Whether you’re a wannabe runner, cyclist, or swimmer the chance to chat with an expert in your sporting field is a dream come true – especially when that expert is a sport scientist with the expertise to reveal how you can improve your performance, speed and energy conservation.
Regular readers may remember that I’m taking part in a case study for Wattbike’s new Pedalling Effectiveness Score (PES) function. Thanks to this, I was fortunate to have a cycling one-to-one with Dr Barney Wainwright, applied sport scientist and Research Fellow at Leeds Metropolitan University. Because the case study will document how improving my pedalling technique affects my performance on the bike, this session with Barney was essentially a lesson in the basics of cycling efficiency.
Here’s what I learned in just a few hours.
#1. A simple bike fit can improve your power output – no extra effort required
The words ‘bike fit’ in my mind equalled bike comfort. Remarkably, I’d never given biomechanics a thought and the impact of a bike fit on my cycling efficiency hadn’t cross my mind. Doh.
During my bike fit, Barney transferred my road bike saddle to the Wattbike along with my road bike measurements and set about filming me as I cycled, making tweaks to the set-up as he went along. After a load of adjustments (handlebars lowered and pushed further back, saddle raised and angled down), I cranked out 195 watts at such ease I thought the power reader must be broken! The perfect demonstration of how a change in position can change efficiency.
During the session Barney also discovered that my lower back muscles – the source of my pain on steep climbs – were rock hard and pretty much always activated. By changing my position on the bike he could physically feel when they were most relaxed and could adjust the fit accordingly.
It sounds minor, but this small change could revolutionise what I’m able to do on the road bike, which is definitely something to get excited about!
#2. Power output means nothing if you can’t translate it efficiently
Through his research with elite cyclists, Barney was able to demonstrate that an improvement in pedalling efficiency can create huge gains when it comes to performance and speed – without necessarily requiring a change in power output. He showed me examples of data from two 10-mile time trials, where the same cyclist with the same power output on both rides shaved 1.24 minutes off their time simply by pedalling more effectively.
Of course, efficient pedalling can also help increase your power output – sometimes by up to 30 watts. Away from a time trial scenario, this can help you climb hills better, prevent you from getting dropped on group climbs and help you conserve energy. Sounds good, no?
#3. Pedalling efficiency can be measured
So, unless you have an expert to hand, how do you know if you’re pedalling efficiently? During my session, we made good use of the new Wattbike Pedalling Effectiveness Score (PES) function on the Wattbike app. Using data about your pedal force, Wattbike’s technology measures and calculates your efficiency to give you a score and live reading broken up into zones – green, amber, red. This is basically ‘real-time’ feedback via a visual on your smart phone or iPad. The ideal score reads 70-80 and stays in the ‘green’. When it deteriorates you reach amber, then red.
A screenshot of my PES score. The average score is 64 (amber), but my pedalling efficiency at that moment was poor (red)
Before my bike fit, Wattbike sessions at home saw my PES in the red zone with a horrendous score of 47 – about as rubbish as you can get! Immediately, following my bike fit in Barney’s studio, I managed a consistent score of 70 and stayed in the green. Predictably, once I started to fatigue and the watts increased, my efficiency dropped. Handily, as the PES is all trackable in real-time, you can see during training how any changes in your pedalling have a direct effect on your efficiency.
#3. Pedalling drills can be used to improve your efficiency
Unless you’re a serious cyclist you’ve probably never given much thought to ‘how’ you pedal – you just jump on the bike and go. My pedalling habits are pretty much ingrained, but like any other technique can be improved with practice. Personally, I know that when I get tired, I get a bit ‘stampy’ on the pedals, which is not good. Or efficient. But without knowing what the ideal pedal stroke looks/feels like, improving your technique is all a bit ‘finger in the air’.
However, according to Wattbike an efficient pedal stroke looks like this:
1: From the top of the pedal stroke the pedal is pushed forwards.
2: Shortly after this, a powerful downwards push starts through the middle part of the pedal stroke.
3: As the pedal approaches the bottom of the pedal stroke, the pedal is pulled backwards.
4: During the return part of the stroke there is a light upwards pull.
Putting it all together can be tricky, so Barney gave me some drills to incorporate into my Wattbike training (in an ideal world, three times a week) in order get accustomed to the movements – it actually takes some concentration to keep my score in the green zone!
I’ll share these drills another time with an update on how I’m getting on, and we’ll see just how much I can improve my performance on the bike.
Incidentally, my other half, who is also a case study, transferred what we learned at this session to an actual road bike ride and excitedly sent me this message immediately after:
Looks like there are gains to be made.
You can follow Dr Barney Wainwright on Twitter via www.twitter.com/bgwainwright