Why pedaling efficiency has nothing to do with your pedals.

Pedaling efficiency is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot, especially when the discussion turns to flats vs. clipless pedals. One of the talking points coming out of the Clipless Pedal Mafia camp is that clipless pedals let you pedal more efficiently, which is a main reason that you are told you “need” them.

Pedaling Efficiency is a very important part of mountain biking but it doesn’t have anything to do with the pedals you are using.

The problem is that most of the people who repeat this term over and over again in defense of clipless pedals have no idea what it really means. And this makes it nearly impossible to have a rationale discussion about the subject when one side of the debate is using terms incorrectly.

So let’s break it down and look at what the term “Pedaling Efficiency” really means and how this understanding applies to how we train both on and off the bike.

The term Pedaling Efficiency refers to the power output of the legs in relation to the amount of energy the body is expending to create it. The important thing to realize about this definition is that it refers to how the body is creating the power, not the total power output seen at the pedals.

Total power output at the pedals is a different thing and this is where most people’s misunderstanding about the term comes in.

Pedaling Efficieny refers to how the body is creating the pedal stroke and how much power the legs themselves are creating as a result. Power output at the pedals indicates how much of that power is getting transferred to the pedals.

You can use the same pedal stroke and be creating the same amount of leg power with the same amount of efficiency but you can see different power output at the pedals based on the pedal system being used. But this doesn’t change the overall Pedaling Efficiency.

And this is what you see with flats and clipless pedals. Clipless pedals are not allowing you to use different muscles or use your muscles in a different way – you use your legs in the exact same way with either pedal system.

So this is why there is no difference in the Pedaling Efficiency between flat and clipless pedals. You use your legs the exact same way, creating the same amount of power and using just as much energy to do it as you do with clipless pedals.

The Mornieux (et al. Int J Sports Med 2008; 29:817-822) and Korf (et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007; 39:991-995) Cycling Efficiency Studies as well as this EMG reading all show that this is exactly what is going on, and that trying to pull up on the backstroke or “spin circles” actually results in a less powerful, less efficient pedal stroke. This is a well known fact in high level coaching circles and this myth is only spread by people trying to sell you on why you need clipless pedals.

The difference in the two pedal systems lies in the positive attachment point from clipless pedals allowing some riders to get more of that power to the pedals, not in a different or “more efficient” pedal stroke.

And, as I mentioned in this article, this makes clipless pedals like a “weight belt for your feet”. They are something you can use to enhance your good technique that you built training “raw” with flats pedals. Just like the weight belt can quickly become a crutch for bad technique if used to early and too often in the gym, clipless pedals can become that same crutch if you never train without them.

I’d also like to bring up you would see the same thing if you compared a good pair of clipless pedals and shoes with a crappy pair of pedals and shoes. The difference in the power output you’d see isn’t because the better pair let you “pedal more efficiently”, it just allowed more of the power to get to the pedals.

So, the take home message is this – your Pedaling Efficiency has nothing to do with the bike or pedals you are on. It simply refers to how your body moves to create the pedal stroke. The role of equipment in how efficiently that power is put to use is something completely different.

Pedaling Efficiency doesn’t mean whatever the Clipless Pedal Mafia wants it to mean in their talking points. Being armed with this knowledge will help you make better decisions for yourself as well as be able to speak intelligently with those who don’t know any better.

Now, what does this mean for your training and riding? If you really want to maximize your pedaling efficiency you should do two things…

1) Get stronger. Strength is essentially a measure of how efficiently you can move. The more of your muscles you can use and the better coordinated you are in their use the stronger you are. Using exercises like Stagger Stance Squats and Stagger Stance Deadlifts will train your body to move as a more efficient unit to create the movement patterns needed for the pedal stroke.

2) Train with flat pedals for a few months every year. Since your pedal stroke looks the same on flats as it does on clipless, then spending time on flats can’t help but smooth out your pedal stroke. Since you don’t have the attachment point you will be forced to learn how to pedal properly, more importantly, to maintain that efficiency as you fatigue. If you want to become really efficient with your pedaling then make sure you take the “weight belt” off and train “raw” every once in a while.

I’d like to point out that what both of these methods have in common is that they are a form of Inefficiency Training. This is where you purposefully create a less than perfect environment and force the body to adapt by becoming more efficient.

When you add weight to an exercise or advance to a harder variation of an exercise you are doing it to create an less efficient environment than before. As your body becomes more efficient with that new environment you see progress in the form of more strength. But it all really boils down to efficiency and how to challenge and improve it.

Riding with flat pedals can also be seen as a form of Inefficiency Training. By creating a less-than-perfect environment for the foot and legs you force them to become more efficient in order to adapt.

This is one of the reasons that I hammer on this whole flat pedal thing so much – flat pedals are the best way to train your pedal stroke. You use mobility and strength training to improve the basic movement efficiency in the gym and then use flat pedals to improve your specific movement efficiency on the bike. You can then use clipless pedals to enhance that good technique and get even more out of your clipless pedals.

But the common narrative given to most riders is that clipless pedals somehow let you improve your Pedaling Efficiency and that this means you need to use them as soon as possible and you need to wear them all of the time.

And this lie keeps thousands of riders trapped by their pedals and unable to develop pedal strokes and skills that would help them improve more than anything else they could do.

It also keeps them from getting as much as they could from their strength and mobility training. Since they never allow the body to fully adapt to their improved movement and strength to the bike – often relying on bad habits they don’t know they have – they cut their results short. Spending time on flats ensures that you are getting the maximum transfer from the gym to the trail.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

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  1. Ben says:


    I’m totally sold on flats, having been pushed quickly onto clipless pedals as a novice I reverted to flats following recovery from a broken ankle (unrelated) during which time I discovered your site.

    I can’t help but think the following about the ‘pulling up’ argument…

    If force is essentially driven down through the pedal stroke at the hips whilst the trailing leg passively returns on flats, surely this downward force must be in some way reduced by the hips opposing force in assisting the pull-up on clipless? Is it feasible to argue that the hips can only produce so much total power regardless of how this is being applied (pedalling, swimming, lifting etc) or distributed (95% downstroke/5% upstroke on flats for example, perhaps 60/40 clipless).

    Does this make sense to you? Or is it a theory that is already debunked with scientific research?

    This is the best post I have read from you on this subject in the last two years. Thanks.

    Reply • September 26 at 5:18 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You need to pull up with the trail leg but not hard enough to try and add force to the backstroke. It is like running – you need to pull the trail leg up and get it ready to push down again but you aren’t over-pulling in an attempt to add forward momentum to your running stride. Your body is pre-wired with something called Passive Mechanics and in the case of you legs when you drive down hard with the lead leg it triggers the other leg’s hip flexors to fire in order to pull that leg up. You don’t have to think about it and if you do you actually decrease the power of the pedal stroke.

      This is what you see in the studies I linked to – pulling up on the backstroke and “spinning circles” resulted in less power and less efficiency than simply driving down hard with the lead leg. Pulling up on the backstroke makes sense until you realize that the body has ways that it moves most efficiently and we need to apply that movement to the bike instead of trying to out-think mother nature.

      Reply • September 26 at 10:59 am
      • Wacek says:

        Is it also a case of not being able to “push over the top” early enough if you are pulling up, because you just simply cannot rotate your foot to pushing position so fast? (given the precondition that pushing over the top is the best way to generate power)

        Reply • October 22 at 1:33 am
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          Maybe, I’m not sure all the reasons it doesn’t work as well as we’ve been led to believe.

          Reply • October 22 at 10:22 am
  2. John (aka Wish I Were Riding) says:

    You convinced me to use flats more than 1 year ago. I have been very happy ever since, and it has also helped alleviate and solve some bad leg pain.

    My ONLY problem, is that I still can’t keep myself very connected when I leave the ground. It’s great when I crash (not being connected), but when I’m in the air on purpose, I can’t keep my feet on the pedals where I need them.

    Any suggestions?

    Reply • September 26 at 2:48 pm
  3. Keith says:

    Hey James,

    Seems to me “pedaling efficiency” is a bit open-ended and vauge.

    I’m no physicist, but pretend for a moment that I know enough to be dangerous 🙂

    There’s the whole mechanical system efficiency calculation which would be the output power at the wheel compared to the input power generated by the legs. Clipless *may* aid in that efficiency calculation – personally I think there’s a good chance it does under some circumstances.

    However, there are other aspects such as:

    – the bio-mechanical efficiency of how the rider’s body generates power output through the legs, ie actual power output compared to theoretical peak power output. This can be improved through better understanding of the bio-mechanics involved, targeted training for strength and mobility, and specific nutrition.

    – mechanical drive train efficiency which would measure losses through the mechanical parts of the drive-train due to friction and other mechanical losses. This can be improved through regular maintenance.

    It’s a very complex discussion.

    It seems that focusing as you do on bio-mechanical efficiency aspects is the right approach regardless of pedal technology, as it will yield results for both, whereas arguing as some others do that clipless pedals will make a rider better (without the training aspect) is a load of baloney 🙂

    At the end of the day riders should do what suits their style, preference, and budget, but should always remain open-minded enough to understand how their choices may lead to compromises in performance, comfort, capability, etc.

    Thanks for your posts, always a thought inspiring read.


    Reply • September 29 at 9:14 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The problem is that the term Pedaling Efficiency isn’t a vague term, it means exactly what I said it means. The problem is that it has become vague because it is misused so often, especially by those claiming that clipless pedals enhance “Pedaling Efficiency” when, by definition of the term, they don’t.

      And I’m not the one who is making this up, this is the view and definition shared by a lot of top coaches. I actually learned about this from a presentation by Andrew Coggan Ph. D. who was pointing out how misunderstood the term really was.

      So while agree with all of your points, I don’t think the definition of Pedaling Efficiency is vague as much as it has been misrepresented for so long. Pedaling Efficiency of the rider and the Mechanical Efficiency of the bike/ pedals are two separate things and it is easier to understand how to improve when we do that.

      Reply • October 1 at 9:51 am

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