Photo courtesy Carrie Wagner
Higher RPMs through relaxation.
When you cycle smarter, you learn to make small adjustments in your upper body and pedal stroke to improve cadence. You break out of old habits, refine your style, feel more comfortable, and understand that you do not always have to cycle harder to make big gains.
Are you tired of cycling in the same zone? Do you want to increase your cadence? You could push your legs faster and exert more energy, or you could fine-tune your technique at the same level of effort. The choice is yours: you can either cycle harder or cycle smarter to develop a stronger cadence.
Becoming mindful of your entire body while cycling is very important; this is called developing body awareness. This enables you to know where you need to make modifications and where you do not. Cyclist Kristy Lannan describes what she has learned: "I think differently. I cycle differently. I understand the corrections to make and what to concentrate on. While I was training, I kept saying to myself, ‘I am not working hard enough, this can't be right.' My cadence was at ninety rpms, and it was effortless. I am not wasting any energy when I ride. I would never have known it was that simple."
If you have ever "cycle watched" you may have noticed different styles of riding. Some cyclists look smooth, flowing, and graceful, while others appear rigid and uncomfortable. What is your cycling style? Do you show ease or effort? See if you recognize any of these common, inefficient styles: The Chicken Dance (head and upper body bobbing), the Duck Walk (knees pointing away from the midline), the Piston Roll (sitting more upright and pushing feet up and down into pedals), the "I Dunno" Shrug (tops of shoulders pulled up to ears), the Rounding Over (reaching to your bars as if there is an imaginary ball in front of your stomach).
Take the time to evaluate your technique and style as best you can. It will pay off. As you go through this process, remember, it is about making self-corrections, not self-judgments. With a better appreciation and understanding of where you are now, you can begin to make adjustments in four main areas:
1) SpineThe position of your spine affects your overall comfort and the force you can generate in your pedal stroke. Imagine a string gently pulling from the top of your head. Grow taller from the base of your spine and expand upright like an accordion. Feel wide and open in your upper chest, and broad from one shoulder to the other. Now think of leading with your chest, and bend forward from your hips toward the handlebars. Be careful not to overcorrect and create an arch in your lower back. You will feel closer to your handlebars, lighter on your seat, less strain in your lower back, and a sensation of more room for your breathing.
2) Upper BodyCalming and relaxing your upper body is integral to creating a smooth and efficient pedal stroke. If you hold tension and tightness or bring in too much motion into your upper body, it will be more challenging to build up your cadence.
You will also feel more aches and pains and waste energy. Your upper body needs to support the flowing force in your legs and not fight against it. So, no bobbing up and down or swaying side to side as you move in your pedals. Conversely, be careful not to be too rigid. Think of keeping your upper body stable, supportive, and quiet. Start with letting go of all the tension in your face, around your eyes and mouth, and in your jaw. Allow this release to travel into your neck, and let your shoulder tops relax away from your ears. Adjust the position of your elbows, and gently turn the points under so they are shining down to the ground, instead of out to the sides. This adjustment often brings great comfort since it moves your shoulder blades into a stable and relaxed position. Feel softness across your back and between your shoulder blades. Expand and open across your chest. Keep your handgrip light, and avoid pushing weight into your palms.
Feel the strength of your position coming from your core, and let everywhere else in your upper body relax. This will transfer into a smooth rhythm in your legs.
3) BreathingWith quality breathing, you can help release muscular tension, dramatically increase your focus, and add to your performance. Notice where you feel your breath. If you are holding tension or feeling stressed, you may notice it drawing in and out of your upper chest. Practice cycles of breathing, inhaling and exhaling, and see if you can move your breath into your ribs, abdomen, and between your shoulder blades in the back. Feel your upper body expand as you draw deeper inhales and then slow releases with your exhales. Think of relaxing and letting go; never force your breathing, as this will only create more tension in your body. Full breathing also promotes the use of your diaphragm, a powerful breathing muscle that triggers your calming nervous system and increases the amount of oxygen you can draw into your lungs. Greg Yanicki, president of Bicisport Calgary Cycling Club and competitive cyclist (Road/Track/Cyclocross Racing Cat 4 Level), discovered that breathing more efficiently helped performance: "I got away from the huffing and puffing, and it felt like I could breathe easier. After a hard effort, I calmed down faster and was into a better recovery."
4) Pedal StrokeA full, circular turnover requires the activation of many muscles in your lower body. The difference between a full circle and a piston-style, or up and down, stroke is subtle but profound. Your numbers will climb instantly by emphasizing a larger movement through your pedals. Concentrate on the second half of your pedal stroke, where your foot is coming from the top to the bottom position. This is where your muscle at the front of your shins activates to complete the full circle. Often, this part of the pedal stroke is performed incorrectly. Emphasize the feeling of a circle by drawing your legs up, over, and forward, instead of coming up and straight down. Finish your stroke by sweeping the bottom of your foot and then rounding it back up to the top. Notice how the force on your pedals changes with the circular motion. The pressure feels lighter. If you still feel a hard force, chances are you are still doing a piston-style stroke. For optimum power, ensure your hips, legs, knees, ankles, and feet are positioned in a fluid line.
You will notice changes. "It was incredible to feel such a difference," says Lori Meisner, a registered physiotherapist and cyclist. "The small changes eliminated dysfunction and pain in my neck, back, and knees. I used to get tension headaches from cycling, but now I don't. My pedal stroke feels less choppy, less like a piston. I learned how to relax my upper body and get into good alignment."
For long-term results, stay connected with this process. Remember, patience and refinements bring rewards. Learn the technique indoors, and then apply your technique in less-challenging outdoor terrains and drills at first. Easy, flat roads are a great place to practice. Then move on to greater intensity, such as hills climbs and strong wind resistance. Ask a friend to join you on this unique training journey for support and evaluation.
Improving your cadence will get you to the next fitness level, make you more compatible for group cycling, and increase your competitive advantage.
About the AuthorGail O'Reilly is creator and presenter of Cycling For Balance workshops. Her company Fitness On The Fly (www.FitnessOnTheFly.ca) offers a variety of unique fitness training programs. O'Reilly is an avid cyclist and experienced cycling instructor, certified fitness instructor and personal trainer, and registered yoga instructor (RYT).