Many cyclists and triathletes spend time pedaling with one leg in hopes of building strength and efficiency or to kill time on long rides. One-leg drills, also called isolated-leg and single-leg drills, are most often done on a trainer or flat roads. Too often, one-leg pedaling is used simply as a distraction from the act of riding, especially when indoors, without considering whether we are benefiting from the intervention. While traditional reasons for including one-leg training for power production and efficiency are not overly convincing, there are certain situations that warrant its inclusion: training during an injury, recovering after an injury and improving skills.
Case 1: Recovery Post-Injury
For athletes coming back after an injury such as a broken leg, there may be a place for some one-leg training as part of a well thought-out rehab plan. Most serious imbalances can be dealt with effectively in physical therapy with strength training.
Using one-leg pedaling and a power meter to track improvements post-injury and, perhaps, to check in periodically during the season may be useful as an easy-to-implement screening tool. Focus on your less-strong side by completing 5 x 30–120 seconds of one-leg pedaling with equal time at high RPM with both legs in between intervals. You could also include one-leg intervals on the stronger side, but I would spend more time on the side you want to improve.
Those with slight deficits between legs don’t need to address this unless there is a pain or performance issue. If you feel that there is an imbalance worth addressing, first work on single-leg strength with a kinesiologist or certified coach to establish symmetry off the bike.
Case 2: Training During Injury
Training will never go as planned — illness and injury should be expected. It’s reasonable to use one-leg pedaling when you have a leg injury, especially since maintaining even a small amount of bike training can be quite motivating.
There is also some support for transfer in ability from the working leg to the nonworking/injured leg or at least to improving two-legged performance. Try 3–5 x 30-minute rides each week including a few hard one-leg efforts at 90 RPM for 15–30 seconds with a few minutes of easy or off-bike light exercise between intervals, as long as you get this plan cleared by your doctor and it doesn’t slow recovery.
Before starting one-leg intervals, it’s worth stepping back to consider cross-training in combination with one-leg drills or as a replacement for cycling during the injury. Depending on the injury, cross-training might provide an increased stimulus due to more muscle recruitment and would provide a mental break. If you do try maintaining fitness with some one-leg pedaling, consider using this strap/banded solution to reduce strain on support muscles. (This is great for upper-body injury, too.)
Case 3: Become a More Skilled Cyclist
Athletes should spend time learning to pedal with one leg for the same reasons they should learn to ride with one or no hands on the handlebars. While we rarely have to pedal with one leg in races, there are times when we are required to move forward and be smooth with two or three points of contact.
Just as it’s ideal to increase core stability off the bike, it’s beneficial to learn to interact with the bike with different points of stability so that we become very comfortable on the bike. Being able to clip in and out in different situations — even very technical or high-speed situations — can save a large crash on the road or improve starts in mountain biking. This is why I advise my athletes to include one-leg drills during off-season training. We can see improvements in technical skills and starts during periods where technical training and variety is often limited.
Don’t Expect to Gain Power and Efficiency
It’s believed that one-leg pedaling improves pedal stroke by “unweighting” or building strength that contributes to improved pedaling motion. From a strictly practical standpoint, this is hard to convert to real-life cycling, where cadence, gradients, surfaces and postures require changes to how and where power is applied over the course of the pedal stroke. For this reason, two-legged pedaling at different cadences using moderate and maximal intensities likely has more relevance to efficiency and power.
There are some studies that found some improvement in fitness from one-leg pedaling. However, most studies do not compare two-legged, high RPM drills to the one-legged interventions well enough. Most studies use hard intervals with one leg, whereas most training drills are done at an easy intensity. It’s hard to rationalize spending any of our often limited training time pedaling with one leg to boost power or efficiency.
The Bottom Line
Including isolated leg training in your plan is unlikely to hurt your training, as long as it does not supplant or interfere with specific traditional bike intervals, quality endurance and skill acquisition. It’s likely that variety in pedaling mechanics and interactions with the bike will provide an improvement from a skill standpoint, if not from a muscular/coordination standpoint.
For advanced riders with a lot of time for training, a few focused 10- to 20-minute blocks could reduce monotony and allow for longer training, especially during indoor periods. For those who take spin classes, the variety may keep them coming to class and moving in a variety of ways, which is beneficial assuming it is not taken too far. The best recipe for consistent training and improved fitness? Make one-legged pedaling a part of your skill and injury toolbox, and leave efficiency and power production to two-legged intervals.