What’s faster on a downhill – pedaling or coasting?

While most riders would assume that pedaling would be, an interesting study out of New Zealand calls that into question. Granted, this wasn’t a look at hardcore downhilling or even real trail riding – the study looked at the difference in performance in descending three different conditions after pedaling up a road at “race pace”.

Those three conditions were 1) Off Road Pedaling, 2) Off Road Coasting and 3) Road Coasting. And by “off road” they meant a fire road, so not an exact parallel to trail riding but there were some things we can learn from it.

First, they found that the Off Road Pedaling group used more oxygen than the Off Road Coasting group despite there being no significant increase in speed. And, in case you’re wondering, using more oxygen while not going much faster isn’t a recipe for success in an endurance sport.

What you want is to maximize your speed-to-oxygen uptake ratio, which is how you are able to maintain your performance over the course of your ride and not hit the wall. This study seems to suggest that pedaling on a downhill isn’t the best way to do this.

This actually leads to a good point that I think a lot of riders miss, which is that pedaling is just one way to generate and maintain forward momentum. Improving your skills and your ability to pick a line are two other ways that you can do this as well. 

I think a lot of riders make the mistake of equating pedaling hard to going faster. They neglect the other things that can help them go faster as well and then turn everything into a fitness problem by trying to pedal through it. Like the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail and when all you have is your ability to pedal like a madman then the answer to everything on the trail is to pedal harder.

However, if you really want to explore your limits – especially as you get older and the ol’ engine isn’t what it used to be – then you have to look into other ways to create and maintain momentum. 

What they concluded was that “reducing propulsive work during descending can improve recovery without being disadvantageous to performance”. In other words, less pedaling can help you recover on the downhill without actually being slower.

And if you aren’t much slower but you are better recovered for your next pedaling effort then you will be able to put more into it, resulting in more speed when you can pedal.

The second interesting thing that the researchers also found was that both Off Road groups had a greater oxygen uptake compared to the Road group, which they theorized was due to the increased vibrations that the Off Road groups had to deal with. Their conclusion here was “that the vibrations experienced during road descending are relatively low, and further reduce oxygen cost”. While this may not seem super important, it actually reinforces why I’ve always recommended that mountain bikers avoid road riding as a form of training unless they absolutely have to.

You simply don’t expose the body to the same specific demands and this means that you are not really training the body to ride off road. There are a lot of things that make trail riding different and this relationship between vibration and oxygen consumption is one of them.

So, my take away from this study is that you need to work on your technical skills to help you descend faster rather than trying to “out fitness” your way through it by pedaling harder. You should also focus your efforts on riding a mountain bike on trails to prepare for riding mountain bikes on trails…I know it’s a radical approach for some but the science seems to support it.

BTW, if you want to read the abstract of this article you can find it here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27712198/

I hope you found some interesting things from this study. It isn’t anything conclusive but it does seem to point in the same direction I’ve been advocating for a long time now about the need for more than pedaling based cardio training for overall performance and focusing on riding a mountain bike to prepare for mountain biking. Maybe I’m wrong but until I see something that says otherwise that is what I’ll continue to recommend. 

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

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2 thoughts on “What’s Faster On A Downhill – Pedaling or Coasting?

  1. George Hodder says:

    Hi.. just got this from your email list today. An interesting read, and I’ll have to check out the link as well.

    I go-pro’d my last race of the season last year and took notes to critique my performance. One of my take aways was to pedal MORE downhill.. because I was coasting a lot and figured pedaling would help maintain momentum. Now I am questioning that.

    I have been pedaling downhill more this season, and it seems to be effective. So I am curious if the study looked at ‘recovery’ pedaling as well, or just hammering. I don’t pedal downhill hard, just at cadence to recover and hopefully to maintain momentum a bit…. and not 100% of the time, but if it’s not a technical decent, I do pedal most of it.

    • bikejames says:

      I think that there are times that pedaling would be faster. I think the overall takeaway was more about how pedaling isn’t the only way to go faster and that focusing on those other things as well as pedaling cardio will yield the best results. If your new strategy is working then stick with it but I’d encourage you to perhaps but a timer on a section and see if you are really faster or just feel faster.

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