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The proper way to pedal with one leg

Add this drill to your trainer workout to boost your pedalling performance


One-legged pedalling is a drill that is often prescribed for trainer workouts. It’s a valuable drill to add to your winter training. But before you start unclipping one leg and then the other, let’s look at what proper pedalling technique looks like.

One school of thought recommends you pedal in a “circular” motion, in which you try to apply force on the pedals throughout the pedal stroke. You need to pull through at the bottom of the stroke and then upward as the pedals move around the bottom bracket. This method, however, is not how elite riders pedal. A study published in 1991 in the International Journal of Sport Biomechanics , “The Pedaling Technique of Elite Endurance Cyclists: Changes with Increasing Workload at Constant Cadence,” showed that elite riders pedal by applying pressure on the downstroke, from the top, 12 o’clock position, down to the bottom of the pedal stroke at 6 o’clock. The greatest pressure is applied between 4 and 5 o’clock. The upstroke sees a lifting of the foot off the pedal so as not to apply any pressure against the crank as it travels back up toward 12 o’clock. It is on the downstroke where you can apply maximum pressure to the pedals.

At our gym, we see many clients with poor pedal stroke as they try to use the outdated concept of pedalling in circles. They focus on pulling through at the bottom – the classic “scraping the mud off your foot at the bottom of the pedal stroke” technique. When you focus on pulling through on one leg, you’re not focused on starting the downstroke on the other side. If you try to pull through with your right foot, you’re likely not pushing down on the left as early as you should. Many riders only start to push on their downstroke once they reach 2 or 3 o’clock, wasting much time in the downstroke in which they could be applying force.

One-legged pedalling is a valuable method for improving your stroke. It is a good drill to help you eliminate the dead spot at the top of your pedal stroke, starting your push early, and thereby increasing your efficiency. One-legged pedalling is not done to focus on a circular pedalling technique, which is the incorrect interpretation that many make. It is, in fact, a drill to help focus on starting the downstroke, the push in the pedal stroke, early.

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When you do this drill on the trainer, or if your bike handling skills are good, on the rollers, start by putting your bike in a light gear.This drill is not for working on wattage; it is about technique. Unclip one of your shoes, staying clipped in with the other. The focus for the pedalling leg then becomes the initiation of the pedal stroke, the push, as high on the clock as possible. The goal is to generate enough force on the pedal through the downstroke to drive it up and through the upstroke without having to pull actively on the pedal. You will simply unweight the pedal and let it “float” back up to 12 o’clock where you will once again apply pressure on the downstroke. No matter your choice of setup, always make sure your hips remain square on the saddle; sometimes riders tend to sit askew when pedalling one legged.

You may find that in the beginning that getting over the top of the pedal stroke is very challenging. If, after a few revolutions, you find that you start to lose contact with the pedal – you’ll probably hear a clicking sound as the chain loses and regains tension – stop pedalling with one leg. Pedal normally for a minute, and then try the one-legged technique on the other side. This minute off allows the body to reset, so make sure to include it. When doing this drill, you want to teach the body proper technique, which means stopping when it gets jerky or when you lose the proper chain tension.

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One final note: you don’t want your cadence to get faster and faster. Beyond a certain point, the flywheel on your trainer will start doing most of the work in getting your foot around the pedal stroke. You will know you’re getting this help when the drill suddenly gets easy.

Improving your cycling efficiency is an easy way to get better out on your rides. While we often focus almost exclusively on power training and putting out more watts, technique plays just as important a part in your success as
a cyclist.