts of the practical use of flat pedals and I would be interested to hear this. Paradoxically its seems flats would be more useful on a roady where bike control is not a concern!

    On a side note, I’ve had a 2 month break from the DB Combo program, my on-bike training has remained constant. I have seen a drop of over 200watts in my 5s max (down from 1300) at local crit races. Needless to say, I’ll be back to my 3x a week combo as of February!


    Reply • January 30 at 8:24 pm
    • bikejames says:

      You know, Sam Hill wins World Cup championships on flats and trials riders, who are the most technically skilled riders in the world and need more bike control than any other rider, also use flats. Control really has nothing to do with being attached to the bike, it has to do with being able to ground your feet into the pedals (which, ironically, is also the key to a strong pedal stroke).

      Glad you like the podcast, now I just need to kill that pesky “increased control” myth and I’ll be all set 😉

      Reply • January 31 at 9:10 am
  10. John K. says:

    Yeah I don’t buy into the “increased control” argument of clips. In fact, I would argue that using clips can decrease your control. I’ve had some scary ‘unclippings’ at very inappropriate times, leading to a potentially disastrous loss of control. When I switched to flats and improved my technique, I felt much more in control. I think you can’t beat technique. That being said, I have some buddies who love their clipless and they rip in them.

    Reply • January 31 at 4:07 pm
  11. Cookie says:

    Some valid points about “control”. Must admit, I have used clipless for at least 15 years and I ride like a newbie on flats. I really love the connected feeling I get from them but I agree with John, when you get an unexpected unclip it can really destroy you! Its definitely something I want to work on. I’d love to showup at some XC races with flats and still manage to mix it up with the top guys 🙂

    Reply • January 31 at 6:13 pm
  12. Coach Steve says:

    This is in response to Chris regarding Powercranks and other issues that he mentions. The goal of the presentation was to provide real data and research to help you with your training and riding. I am a very data driven person, and when you seek truth, it must be supported with tangible evidence. I have copied a link that you may find interesting if you are willing to keep an open mind. The link contains a back and forth exchange between Frank Day (Owner of Powercranks) and Dr. Coggan). In no way am I taking sides based on emotion, but I clearly agree with Dr. Coggan take when it comes to Powercranks. There is no scientific evidence to support that they improve cycling performance. In addition, please read the comments on Powercranks towards the end of the thread by Paul Devashish. I also agree with Paul, forcing the hip flexors to do extra work does not help improve cycling performance. Here is the link to the thread:http://forum.slowtwitch.com/cgi-bin/gforum.cgi?post=2963055;guest=117024765&t=search_engine

    I am in alignment with James on his response back to you on your other comments and issues.

    James and I are wanting to expand your knowledge base, and in doing so, we want to see all of you riding stronger and smarter. There is much more for all of us to learn about about the pedal stroke, and engagement and activation of muscles. Hopefully, as more reseach comes out, and I get access to it, I can provide James with info that can help each of you to improve.

    If you have more questions or comments, keep them coming. I am glad this topic has drawn such interest.

    Reply • February 1 at 1:53 pm
  13. WAKi says:

    Great podcast, comes together a lot with what Lee McCormack reports from his latest power spinning classes. I would liek to give some opininon about one thing I noticed about SPDs. After reading into James website I got convinced to give decent flats+shoes a try. I took them to my very technical trails which require quite frequent power explosions to manage short yet steep and technical climbs full of ostones and roots. When I tried to push pedals really hard I tended to blow my foot through the pedal frontwards even though I use super sticky 5.10s. Have an ugly scar on back of the calf as a result of that.

    That might indicate that I was pushing the pedal a lot to the front rather than down and back most probably wasting some energy. Being clipped-in made me runaway with that mistake.

    Reply • February 4 at 12:03 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Yeah, clipless pedals let you adopt this “over the top” pushing style of pedaling that will have your feet slipping off if you try it with flats. It also shows that you are not driving down and back like you would if you ran. Get off your bike, sprint as hard as you can for 10-20 meters and then re-create that feeling when pedaling your bike. If you are driving down and back like you would when running your foot angle will change and you won’t push through over the top and slip off.

      My feet NEVER slip off like that when pedaling and never have. That is purely a byproduct of the crappy pedaling technique that your clipless pedals were masking. That means that it isn’t a drawback of flats but another indictment on the “fake” pedal stroke allowed by clipless.

      Reply • February 5 at 8:16 am
  14. MJ says:

    Mmm, interesting stuff, especially when read alongside some of the older posts about clipless. Having always ridden with flats since progressing from riding a BMX, and even surprising myself when I found I was riding faster than a lot of clipped in riders, I’ve been thinking there’s probably more marketing behind this stuff than fact. The pedal stroke theory being used, ultimately, to sell expensive shoes. A bit like the running shoe sales pitch, when many people can run for miles perfectly well with bare feet etc. However, I will say this in favour of clipless. In the UK, where I live, its all about mud. Thick gloopy mud, and lots of it. The best shoes for flats tend to be soft flat rubber ones, but these are useless when trying to get up a muddy slippery slope that can’t be ridden. You need a nobby hiking shoe for that. But nobby hiking shoes usually don’t work with the pins in flats very well. Clipless mtb shoes can be as nobby as you like, as long as you have a cleat. I’m yet to see a shoe that successfully combines flat pedal comfort with hill climbing traction. I guess it would be a bit like a fast rolling tyre – smooth in the middle with nobby bits round the edge.

    Reply • February 4 at 5:52 pm
  15. John says:

    Great podcast thank you.

    It was really interesting for me as I’ve never read up on the science or theory on pedal stroke. I ride flats on my XC bike, and always have; but I psychologically felt at a power/efficiency disadvantage over my mates who ride clipless. As a side note I found that when I focus on what my feet actually do in the flats while riding technical stuff I notice they move a fair bit, such as sometimes I tip or tilt my feet to gain balance; in clipless I’d be unclipped in no time.

    For me, this podcast will help me focus on my pedalling and riding style and forget mental weaknesses such as this! Onward !!

    John, United Kingdom

    Reply • February 6 at 2:42 pm

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