The Cyclist's Dilemma
Every endurance sport has its specific “dilemma” – or challenge – to solve if you want to maximize your efficiency. And in each sport that dilemma involves your relationship with gravity. In this discussion, I will address the specific gravitational challenge of cycling. However, I begin with a brief overall review of efficiency in endurance sports.
Efficiency is the “Holy Grail” in every endurance sport: Use less energy to go faster and farther with less injury and faster recovery. At the heart of athletic efficiency in every sport is the athlete’s alliance with gravity – the ability to use body weight to move forward.
Consider that 90% of your brain’s energy is committed to maintaining your balance. You have no control to divert that mental energy to anything else (not even texting and driving). And yet, you are probably not even aware of your balance in your daily activities. Even when you are swimming/biking/running – earnestly striving to go faster and farther – your alliance with gravity probably doesn’t engage 90% of your conscious awareness.
Most of that brain energy is devoted to monitoring your body’s proprioceptive, vestibular and visual systems. This input adds up to millions of neural signals constantly assessing your balance. A smaller amount of that brain energy is output – mechanical adjustments to maintain balance.
Ignore it or Honor it?
You can choose the popular “mind over matter” approach to athletic performance: Use sheer mental will and desire to “force” your body to higher levels of exertion, while ignoring all the feedback from the body. At best, you have only 10% of the brain’s energy to work with in this mode of “mind over matter”, as you desperately coax your bodies: “Go harder!”
However, if you choose the “mind in matter” approach, you get to tap into that other 90% - skillfully channeling and directing the body’s intelligence: the proprioceptive, visual and vestibular systems that govern your alliance with gravity. Since you are already “hardwired” to maintain your balance, why ignore it or fight it? Why not develop this foundation of “kinetic” intelligence?
Your alliance with gravity takes precedence in every moment of your embodied life. And as an endurance athlete, you strive to develop the most efficient movement patterns for your body. Each of our bodies is unique: in size, weight, density, proportion, and every physical factor that affects our alliance with gravity. (My challenge? Working with these size-15 feet!!)
That uniqueness extends to how our individual bodies and minds are wired together. We all use some combination of the three “balance systems” – proprioceptive, visual and vestibular – but the “mix” is unique to each of us.
Given our unique individual nature, the pursuit of “effortless power” for each of us is a personal one. There is no absolute “one-size-fits-all” technique in any sport that will work for every body.
However, the universal laws of physics apply to every one of us in our personal alliance with gravity. The pursuit is personal, but the challenge is collective. When we can identify and define that unique collective challenge in each sport, we have a compass to guide our individual pursuit. And this brings us to...
The Cyclist’s Dilemma:
Our goal is to move “forward” – that is, horizontal to Earth’s surface. To do this most efficiently, we transform the vertical pull of gravity into horizontal motion. This transformation – known as “precession” in physics – is an amazing process when we really pause to ponder it: Orbiting is a form of precession. In every instance, precession requires dynamic balance.
In cycling, you move (horizontally) forward by applying body weight (vertically) to the pedals. The drive-train of your bike takes care of the precession for you – it transfers your pedaling motion into forward progress. That makes cycling pretty easy, yes? Just push down on the pedals and leave the rest to the bike! What could be simpler?
Body Weight: Pedals vs. Saddle:
But here’s the “catch”: As you transfer your weight from one foot/pedal to the other foot/pedal, you also have to maintain a stable relationship with your bike so that you proceed in the direction you choose. You do this primarily through your contact with the saddle. So, by sitting on your bike’s saddle, you apply some of your body weight to the pedals and leave some in the saddle.
It would seem then that the more contact and weight you have in the saddle, the more stable you will be. However, at the same time, the more weight you have in the saddle, the more uncomfortable the saddle is. And the less weight you apply to the pedals, the slower you go.
So, how can you maximize weight in the pedals for power, minimize weight in the saddle for comfort, and still remain balanced, stable and efficient?
No Ground to Stand On:
And the real dilemma is this: As you are applying your body weight to each pedal platform, it is falling away from you. There are few, if any, other experiences in life where you apply your body weight to alternate platforms that fall away from your feet as you step on them.
And that’s not all: The more weight you apply to those moving platforms the faster they fall away, and the less weight you have in the saddle for stability. After all, when you shift your weight side-to-side, from one foot/pedal to the other, you also have to maintain lateral balance with your bike through your saddle connection so you don’t fall over, or swerve side-to-side too much. Your hands on the bars provide some of this lateral stability, but most of it comes from your saddle contact.
So the “quest” in cycling is this: Maximize your weight on two platforms (pedals) that are in constant motion under your feet – so you can move forward. At the same time, keep your pelvic core stable and relatively motionless – so you can navigate safely. Bicycling isn’t so simple anymore, huh? Gee, hope I didn’t ruin your party.
The Good News:
There are two items of good news. First, those two platforms move through precisely the same circular path every single revolution. Second, your saddle remains stationary relative to those two precise circular paths. The more you ride, the more your neural system imprints the precise circular paths of your feet on those pedals and their precise relationship to your saddle.
There are many variables that can affect the relationship between your feet and your saddle: Some of them are static, and some are dynamic.
Most of the static variables have to do with your “bike fit” – the selection of components and the adjustments of those components. Adjustments include saddle height and pedal cleat placement on the sole of your bike shoe. These are just two of many (static) variables.
Dynamic variables include your pedal resistance and your cadence (both affected by your gear choice). Again, these are just two of many (dynamic) variables.
Getting to the Core:
Efficient cycling starts with a great bike fit – so that the relationship between those moving pedals and that stable saddle is optimum for you. Efficient cycling also requires constant attention to the dynamic variables – so that you keep that relationship optimum in each moment – as the terrain, speed, direction, etc. of your ride change.
But there is far more to cycling technique than a well-adjusted bike and the appropriate gear selection. The focus on great technique in any sport is neural training. The objective of neural training is to optimize your alliance with gravity, and to make your movements as smooth and graceful as possible.
To solve the Cyclist’s Dilemma, you can train your neural system to simultaneously maximize weight in the pedals, minimize weight in the saddle, and ride sustainably and gracefully. As with swimming, this neural training is most effective through an optimum combination of appropriate drills with (to borrow a term from Total Immersion Swim) “whole-stroke” bicycling.
The most effective neural training to address the Cyclist’s Dilemma is one I call “Yin/Yangs”. Perform this drill with your bike mounted on a stationary stand – ideally one with a fluid resistance unit. (I recommend a Kurt Kinetic “Road Machine” or “Rock and Roll”.)
To perform Yin/Yangs: Alternate between very low-resistance/high cadence (Yin) pedaling, and very high-resistance/low cadence (Yang) pedaling. Alternate every minute or so.
During the Yin phase, focus on “floating” the joints and muscles of your legs and feet through the pedal stroke. The goal is to spin a cadence of at least 110 rpm without much effort – and without bouncing in the saddle.
During the Yang phase, focus on slowly shifting your weight from one foot to the other while minimizing your weight and contact in the saddle, and on the bars. Keep your cadence very low – 35-45 rpm.
There are many, many other variables that affect your ability to perform Yin/Yangs well, and to solve the Cyclist’s Dilemma. These include your posture, alignment, biomechanics and riding position.
As with any process of mastery in life, we experience real progress as we challenge and improve our perceptual capacity. Mastering cycling technique is a very subtle pursuit that requires patience and curiosity.
I developed the Zendurance Cycling Technique Self-Study Guide to serve you in your quest for “Velo Mastery”. Through this integration of video, text and audio guides, you will awaken to the subtleties of great cycling technique to improve your:
The Guide includes detailed instruction for the Yin/Yangs and other cycling drills, as well as clear guidance for your intensive investigation of posture, alignment, biomechanics and riding positions. Use the link above to find out more about the Guide.
Shane Eversfield is Founder and Head Coach of Zendurance Cycling (and a Total Immersion Master Coach). Visit www.zendurancecycling.com.