Perfection makes Pedaling

Perfecting pedal technique for  the Centuries

The key to an efficient pedal stroke is minimizing the dead spot at the top and bottom of the pedal stroke. The stroke is best described by using the clock analogy. From 12 o’clock (top of the pedal stroke) to 5 o’clock we incorporate the greatest muscle activity – including quadriceps (knee extension), hamstrings (hip extension), iliotibial band (lateral stabilizer), gracilis (medial stability), gastrocnemius (plantar flex foot). From 5 to 6 o’clock (bottom of the pedal stroke) the same muscles are employed but with less activity. From 6 to 9 o’clock it is primarily the hamstrings and gastrocnemius. And all the usual suspects are present with the exception of the grastrocnemius to complete the pedal circle from 9 to 12 o’clock.

We want to pedal in circles, but what does that mean? We do not apply equal pressure around the entire circle – it is impossible due to the effects of gravity. The goal in pedaling circles is to perform more work consistently throughout the circle, and actively unload on the upstroke. Essentially, increasing power over the top and through the bottom of the stroke ultimately eliminates power loss on the upstroke.

The benefits of smoothly pedaling circles include – the ability to use more muscle mass and increase power; distribution of work around the entire pedal stroke preventing muscle fatigue; and the potential to improve pedal efficiency and sustainable power.

We initiate the push forward, primarily with the quads, at 10 o’clock (by initiating early we effectively apply power over the top of the pedal stroke) to 5 o’clock. Think about driving the knee, from the hips, toward the handle bars, maintaining solid hip, knee, toe alignment. From 5 to 7 o’clock we think scrape back by engaging the glutes and hamstrings – feel as though you are scraping mud off the bottom of your foot. This is a quadrant of the pedal stroke that demands concerted concentration and training, unlike the push forward, this movement is not as natural. From 7 o’clock back to 10 o’clock – it is an active unloading of the pedals – studies have shown it is counter-productive to try to generate power by pulling up – so the goal is to essentially alleviate the recovery leg’s dead weight on the pedal.

We train and enforce pedal technique and efficiency via single leg pedaling drills as well as high cadence and specific strength, low cadence intervals.

Single leg pedaling drills are best, first attempted on a stationary bike trainer. Take one foot out of the pedal and pedal single-legged for 15 seconds, with goal to be smooth over entire pedal stroke, especially at the top and bottom. Start single-leg drills with 6×15 seconds on each leg, and as long as there are no hiccups around the pedal stroke, increase time by 15 seconds every two weeks, up to a minute. These drills provide valuable feedback on where our pedaling strengths and weaknesses reside. We utilize this information during interval sessions to help focus our attention on the specific sections of the pedal stroke where we can make improvements.

High cadence intervals, 90-120 rpm, hone the nervous system and teach the body to intuitively pedal efficiently. High cadence pedaling, in general, is an efficient technique as it lessens the load on muscular forces and transfers it to the cardiovascular system. Start with 6x2min, with equal recovery, and a perceived exertion of 60-70%, the goal is not harder and longer, but again efficiently pedaling smooth circles.

Specific strength intervals known as slow frequency repetitions (sfr) are extremely effective. These are intervals performed on a shallow grade of 4-6%, with low cadence 40-60rpm and high resistance by using big gears. When first attempting – please be mindful of the knees, hips and lower back as the torque is high and best to err towards 60rpm until specific strength is developed.

On your long endurance rides, enjoy the fruits of your specific pedaling workouts – think and feel smooth, round, fluid and relaxed.

See you next time for the final installment on century riding – avoiding back pain on the bike.

Bike Fit of the Century

Bike Fit and the Century Rider

A proper bike fit is paramount to attain an efficient pedal stroke, balance comfort and power while also insuring responsive bike handling. Optimum performance is achieved by placing a rider over the pedals to maximize the knee joint’s mechanics, and achieve ideal muscle tension of glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. Comfort is attained by disbursing the rider’s weight between the saddle, pedals and handlebars, allowing the skeletal structure to support the weight rather than relying on the musculature system.

The first rule of bike fitting 101 is to fit the bike to the individual, consider the body type, for example, long femur, short torso – don’t force the body to fit the bike. A bike fit is a work in progress – as a new rider invests time on the bike and develops cycling-specific musculature, suppleness and posture, he/she will attain a more efficient, powerful aerodynamic position. There is not an absolute in bike fitting, but a window of the right fit, relative to each individual.

Saddle height is the most critical aspect of the bike fit followed by saddle fore/aft, saddle tilt and finally handle bar reach and height. An effective bike fit strives for 60/40 weight distribution with 60% of the rider’s weight on the back and 40% on the front wheel.

The greatest concern with improper saddle height is knee injury. A low saddle produces too much force on the back of the patella and behind the knee. The compacted knee experiences constant pressure.

Too high of a saddle position and the rider is reaching at the bottom of the stroke placing a strain and stretch on the hamstrings. This high position also has the potential of leading to saddle sores – especially aggravated with long rides, ie centuries.

There are numerical formulas to reach the ballpark saddle height to achieve ideal leg extension, but the position is ultimately honed by the experienced eye of the bike fitter. Once the cyclist has pedaled steadily and settled in to the saddle, the bike fitter looks for level hips, as well as hip, knee and toe alignment, among other factors, to confirm proper saddle height. Finally, the bike fitter measures the cyclist knee flexion at the bottom of the pedal stroke with acceptable flexion measuring between 25-35 degrees, with neutral considered 30 degrees.

Saddle fore/aft is the next factor to be considered. It is ultimately the rider’s femur length that determines this position, placing the knee’s pivot point over the pedal axle. This is measured when the forward pedal is horizontal – the bike fitter drops a plumb bob from the front of the knee to the crank arm. An ideal neutral position lines the end of the knee over the end of the crank arm. This neutral position allows the rider to jockey forward and back on the saddle as terrain and intensity dictate, for example on a climb a rider might push to the back of the saddle.

In regards to the saddle height and fore/aft position, the rider’s ankling, ankle position – plantar-flexed, dorsi-flexed, or more neutral must be considered. This variable, dictated by individual pedaling style, terrain and intensity significantly changes the knee flexion around the pedal stroke.

Generally, for the century rider, the saddle should be level to the ground, with no tilt forward or back.

When it comes to handlebar reach and height there is more subjectivity than with saddle positions. For the recreational/century rider – comfort rules the day. As a result, a more upright position is likely most suitable.

The rider’s reach creates an angle with the torso in relation to the ground. The reach is greatly determined by the rider’s core strength as well as lower back and hamstring flexibility. The key to reach is rotating at the hips rather than rounding the back. For the sake of comparison – racers/competitive riders strive for a 45 degree torso angle; avid fit riders a 40-50 degree; and recreational riders a 50-60 degree angle.

Riders may proactively train toward a more aerodynamic, powerful upper body position through a cycling specific movement preparation, core stability, and strength program. As a result, riders improve pillar stability and strength as well as hamstring flexibility. More time in the saddle will also allow muscles to develop and become increasingly cycling-specific supple and strong.

Final fit ingredient – cleat position – for the century rider, the cleat should be positioned with the ball of the foot placed directly over or slightly in front of the pedal spindle. Placing the foot forward of the pedal axle allows greater distribution of the pedal pressure over a larger area of the forefoot versus pinpointing the ball of the foot. This position also reduces stress on the Achilles tendon.

See you next time for – perfecting the century rider’s pedal technique.

Fall is Century Season

– Fall for a Century

Fall is century bike riding season, with numerous organized rides taking place from the coast to the Sierra crest*. Ideal temperatures and gentle fall sunshine enhance the experience. Participating in a century is a motivation to dust off that stored bike and finally act on those fitness intentions. Centuries present opportunities to explore new riding areas and routes and enjoy the camaraderie of new riding partners.

The upcoming series of blogs will focus on the recreational rider’s preparation for a century ride. Topics will include purchasing and fitting the bike, perfecting pedal technique and training tips.

Today we outline factors to consider when purchasing a bike.

Stick with me, as we delve in to somewhat dry, but necessary bike frame 101.

The bike frame is essentially a diamond shape. The dimensions of the main triangle shape, formed by four tubes – the head tube, top tube, down tube and seat tube – is of primary importance when selecting a bike.

The head tube contains the headset, which interfaces with the fork. The top tube connects the head tube to the seat tube at the top. The top tube may be positioned horizontally (parallel to the ground), or it may slope downwards (characterizing  most contemporary frames) towards the seat tube for additional stand-over clearance. The down tube connects the head tube at the bottom bracket.

First and foremost, when purchasing a bike understand that it is not one size fits all. The individual body type dictates the frame selection.  For example, a rider with a long femur and short torso, will require a longer seat tube and shorter top tube. Short femur and long torso – equates to a frame with shorter seat tube and longer top tube.

These frame scenarios are dandy assuming the rider is purchasing a custom made bike. But since frames are built with proportional seat and top tubes, meaning long seat tubes equate to long top tubes. The long femur/short torso and short femur/long torso scenarios are not ideally accommodated by the frames in and of themselves. This is where the art of bike fitting perfects the marriage of bike and ride to maximize the individual’s fit. An effective bike fit considers the individual’s goals and then blends the body with the bike to balance handling and optimum power output with comfort and aerodynamics.

The bike industry has revamped their traditional design, which produced bikes with an average three inch drop differential from the top of the saddle to the handlebars, consequently placing riders in an aggressively aerodynamic position.  Now industry engineers are designing bikes with a longer head tube (connecting the fork to the stem) – affording a higher handlebar position. This innovative design has raised the handlebars nearly even with saddle height and as a result has improved comfort while also increasing power production and maintaining efficient aerodynamics.

While cycling is easy on the body, offering a low-impact alternative activity – an improperly sized framed and fitted bike creates a high probability of poor pedaling mechanics and potential overuse injuries. Invest time to insure the body type fits the frame and the bike fits the body.

Stay tuned – for focus on the importance of an individualized professional bike fit.

*Just do it – centuries abound  10/22/11 – CF Cycle for Life, Newcastle – 9/10/11 – High Sierra Fall Century – Mammoth Lakes – 9/24/11 – Tahoe Sierra Century – Squaw Valley – 10/8/2011 – Plymouth – 10/9/2011 – Chico Fall Flower Century, Chico – 10/15/2011 – Tour de Rocklin, Rocklin – 10/15/2011 – Foxy’s Fall Century,  Davis