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When you first learned to ride a bike, you rode (in all likelihood) with sneakers and flat pedals. Using that set-up, the only power you could create was by pushing down on the pedals—so that’s what you did. You did this for years and years and years, and in doing so you developed great muscle memory for that movement pattern.
Then at some point, you decided to get serious about cycling. You switched over to clipless pedals on your bike and cleats on your bike shoes. You found yourself locked to those pedals for a full 360 degrees of rotation but, given that well-established muscle memory, you were still mostly transferring power to the pedals during the down-stroke, a.k.a. the front quadrant of the pedal stroke. And that’s where you still are today, missing out on a whole lot of potential for power in your pedal stroke—and speed on your bike.
The Four Quadrants of the Pedal Stroke
Let’s break down each of the four quadrants in the pedal stroke, how you’ll benefit from engaging through each quadrant, and how to develop that technique through drills.
- The front quadrant is the one you’re most familiar with already. This quadrant is highly quad-dominant, which means that an over-reliance on this quadrant is going to tire out those quads and limit your ability to run off the bike.
- The bottom quadrant is where you transition the workload from your quads to your hamstrings by way of your calf. To properly engage during this quadrant you want to keep your heel down as you pull your foot back, as if you’re scraping gum off the bottom of your shoe.
- The back quadrant is all about your hamstrings. A strong pull up the back quadrant is the key to increasing your cadence and also serves as a good point of focus when you need to relieve tired quads.
- The top quadrant is where you engage your glutes as you hand off the workload from your hamstrings back to your quads, and is typically the most difficult area in which to maintain engagement. The top of the pedal stroke is often characterized by a “dead spot,” or an awkward thunk during single leg drills (more on those later).
Full engagement throughout the entire 360-degree rotation of each pedal stroke will benefit your efficiency in multiple ways. First, you’ll better distribute your muscle utilization while cycling, allowing you to equally distribute your effort over the duration of the entire pedal rotation rather than squeeze all that effort into a short burst of power during your push through the front quadrant.
This more even distribution of effort also better distributes the power-generating load across your major leg muscles, rather than asking your quads to do all the work. Instead of your quads carrying let’s say 80% of the load while cycling, you’re going to better engage your calves, hamstrings, and glutes so that it’s more like 40% quads, 30% hamstrings, and 30% calves and glutes and other muscles.
Finally, when both legs are fully engaged for the entire pedal rotation, your quads are now pushing down the front quadrant on one leg at the same time that your hamstrings are pulling up the back on the other side. So not only are your quads less fatigued because they are better supported by your calves, hamstrings, and glutes, you are also now creating more rotational force with greater efficiency.
Drills to Improve Your Pedaling
While adapting to this new pedaling technique can feel fatiguing at first—most technique changes do—ultimately it can provide you more speed at the same effort level. So, how exactly do you overwrite years of down-stroke-only muscle memory so that full rotational engagement is second nature? As with any technique change, drills are key.
The single leg drill (SLD), where you unclip one foot and pedal solely with the other, is a well-known cycling drill. It allows you to isolate the movement patterns of each leg and also highlights the “dead spot” commonly found at the top of the pedal stroke. While SLDs are a good drill to start with (5 rounds of 30 seconds on each side should do the trick), I like to quickly graduate to quadrant drills, which allow you to focus specifically on the unique dynamics of each portion of the pedal stroke.
For the quadrant drills, you do keep both feet clipped into your pedals, but you’ll concentrate on one-quarter of the pedal stroke at a time. Given the offset rotation of your two feet, this allows you to alternately pay attention to each leg as it moves through the quadrant of focus. You can do these drills as five-minute sets: spend one minute focused on each quadrant, starting with the bottom quadrant and going counter-clockwise around the circle to finish with the front quadrant, and then spend your fifth minute focused on being fully engaged for the entirety of the 360-degree pedal stroke. During that final, fifth minute, think about allowing your foot to float in your shoe while you’re pedaling, rather than being firmly pressed onto the footbed.
Both the single leg and quadrant drills are easiest to execute indoors on a trainer with very little resistance. It takes some real bike skill to execute SLDs outdoors, but you can practice your quadrant drills any time you are cycling on a flat road—and they are a great distraction when your legs are tired during a ride.
Alison Freeman is a co-founder of NYX Endurance, a female-owned coaching group based in Boulder, Colorado, and San Diego, California. She is also a USAT Level II-certified and Ironman University-certified coach as well as a multiple iron-distance finisher.