While pedaling technique is the most common area to focus on when trying to improve your cycling efficiency, other aspects of your technique such as shifting at the right time and your position on the bike can make a big difference, too.
Whether you’re looking for free speed in your next cycling event or just want to stay with that slightly faster training partner, use these 10 technique tips to become a more efficient cyclist.
ADJUST YOUR SADDLE TO IMPROVE COMFORT
The correct saddle height is important for pedaling efficiency and comfort, but so is the angle of your saddle — which is often overlooked. The nose of your saddle should either be flat or pointed slightly upward to keep you from sliding too far forward. This also supports your sit bones on the correct part of the saddle and takes the weight off your more sensitive areas. Having the majority of your body weight on your sit bones also takes some of the weight off your hands, alleviating stress on the shoulders and neck. These slight adjustments can make a big difference in comfort over long distances — and the more comfortable you are the more efficient you’ll be.
RELAX YOUR UPPER BODY
Tension in your muscles eventually leads to aches and pains, and when you don’t feel good on the bike you’ll eventually slow down. While some of this can be corrected with tweaks to your position, learning how to stay loose on the bike can be helpful, too. Relaxing your hands, elbows and shoulders by lightening your grip on the handlebars improves your bike-handling and make over-corrections less likely.
SHIFT TO AN EASIER GEAR BEFORE YOU NEED IT
Shifting at the right time is a cycling skill that can take time to master. One of the biggest mistakes new cyclists make is waiting too long to shift to an easier gear when approaching a climb. If you wait until you’re on the climb to shift, the chain comes under load. This causes unnecessary grinding and can lead to either your chain popping off or the inability to shift. To maintain more speed and forward momentum, shift early before the road starts heading up.
GO LONG AND SLOW
If you want to ride further and faster, you’ll need to ride long at slower speeds. While this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do intervals one or two times per week, you will want to avoid riding in those middle training zones the majority of the time. Instead, focus on long, slow rides to improve your endurance while preventing stress on your muscles and tendons. You can also use these slower rides to work on your cadence and generating power in the dead spots of your pedal stroke.
USE DIFFERENT HAND POSITIONS
Most cyclists utilize one hand position more than the others. While this is OK as long as you’re comfortable, switching hand positions every so often is generally recommended. This prevents stiffness in your back and neck, and helps you generate more power in certain situations. The bar tops should be utilized when climbing to open up your lungs and sit back on the saddle, the hoods for standing and cycling on flat roads and rolling hills, and the drops for sprinting, descending and tactical situations when you want to achieve a more aerodynamic position.
EXPERIMENT WITH A VARIETY OF CADENCES
A typical cycling cadence falls into the 80–100 revolutions per minute range (rpm). Which cadence you ride at depends on what feels most natural to you, but you should also consider what is most efficient. If you tire easily on long climbs or can’t maintain a reasonable speed on long rides, experimenting with a different cadence could help improve your efficiency. If you fall on the low end naturally, try spinning a higher cadence (something in the 90–100 rpm range) and see if you can maintain a higher power output. With a little practice, the change could end up helping your performance.
CONSIDER YOUR AERODYNAMICS
Since cycling is primarily a battle against the wind, improving your aerodynamics makes you more efficient. Spending more time riding in the drops, wearing tighter fitting cycling clothing and utilizing aerodynamic equipment such as helmets and wheelsets are all things you can do to slice through the wind more effectively.
PRACTICE PEDALING DRILLS
While the push phase (12 o’clock to 5 o’clock) of the pedal stroke is where you’ll generate most of your power, learning to spin in circles and squeeze out a few more watts from those dead spots makes you faster and more efficient. Single-leg drills and high cadence intervals are a few ways to work on your weaknesses and become more fluid at spinning the pedals. Follow this guide to get started.
STAY ON TOP OF YOUR NUTRITION/HYDRATION
For rides lasting longer than two hours, you’ll need to stay on top of your nutrition and hydration to maintain your energy levels. This means drinking at least one bottle per hour and an energy bar or gel each hour after the first hour. For hot weather or longer rides, electrolyte drinks can also be used. It’s also a good practice to eat solid foods earlier in the ride and save energy gels for when the intensity picks up on climbs or during the last portion of the ride because they’re easier to digest and less likely to cause GI distress.
RIDE WITH THE PACK
Improving body position and investing in more aerodynamic gear definitely helps you cut through the wind more efficiently. But if you want to take things to the next level, draft behind other cyclists whenever you can. It takes 30–40% less energy to pedal behind another cyclist compared to going solo or riding at the front of the pack.
While it isn’t advised to annoy your training partners by never taking your turn riding at the front, sitting behind others helps you go further and faster than you can alone. In a race, sit in the group as long as possible, even if it’s a pace a little slower than you think you can ride. Opting to speed ahead of a group takes a huge amount of energy to maintain, and you’re better suited to wait until later stages when you’re sure you can reach the finish line with a solo effort.