Image of Bicycle Sprocket and Chain
Image courtesy of Keattikorn /

There is now a plethora of information available on efficient running and swimming.

Techniques such as POSE and Total Immersion have garnered such a reputation that it is eventually starting to filter down into the mainstream, and people are beginning to realise that there is more to improving performance than just “trying harder” or “pushing further”.

One discipline which seems to get overlooked in the technique department, however, is cycling.

Whether you are looking to enter a Triathlon, a Road Race, or simply cycling for pleasure or the daily commute, the key to successful cycling is no different to running or swimming: Efficiency.

I should point out at this point, that I am not a professional cyclist or cycling coach, nor am I professing to being any kind of expert.

I am however an avid cyclist, and have been for the best part of 20 year. During that time, based upon research and experimentation, I’ve become pretty efficient, and have also noticed the majority of cyclists make many errors which have a major impact on their performance, as well as putting undue stress on their joints.

Please note, the recommendations below are for Road Racing Bikes. Mountain Bike set up and off road riding technique is a whole other story!

The key to efficiency is threefold:

  1. Bike Set Up
  2. Technique
  3. Power to Weight Ratio

1) Bike Set Up:

The most important thing when it comes to setting up road racing bikes is seat position.

Balance yourself against a wall on the bike. Place your HEEL on the pedal. You should just be able to fully extend your leg when the pedal is at the furthest position at the bottom.

When you actually cycle with the ball of your foot over the centre of the pedal, you should still have a slight bend in the knee at the bottom of the stroke.

Once you’ve got the height right, you’ll want to adjust the saddle forwards or backwards so that when the cranks are parallel to the floor, your kneecap is directly over the centre of the pedal.

This set up will most effectively enable you to transfer power throughout the pedal stroke, and should minimise any hip or knee issues.

*NB I’d strongly recommend investing in some spd/clipless pedals and shoes as this makes a huge difference to pedalling efficiency*

As far as handlebar set-up goes I’d go for comfort first and foremost. While a more stretched out riding position/using drop bars may give significant advantages in terms of lowering wind-resistance, if it troubles your back, it’s probably not worth it!

2) Technique:

Believe it or not, there is some considerable skill/technique involved in riding a bike, and I’m not just talking about technical aspects of cornering/slipstreaming.

The most common errors made by rookie riders are:

  1. Too low a cadence
  2. Incorrect use of gears

i) Cadence:

Most novice riders tend to cycle at too low a cadence (number of pedal strokes per minute). They tend to be in an excessively high gear, grinding it out. Though this may feel like you’re pushing harder and thus going faster and further, it is not the case, but simply puts more stress on both the bike and the body.

As a rough guide, aim for a cadence of 90-100 rpm. There is of course some variability person to person – The more fast twitch/explosive fibre type you are, the lower you’ll want to be, the more slow twitch/endurance type the higher.

This cadence wants to be maintained AT ALL TIMES. This is regardless of the speed you are travelling, or whether you are going up or downhill.

For example, on the flat, you should control your speed/effort level with the gears. Rather than trying to go faster/harder by pedalling faster, you should shift up the gears. Rather than pedalling slower, you should change down the gears. The speed at which the pedals turn should never change.

ii) Changing gears:

Correct use of gears is critical, and will take some practice. You don’t want to move up or down too early, or too late.

Focus on your cadence – You want to maintain the same smooth rhythm at all times, without dramatically changing your effort level.

The most common mistakes are made when approaching/tackling steep hills. People tend to either:

>Dump all the gears immediately, lose all their momentum and end up spinning too fast and getting nowhere.

>Leave it too late, trying to grind up the hill in too high a gear, and being unable to change down without throwing the chain off as there is too much tension in the system.

The remedy – Attack the hill with as much momentum as possible. Focus on maintaining cadence. Soon you’ll feel the effort required to keep this cadence increase. How hard you choose to push yourself on that particular day will dictate how much you let this effort increase before you shift, but you must shift down 1 gear BEFORE your cadence drops at all.

Shifting Cogs: You have 3 cogs at the front, and probably 7 or 8 sprockets at the back (though you may have 6-9). Changing up or down at the back is pretty straightforward, you just need to back off a tiny bit, if at all, and move one gear.

Changing set/shifting between the three cogs at the front is a bit more of an art. Usually moving straight from one set to the next while staying in the same sprocket is too big of a jump, so you’ll want to simultaneously shift the back sprocket in the opposite direction at the same time – Confused?! Let me give an example.

You’re flying along on the flat in top set/biggest cog (3 on the left shifter) and a small sprocket/high gear (say 6 on the right shifter) and spot a big hill up ahead.

You start to power up the hill, but know that you’re going to need to move down into the middle set/cog (2 on the left shifter) to make it up to the top, so you do so, but at the same time you shift UP one sprocket/gear at the back (moving up to 7on the right).

In order to do this without your transmission grinding to a halt and snapping/throwing the chain, you’ll have to back right off the pedals for a moment, but keep them moving gently.

I hope all that makes sense!

Cadge a Lift

A very useful, though potentially risky technique for road cycling is slipstreaming – Getting right in behind someone else so your front wheel is as close as 6” from the back wheel of the person in front. Done right this can save the person behind up to 33% energy cost!

The safest and nicest way to use it is with a partner – You can communicate with them to reduce crash risks, and take turns at the front. You can of course also draft an opponent in a race, save up loads of energy, then overtake them at the last minute. They may not like it much though, especially if you crash into the back of them…

3) Power to Weight Ratio

Choosing a light weight bike, and light weight components can make a difference to your performance. If you’re carrying and extra 10kg of body-fat, however, saving a couple of 100g here and there by switching your sprockets should be the least of your concerns.

Follow the Live Now, Thrive Later Eat and Train guidelines, to get your body-fat down, and your muscle (and therefore potential for power) up.

Minimalist Endurance Cycling Training Schedule

You can make a significant impact on your cycling power and endurance capacity with minimal time investment via the following protocols:

High Intensity Sprint Intervals.

If you have access to a stationary bike, or turbo trainer, do some Tabata sprints (or other HIIT protocol) 1-2 times per week. If not these can be done outside, but you’ll have to find a long empty stretch of road where you can do it safely without being a hazard to yourself or anyone else.

Cycle to work (or any other place you visit on a regular basis) and back as often as possible.

This should be fairly efficient training, as for most urban commutes, cycling will get you to your destination as fast, if not faster than car or public transport.

A few points:

  • Sometimes take it easy on the way there, spinning the pedals at optimal cadence but in easy gear and try to time the lights so you keep moving all the time.
  • Sometimes try and stay in the same gear and at the same cadence all the time – This means you’ll be working harder/going slower on the up hills – A kind of interval training dictated by the terrain.
  • Sometimes try and cycle as fast as you can from/up to all the lights. This will create a slightly different interval effect.

There’s no substitute for time in the saddle.

Although the above tips are great for making huge metabolic gains in minimal time, if you’re planning to take part in a longer endurance ride, either as part of a competition, challenge or just for fun, you’re going to need to spend some time on the bike simply to get your soft bits used to it.

All the strength and endurance in the world won’t help if your backside and palms of your hands are screaming at you in pain from unusually prolonged pressure!

How Hard Should You Push Yourself?

Generally speaking you can push yourself a lot further into fatigue while cycling than running, as the mechanics of the bike help keep you in the correct form.

To a large extent cycling, particularly steep hills, is just an exercise in pain management. As long as you can maintain that cadence just keep pushing while your thighs are screaming at you!

That said, some things to watch: Knees and feet should be in line at all times – Parallel to one another/top tube of the bike. If you find your knees pointing in or out at any point this is bad news. Excessive movement in the torso or any strange sharp pains are also best avoided.

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