PEDALLING TECHNIQUE – Which is best?

by on May 10, 2011
Last updated: August 24, 2014

As all will have all noted, there is a range of pedaling technique out there in bicycleland. There are 3 major ‘themes’ with plenty of individual variation within each.The aim of this post is to explore the question as to whether any of them offer a performance advantage to the rider. First I had better outline the various ‘styles’. For convenience I’ll use the clock face analogy. 12 o’clock means TDC (top dead centre), 3 o’clock is the crank horizontal and forward, 6 o’clock is BDC (bottom dead centre) and 9 o’clock is crank horizontal and pointing rearwards. I won’t bother with the ‘o’clock’ and just be using clock face numbers in bold.

Pedalling technique is a spectrum; so when I talk about the 3 styles below, I’m not claiming  that a person within  a ‘style’ pedals in exactly the same way as everyone else with that category. Category is a good word actually, as there is a range within each named technique.

We’ll start with Joe ( or JosephineAverage: This the common technique that the majority of riders use, more or less. The heel starts to drop (relatively speaking) soon after 12  ( though it doesn’t drop below the heel) then somewhere around 3 or 4  the toe starts to drop further down reaching 6  with the toe moderately down.. After 6, the heel rises again until it starts to drop approaching or just  after 12 where the cycle starts again. This is the way that most riders pedal, more or less. An example is below.

 

Toe Dipper: This is the person who points their toes much more than Joe or Josephine and maintains this toe down technique even under load; at least relatively speaking. The degree to which the toe is lower than the heel will vary during the stroke in most cases. Click on play below for a Toe Dipper.

 

Heel dropper: A lot of heel drop between 12 and 6 on the pedal down stroke when compared to Joe or Josephine,  though the heel may rise substantially after on the upwards phase of the stroke. Some, though not all heel droppers use a lot of ankle movement.

Again, see below.

 

Note: As you can see, I’ve used the same ‘foot model’ for each video as it was quick  and made my life easier. A big thank you to DHBC’s Michelle Pezzutti for being the ‘foot model’.

A brief summary of each technique.

Everything I will say next comes with the caveat “All other things being equal”.

I’ll use Joe and Josephine’s moderate / unexceptional technique as the basis for comparison.

When compared to Joe and Josephine Average the Toe Dipper can sit higher because pointing the toe allows the rider to effectively lengthen their stroke. When we pedal the upper leg is our primary lever and the foot is a secondary lever. Pointing the toe reduces the leverage the foot can apply. So Toe Dipper can be summed up as “Less Leverage / Longer Stroke” The other thing to remember about Toe Dipper is that the major vector on the pedals is more or less towards the rear. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, meaning a greater tendency for the body weight to tip forward. With the caveat mentioned above, Toe Dipper needs to sit further back (and higher) than their hypothetical twin who pedals with different technique so as to unload their upper body and reduce weight on the arms and hands.

Heel Dropper tends to use the foot as a lever more than Toe Dipper but the lower heel position of the foot through out the down stroke  extends the knee more for a given seat height. In turn this means that with the caveat above in mind, Heel Dropper’s need to sit lower.  Heel Dropper can be described as More Leverage / Shorter Stroke. Additionally, Heel Droppers vector on the pedals is much more forward for most of the stroke than Toe Dipper and so can sit further forward (all other things being equal) because Heel Droppers are pushing themselves back in the seat with every pedal stroke and unweighting the upper body more than Toe Dipper of Joe and Josephine relative to a given seat setback

Before getting into the merits of each style, lets talk about down stroke versus up stroke. Some people think it is an advantage to train yourself to pull up forcefully while others think it is best to just push with each leg in turn and let the up stroke look after itself. Pedaling a bike is requires a large number of muscles to fire in a precise and complex sequence. The major influences on this process are the body position of the rider in space relative to the bottom bracket and gravity, force feedback to the CPG from the feet, the output required and how functional the rider is. As an example, a rider can have the best position in the world but if they are inflexible, particularly asymmetrically so, they will never be able to sustain a load as well as their  hypothetical identical twin who is more functional / symmetrical.

A problem that is almost  endemic in our chair bound society is tight hip flexors, particularly the psoas. Hip flexors as a group lift the femur (upper leg bone)  if the torso is fixed in position or help bend the torso forward if the legs are fixed in position. One of the hip flexors, the psoas, are the muscles in humans that are least adapted to an upright position. In quadruped mammals, the angle between femur and pelvis never exceeds 100 degrees, whereas in humans it approaches 180 degrees when standing upright. So our psoas needs to be able to stretch out enough to allow that. Unless you stretch properly and regularly it is unlikely that you will have  flexible psoas because like most others, you spent 10+ years sitting at school; you sit on a bus, train or in a car to travel to work; you sit down to work and to eat; you sit down at home to relax and so on ad infinitum – , you get the picture; all of which cramp the psoas. This predilection for sitting means that most people attain adulthood with tight psoas (and other hip flexors and it only gets worse from there on unless a quality stretching regime improves the situation. The psoas is working in any position a human can maintain except lying down. As a species we sit too much causing us to develop short, tight psoas. Okay, nice little anatomy digression so far but where is it going?

Because the psoas originates from the 5 lumbar vertebrae (and discs) and the lowest thoracic vertebra and crosses the hip on its way to attaching high on the inner femur, it is absolutely not the muscle group that the great majority need to stress or tighten more. Tight psoas not only potentially load the lower back but  also neurologicaly inhibit the gluteals, the largest most powerful muscle group we have and the one most responsible for extending the hip (pushing the upper leg down). Translation = don’t pull up forcefully  for extended periods if you want a pain free back and glutes that work properly. It is natural to pull up forcefully under some circumstances when off the seat, and occasionally for brief periods of acceleration in a big gear while seated.  I repeat natural. It is not natural to pull up forcefully for long periods when seated. There are people who ‘naturally’ pedal like this and in almost all cases I have seen, this is a compensatory response to a woeful seat position, cleat position or both. I check the psoas tonicity of every fit client under load. In my view, the psoas should be moving because the hip is moving but should not necessarily be active in steady state pedaling. The huge majority of fit clients exhibit a lot of psoas activity even on the down stroke!  Now the psoas does play a part in supporting and bracing the lumbar spine but over a long time I’ve only seen  this down stroke tonicity in riders who had poor functional stability and poor motor patterns, which in turn are a result of poor posture and poor range of motion in hips and lower back. In other words, the majority. And no, I’m not kidding.

If you have a good bike position, good cleat position and are reasonably functional, the phase of the pedal stroke where each leg has good leverage should overlap the other to some extent. As one leg is running out of steam, the other should be coming on song.

So which technique is best?

Some years ago I was loaned some old footage of the greats of yore. Amongst these were three 5 time Tour winners; Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault.. What stood out to me in the footage was that Anquetil pedaled with pointed toe, even up the cols. A Toe Dipper extraordinaire.  At the opposite end of the spectrum was Merckx,  as big a Heel Dropper as you are ever likely to see. In the middle, Hinault was the personification of Joe Average. Each of these riders won 5 Tours and a whole lot of other stuff and  can lay claim to being one of the greats, if not THE great of their respective eras.

What that also tells me is that pedaling technique is not a defining characteristic of cycling excellence. I will stop short of saying that a rider can’t train to change their pedalling technique, but most attempts I have seen come unstuck as soon as the rider is in a high load, high heart rate situation. Under those circumstances we tend to revert to what comes naturally to us. Would it not be better to accept what comes naturally and refine it by doing it a lot?

With that in mind, don’t think about your pedalling technique. Work to identify and sort out your functional issues, push on the pedals and let your Central Nervous System work out the most efficient muscle firing sequence that allows you to perform the task. Whatever results is likely to be the best technique for you, relative to the parameters of position you have and the functional abilities you’ve developed (or neglected to develop).  If you want to improve your technique and get the best out of yourself in terms of pedaling technique, the secrets are below. You need -

1. Reasonable flexibility. If you are overly tight in various areas (common) then you will be neurologically inhibiting muscle groups that are essential to performance. Muscles that have a good range of motion can apply more force than muscles that don’t.  I hope you don’t need a bigger carrot than that.  Do you need to be a yogi?

No. But you do need to NOT have severe restrictions in or around the hips, lower back and legs for effective pedaling. For good aerodynamics and ability to breathe efficiently, you need reasonable ability to extend your spine and reasonable flexibility in the torso, upper back and shoulders and neck.

2. Good posture. Good posture = reasonable core strength = reasonable functional stability = less need to use upper body muscles to stabilise yourself on the seat when you are riding hard. We’ve all seen riders who under pressure, look like they are trying to drag the bike down the road with their arms, shoulders and upper back. . If we aren’t inherently stable on the seat the only other mechanism we have is to enlist the arms, shoulders and upper back in an effort to provide a ‘platform’. This can only happen at the cost of breathing efficiency. It also only happens if the rider’s position is poor and / or if the rider is functionally poor.

3. A good bike position and good cleat position.

As you can see, the only ‘secret’ is to be the best version of yourself that you can be, relative to the time and motivation you have.  Your pedaling technique can change with changes of equipment or position but that is your nervous system’s natural response to changed input parameters. So my view is that rather than worry about your pedaling technique, worry about your bike position; worry about the way that you function; work to improve both and the pedaling technique that results is the one that your central nervous system determines is the best for you. Something like 90% of brain activity is tied up in controlling posture and movement. Then there is a component devoted to regulating body functions, healing and so on. The remaining small amount is the conscious ‘thinking apparatus”. The factors that determine your pedaling technique are:

1. The position you hold in space relative to gravity and relative to your bike. Muscle enlistment patterns change as the body’s relationship to gravity changes. So uphill pedalling technique will vary from flat road pedalling technique in most individuals to varying degrees. Equally, a change in say, cleat position or seat setback will have an effect, large or small, on pedalling technique

2. Load. You will pedal differently at 110 rpm than you will at 80 rpm for same output and conditions.

3. Force feedback from the feet. We have a bundle of neurons in the lumbar spine called the Central Pattern Generator or CPG. This is what sends the signals to the leg musculature saying in effect “Switch extensors on and flexors off / switch flexors off and extensors on” that allow us to push on the pedals. This process is overseen by, but not directly controlled by the cerebellum unless you are consciously focusing on the task. Now I’m sure that you can consciously focus on the task, but don’t try and tell me that in a hurly burly sprint at 60 km/ h you are thinking about how you are pedalling. You are not. You are doing your best to push on those pedals and yank on those bars as hard and as efficiently as you can. This is not a conscious process. It is a conscious decision to sprint and possibly to back off a bit here, or accelerate through that gap there, but the pedalling process is not within your conscious control under these conditions.

It is within you conscious control on flat roads at 25 km/h if you choose it to be, because the load is light and there’s plenty of time to ‘play’ with pedaling technique if you choose to. But who cares?

Riding at slow speed and light load has it’s place, but when the pressure is on and the wattage rises, don’t worry about your pedaling technique. Accept what comes naturally to you and refine it by doing it (riding) a lot. What results is the best technique for you, for who you are functionally and for the position (good, bad or indifferent) that you have on your bike.

Stay upright.

COMFORT + EFFICIENCY = PERFORMANCE

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32 Responses to PEDALLING TECHNIQUE – Which is best?

  • duane dickey says:

    I pedal toe down on my left, right side is heel down or at least Joe average. Have you seen this? ANy thoughts?

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day Duane,
      I’ve see what you describe from time to time. In every
      instance bar one, it is because the rider cannot reach the bottom of the
      pedal stroke on the toe down side as well as on the other side. Sometimes it
      is because of a shorter leg on the toe down side but more often because the
      rider hangs down or twists forward on the Joe Average side causing the other
      leg to reach more.

      The question is what to do about it?

      That’s potentially a mine field that you have to work your way through
      carefully. Firstly you have to determine whether there is a difference in
      bone length with a scan, X ray or MRI. If there is, which side is it on; the
      toe down side or the Joe Average side?
      Then you have to make sure that the positional parameters are ideal; seat
      height and setback, reach down and out to the bars, foot correction and so
      on so as to eliminate any challenges to the position. Then you need to
      determine whether there are any obvious functional differences between left
      and right sides. A hyper tonic right psoas on the hip down or forward side
      (assuming that this is happening – it may not be) and work to resolve those.
      Sometimes an overt tendency to sit with one hip forward or down doesn’t
      have a functional root cause but can be because of a dominant cerebella
      hemisphere. The test for that is an Unterberg test.

      In simple terms you need to determine why you function as you do and whether
      the causes are functional, positional, neurological or a combination of any
      of those.

      I said “bar one” at the start. I have one guy who pedals as you describe and
      we have ticked all the boxes and there is no reason that I can identify. He
      sits square, stretches like a lunatic, has a good position but persists with
      the asymmetric technique. He’s a friend and we have played with a lot of
      things in an effort to sort out his asymmetric style. The only thing that
      worked was changing his to midfoot cleat position which he now rides because
      he feels relatively even on the bike rather than having each leg pedal in
      totally different ways.

  • Lbulero says:

    How is standing, either for climbing or sprinting affected by pedaling style? Specifically, how should a heel dropper cope with standing up? By standing lower and further?

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day Lbulero,
      The best way is to do what comes naturally to you. Practice
      sprinting and climbing off the seat and you will likely improve the way that
      you do it. I doubt that anyone who is really having a go in a sprint can
      spare the effort to think about how they are pedalling.

  • tubasti says:

    Merckx as a heel-dropper makes sense, trying to get more extension through his pedal strokes on bikes that were a little short for his long legs and big feet. Also, his higher weight would indicate a trend to trying to find more leverage.

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day Eric,
      Not sure I understand your reasoning. Everyone is trying to
      get leverage on the pedals, not just taller riders. The whole point of the post is that there is large individual component in the technique that each rider develops in an effort to do so. Merckx wasn’t the only tall, big footed rider of his day and I’m sure there was a spectrum of technique amongst the other tall , big footed riders.

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day Eric,
      Not sure I understand your reasoning. Everyone is trying to
      get leverage on the pedals, not just taller riders. The whole point of the
      post is that there is large individual component in the technique that each
      rider develops in an effort to do so. Merckx wasn’t the only tall, big
      footed rider of his day and I’m sure there was a spectrum of technique
      amongst the other tall , big footed riders.

  • tubasti says:

    My point wasn’t so much that Merckx was typical of taller riders, but that being a heel dropper would be a sensible adaptation for a larger rider. Of the taller riders of the past, most appeared to be at least neutral. Also, it seems that as riders approached the limit of their lowest gearing on climbs, which happened more typically in the days of 4-, 5- and 6-speed freewheels, the heels tended to drop.

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day Eric,
      Any adaptation that come naturally is a sensible one,
      providing it is not an attempt to work around an issue with position. And
      yes, almost all riders drop their heels more when under severe load.
      Regards,

  • Chris Adams says:

    Hi Steve,

    In relation to pedal technique, do you have any thoughts on oval chain rings?

    Cheers, Chris Adams

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day Chris,
      Good question. Oval rings; Rotor Q’s and the like cause the
      rider to spend longer on the down stroke in area of greatest chain
      engagement of chain ring teeth with concurrent lesser time in the area of
      crank rotation where the least chain ring teeth are involved. This is
      perceptible when watching someone use them. That aside, it is my experience
      that they don’t affect pedaling technique. By that I mean that the rider
      displays the same technique as with round chain rings as with oval rings
      other than the slight delay and slight speed up during each stroke caused by
      the variability of the number of chain ring teeth.

      • doug xcd says:

        moving beyond observed altered pedalling dynamics with these rings,steve,do you think that they offer an advantage at all?
        thanks
        d

      • Steve Hogg says:

        G’day Doug,
        It depends. I can only comment on the the feedback of those who use them.

        Re feedback, approximately 65% feel they are an advantage, 25% notice no difference one way or the other and approximately 10% feel they are a hindrance. These results may be skewed depending on which mounting position is used with the Q rings. With the Stronglight and other oval rings, there is no ability to adjust the phase as there is with Q rings. For instance, I had one customer who is a strong rider and a coach. He initially used his Q
        rings on position 3 and after completing the test to determine which position to use his Q rings in, that the Rotor website suggests, he moved to position 2. He became unhappy with his performance in that position and was going to return to round rings. I suggested position 4 to him, which worked and he now feels Q rings are an advantage. He uses the Method 1 cleat position as mentioned in the post on cleat position.

        So it may be (I say cautiously) that a portion of the people who don’t like them have not tripped over the individually correct position. For midfoot cleat position users, position 4 seems to be the majority choice by some margin.

  • Craig Macintyre says:

    Steve
    I know you are going to get to Tri/TT fitting and stance width at some point but in the mean time, I have a rambling question. In setting somebody up on a triathlon bike in what is considered the standard position (ie: forward) I have noticed two things that I find troubling but have not read about as being an issue anywhere.

    1. As you rotate the rider forward around the bottom bracket, the basic theory is that you keep their position the same, it just moves up and forward as a unit. What I noticed is that in doing this you dramatically change the pedaling dynamic of the rider. From the side, the rider will tend to keep the same pedaling style (heel down, toe down, horizontal). However, to do this, since they have rotated forward, it requires significant changes to ankle flexation. At least two people I know of have gotten achilles tendon issues, I believe as a result.

    2. Given point 1, and a rider that tends to pedal toes out, I noticed something curious. In the normal position on a standard bike (whatever all that means!) if their heel almost clips the crank arm when the pedal is in the forward position, 9 times out of 10, when in the “tri” position, it does clip the crank at the bottom bracket. I am at a loss as to what causes this subtle shift except for point 1. I also assume this means that there is room to fix the pedal stroke as clearly the heel is wandering a bit.

    So I guess I am asking: (a) are these things that you have observed and (b) what to do about it? (I know, wait for the tri/tt post).

    Have a great weekend.

    Craig

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day Craig,
      Yes, I’m getting to the TT and Triathlon posts. I hope to
      have a TT post finished in the next day or two with Triathlon to come.
      There’s also an article called Foundations of Positioning that I need to
      finish editing that you should read when it is up. It goes into the detail
      of the negatives of forward position. Anyway, to your question.

      Forward position is hard to describe because what is forward for one person
      is not necessarily as forward for another. However we all know it when we
      see it. The problem as I see it is that many triathletes are brainwashed by
      clever marketing into thinking that they need a steep seat tube angle style
      TT bike. In my view, often this isn’t the case and all the triguy or trigal
      is doing is setting themselves up for a fall. If a rider is reasonably
      functional and works to maintain that functionality and chooses to ride a
      steep seat angled bike once a week to maintain motor patterns for that bike,
      then I don’t have a problem with that. Problems creep in when that TT bike
      is the sole training and racing vehicle for the athlete. Not with everyone,
      but with a (not) surprising number. And this is what you are finding.

      For a significant number of people, riding a forward position style bike
      exclusively is an invitation to injury. Their appeal is easy to understand.
      The subliminal message of the marketing hype “All you have to do to go
      really fast is buy this frame. Aero, aero, aero, just rotate forward around
      the bottom bracket.” I’ve never seen the same marketing speak about how
      functional the rider needs to be, how much work they need to do maintain
      that function and that a significant number of people cannot product serious
      power on these bikes without falling prey to overuse injuries over time.

      When the rider moves forward over the bottom bracket, they lose the ability
      to have good leverage on the pedals as early in the pedal stroke after TDC
      (top dead centre). The rider is further forward in relation to the bottom
      bracket centre, so the crank must move further forward past TDC before they
      can apply the same force to the pedals as would be the case on say, a road
      bike where the rider sits further back. To have pressure on the pedals for
      the same degrees of crank arc as on a road bike, the lack needs to be made
      up later in the pedal stroke, at, near or after BDC (bottom dead centre),
      and this need is the source of your observation about excessive ankle
      movement. The rider is doing their best to make the unworkable work, and can
      do so, but at increased risk of injury.

      These bikes are for people with good abilities to bend at the hip and extend
      their spines and necks. That last sentence cancels out a large percentage of
      the people who are sold them. So the dysfunctional owners cannot maintain a
      bum up / head down position and so raise their bars until they are
      comfortable. We’ve all seen them; sitting forward AND upright. Now given
      that the appeal of these bikes is a hypothetical aerodynamic advantage; the
      inflexible, office working, too busy to stretch because they are completing
      12 -14 sessions a week of running, riding and swimming owner of these bikes
      is forced to sit forward because of the inappropriateness of the design of
      these bikes for their degree of functionality, losing leverage on the pedals
      in the process and also losing any perceived aero advantage as well!! This
      is without mentioning the ill effects of being forced to sit on the perineum
      in the case of men and the genitals in the case of women.

      To address the rest of your question about heel in riders becoming even more
      so when riding a forward position style bike; this is an extension of the
      picture. You will find in most cases that excessively heel in style riders,
      are very tight in the hips and lower back. There are exceptions, the
      occasional loose jointed, flat footed person, but the majority are tight and
      dysfunctional. Any tendency to lower the torso too much will increase the
      tendency to dysfunction. Forward position bikes are all about lowering the
      torso so you are left with what you have witnessed; the crank position is
      fixed in space but the rider is moved forward without the requisite
      flexibility in hips and lower back to allow this with the only way that it
      can be accomplished being further externally rotating the hips and spreading
      the knees. Again, this is an invitation to injury and the fitter has to
      explain to these people that they have been sold a pup and have three real
      choices.
      1. Get off the bike and work conscientiously to improve how their body’s
      function to allow them to ride the bike they’ve bought.
      2. Accept a heightened risk of injury.
      3. Get rid of the bike and buy one more suited to their level of dysfunction
      (and work hard to sort out their issues too!)

      Should forward position bikes be banned?
      No, they should not. They have their place and can be made to work by many.
      Just not nearly as many as the marketers, designers and retailers of them
      would like to believe.

      • Ericj076 says:

        when a functionally solid rider of a steep angled triathlon bike is in a forward, low aero position, it seems like no matter how good your ability to extend your neck, you have to raise your head to see the road ahead of you.

        isn’t this bad for just about everyone’s neck, steve? some folks worse than others of course, and surely a longer race distance dictates a less aggressive forward position, but do you chalk up that position as “ok” for those who are strong/flexible enough in the neck and doing short races?

        do you often encounter fit clients who are structurally sound enough to use a forward, low bar placement (in terms of ability to extend the lower back, etc) but due to inability to extend the neck comfortably 85-90%, need to have the bars higher? in other words, does a bad neck usually go with a bad back, etc.

      • Steve Hogg says:

        G’day Eric,
        I agree with the thrust of what you are saying 100%. It is
        standard practice for me to determine aero bar height by making sure that
        the rider has approximately 10% of ROM of the neck left for shorter events
        and more for longer events. A pursuiter can get by with less because speeds
        are higher and duration short. Ironman events are much longer duration so
        bars need to be higher than for say, Olympic or sprint distance tris.

        Yes, tight backs and necks often go hand in hand but there are plenty of
        exceptions.

  • From your artical it sounds like one leg exercises could be a waste.

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day William,
      Correct, they are counterproductive. One legged drills break
      down effective 2 legged motor patterns and substitute shitty ones if done too much. At high intensity, cyclists push on the pedals, not pull. One legged drills force the cyclist to pull up and push. This is not what happens when talented riders (and less talented ones) are operating at high intensity. One legged drills are the wrong answer to the question “Why doesn’t this leg feel as strong as the other one?”

      The answer is always some factor or combination of factors of position. If the rider is really screwed up, it might be issues with innervation caused by reciprocal inhibitions on one side. Fixing the position or fixing the physical problem is the solution.

      The only benefit of one legged pedalling drills is if you want to learn to ride with one leg only. Training is specific. If you want to ride well with 2 legs, train with 2 legs. No amount of one legged pedalling will help, only hinder.

  • Andrew says:

    G’day Steve. As usual, excellent work here. I wanted to comment that pedaling style can also compensate for injury. I have some scar tissue under my right patellar tendon from a fall as a young man; enough to make the knee sore but not enough to do anything about. It hurts more cycling than anything else because muscle compression when the knee is flexed pulls the tendon down onto the scar tissue and rubs against it. Along with a three-season leg strengthening program – to keep the quads large enough to lift the tendon off the scar tissue – I’ve taught myself to use more of a heel-down stroke because toeing will cause me to activate the front calf muscle (what’s it called?), which also pulls the tendon onto the scar tissue more.

    Andrew

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day Andrew,
      Yours is an interesting story and one I haven’t come
      across. Thanks. The muscle you are speaking of is the tibialis anterior or tibialis posterior or both.

  • Ian Hutchinson says:

    Hi Steve, great blog, really interesting. I read this post with great interest – I think I am a toe dipper as you refer to it and have a question on the effects of different techniques on the force being put through the patella tendons. I have been unable to ride properly (was doing about 50-80 miles a week beforehand) for 18 months due to Patella Tendonosis/Tendinopathy in both knees (way beyond tendonitis now I’m afraid). I’m not 100% sure what brought this condition on all those months ago, could have been excessive cycling could have been something else, and although I seem to be able to do some other sports (e.g. Hockey) Cycling is still an issue. I’ve recently started to try get back out on the bike (building up to gentle 12 milers) but is seems that as soon as I pedal with any significant force (even against the wind for example), as opposed to just easily spinning away, my Patella tendons play up the day after for several days of pain…so just wondering if you think my toe dipping technique or any other bike fit/technique parameter could be causing this trouble and over loading the patellar tendons. I did have a pro bike fit session a few years ago, but based on your blog maybe that was not as good as I thought it was at the time and of course bodies do change.

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day Ian,
      If you can play hockey without trouble but not ride a bike then there is something wrong with your bike position. Pedalling toe down naturally should not cause you to develop patella tendinitis unless something about your position loads your knees unnecessarily or challenges the plane of movement of them.

      Have you had any xrays or scans?
      If so, what did they show?

      • Ian Hutchinson says:

        Hi Steve,

        An MRI scan on my right knee showed thickening of the tendon and on examination the Specialist told me a portion of the tendon was dead tissue “soft brown and watery rather than firm and white as it should be” and did suggest an operation to remove it which I declined – this was about 2 years ago – since when I’ve been thru Physio and rest all to no avail so I’ve started to cycle again. Hockey has been ok as the problem is not structural to the internal knee – it seems the patella tendon pain is caused by repetive cumulative use (e.g cycling) and especially with added force (pedalling hard) – just seems to strain the tendon and cause pain if I do too much, so hockey is painful if I’ve been riding in the days before – I also can’t really knee down as they are too tender.

        So – I’ve been slowly getting back into cycling again but clearly something in my action causes pain in the tendons so I’m looking for ways to reduce this and your blog is full of great info. The post below from Andrew got me thinking that toe down style may put extra force on the patella tendon – almost the same as when standing on tip toes v normally – you can then feel the tendon loaded. So any ideas you have would be gratefully recieved.

        It maybe that the tendons are too far gone to allow me to ride at the same level again, or in fact do anything that involves putting force through them. I’ve not given up yet,and have seen some improvement over the past 12 months, however I’m non too keen to go down the surgery route yet, although I may go back to the Specialist if things are no better after trying to carry on cycling tru the winter (I’m in the UK) – hence the reason I’m asking for any ideas you may have to reduce load thru the patella tendons.

        Rgds, Ian

      • Steve Hogg says:

        G’day Ian,
        The only reason a toe down pedaling style would be causing your problem would be if the seat was also too low or too far forward. Either or both places a shear load on the knee which means that the femur is trying to slide forward over the top of the tibia with the patella tendon taking the strain of preventing that happening.

        Now I don’t know how you sit on the bike or how you pedal but I would suggest trying more seat setback as a starting point. Read the post on seat setback and see if you can pass the balance test. If not, move your seat back 10mm, shorten your stem by 10mm and try again.

        Separately, read the post on seat height and act accordingly. I am confident that if you can play hockey without problem, you should be able to come up with a bike position that also does not cause your problems.

  • Howecedarburg says:

    Hi Steve,

    I had a question about O’symetric Rings. I was using standard 53/39 Sram Red Chain Rings and had experienced no problems, and had been riding pretty strong in the Pro field. Then I decided to experiment with the O’symetric Rings and have not been getting the results or performances that I wold like to be. I have not changed anything other than this. Have you ever experience someone “hurting” their pedal efficiency by switching from round rings to O’symetric Rings? I could see how they might because unlike Rotor Q Rings they are set to ride with one way only rather than the 4 options of Rotors. I do not have access to a spin scan computer to look at my actual pedal efficiency, but I going to do a power test comparing the two this week. What are your thoughts? Thanks!

    • Steve Hogg says:

      G’day Howecedarburg,
      I don’t have a strong opinion. I don’t see that
      many O’Symmetrics and from the people using them that I’ve seen, some are happy and some less than happy. They are an extreme ring and as you say, I think the largest potential problem is only one set of mounting holes. I know that moving Rotors through their various mounting orientations has a marked effect on how the rider feels when pedalling so I suspect that O’Symmetrics fall in to the category of working well for some but not for others.

      • Howecedarburg says:

        Steve,
        I agree with you 100%, but am not sure why, and that’s what I am trying to wrap my head around :). Could a particular pedaling style suit a different position in the Rotors (is this something you have experienced?) I am currently riding speedplay’s with a 14mm adaptor plate all the way rearward, and have a very strong heel down pedal stroke. I have come to the conclusion that my “power phase” begins before the O’symmetric’s “1 to 5 o’clock power phase”. Would this make sense? (If I pedal heel down and begin my power phase at 12 o’clock I could “missing” what they claim to brag about). I am just trying to get somewhere, as I am going to do some tests this week with O Rings vs Round rings. Thanks.

      • Steve Hogg says:

        G’day Howecedarburg,
        yes it does matter and has to do with leg
        extension. I found a significant difference on a personal level with Rotor Q rings when experimenting with positions 2, 3 and 4. Same with clients. O’Symmetrics have the most number of chainring teeth engaged when the crank arm is at 3 o’clock. My experience with Velotrons is that most riders I see deliver peak torque at around 95 – 103 degrees which is after the 3 o’clock position. Bear in mind that I seem to be more conservative with seat height than most bike fitters which means less leg extension at bottom dead centre, or to put it another way, greater force applied later in the pedal stroke.
        Time and again, I find that most Q ring riders are best served with position 3 or position 4. The O’Symmetrics have a fixed position that more or less equates with Q ring position 1.

        Where O’Symmetrics work okay is with a forward position. Forward positions limit leverage in some ways and O’Symmetrics allow those riders to spend more time in the ‘downstroke’ zone because of the orientation of the ring.

      • Howecedarburg says:

        Steve,

        I guess the only thing to do is to switch back to round rings since I do not have the option to switch positions with the O’symmetrics. Maybe I could use them on the TT bike with the more forward position and see how that goes, but I am just about convinced that the O’symmetrics are not for me…they even say on their website that “they are not for everyone,” but then again don’t mention why. They claim a 7% increase in power and 10% decrease in lactate, but I find that hard to believe when there is only one position set on the rings…maybe it gave those increases to some of the riders, but I must be the minority :(.

        Since I set my saddle height according to your method, I assumed I am delivering my peak torque after 3 o’clock, and therefore missing out on the benefit of the O’symmetrics.

      • Steve Hogg says:

        G’day Howecedarburg,
        If my Velotron experience is anything to go by,
        then next to nobody develops peak torque at 3 o’clock. And that is with fit clients before I alter their position as well as after I’ve made changes. Almost always it is after 3 o’clock and that’s the fundamental fact underpinning the design of Q rings. All of the mounting positions on a Q ring allow for maximum tooth engagement after 3 o’clock. The larger the number (position 2,3,4,5 etc) the later after 3 o’clock that the maximum number of chain ring teeth are engaged.

        My limited experience of O’Symmetrics is that riders either love them or hate them with those that love them being in the minority. I have a friend who conducted a study on this subject and he said that over a group, there was no nett gain in performance but once you looked at individuals there were only two categories; those who performed better and those who performed worse.

        On a personal level a pro gave me a set of early O’Symmetrics about 15 or more years ago. I tried them and hated them. However these days I use Q rings quite happily and have benefited from their use. I think the key is the different phasing options that Q rings offer. If you try Q rings, there may be no gain in performance. For many there isn’t and for a similar number there is. At least that is my experience with clients.

      • Howecedarburg says:

        Steve,

        Thank you so much for you expertise. I will let you know how it goes when I switch back to Round rings, and then possibly try Rotors during the base building. Thanks!