Road bike post #2: Grace and Pace – The Run/Ride Link

Posted in Uncategorized by antisociology on January 7, 2009

In a previous post, I talked a little about what makes a road bike efficient for a road cyclist. One of my claims is that a properly fit road bike, in some sense, balances the rider over the pedals, distributing weight between the butt, feet, and hands. I may have also talked a little about souplesse — a french term for the powerful and fluid pedal stroke of many top cyclists. In this post, I want to talk a little about developing an efficient and fluid pedal stroke, but also say something about the various ways people generate power and how cycling and running effort are related.


Someone just sent me a link to a great article on how to pedal a bike. Now, you’re probably looking at me funny. What’s there to know, right? You push down with one leg, then you push down with the other. While this will get the bike going, it won’t make the most of your fitness. To be efficient on the bike, you need to smoothly transition power from one leg to the other. The pedal stroke shouldn’t stop when the crankarm hits the 6 o’clock position. Rather, the power from that leg tails off while, at the same time, power from the other leg increases.


Now, developing such a pedal stroke does not come naturally. It takes a few months of riding mindfully and consciously, as well as some personal experiments, to program your brain to fire the right muscles at the right times, and relax other muscles at the right times. I have often found that hills are a great place to practice pedaling technique. I am a huge fan of efficiency, so when I first started cycling I tried a lot of different things to find an efficient pedal stroke. Hills helped because I wasn’t going so fast I had to pay a lot of attention, but also the payback from a good stroke was immediately apparent. Without that kind of feedback, it’s difficult to know what’s good and what’s not.


Runners are probably chuckling right now, smug in their belief that running is the most natural thing in the world. Here’s the thing. Just like you need to program your brain and legs to be efficient at cycling, you can also use the same general idea to be a more efficient runner. There’s a chapter in “Run Strong” (edited by Kevin Beck) on good running form. Again, a smooth transition from each phase of the running stride is the key. Remember, running is really nothing but a long series of controlled falls. When you push off, you put your center of gravity forward of your legs. This forces you to bring one leg forward to prevent you from falling. Being able to rapidly bring that foot forward, and then transition back to the push off phase let’s you increase your cadence.


Cadence. Isn’t that a cycling term. Yeah, it is. Here’s the thing. In running, all things being equal, there are three basic ways to go faster (we’ll set aside the longer bit for now). You can turn your legs over faster (run with a higher cadence), push off harder with your feet, or you can increase your stride length. Because we have physical limits, we have to trade these three techniques off if we want to maintain a constant effort level. A higher cadence requires a shorter stride. A more powerful push off may necessitate a lower cadence. Obviously, if we’re willing to expend more energy, then we don’t have to make these sorts of compromises. In distance running, however, we need to be mindful of how we mete out our energy.


This is why people are often advised to “shuffle” or increase their cadence. Shortening the stride, reducing the power expended at push off, and increasing cadence decreases load on the muscles and increases load on the cardiovascular system. This should, in theory, allow you to run longer before your muscles fail. Think of your body as being able to generate a certain fixed amount of power (force over time). The choice of running stride should reflect the demands of the activity you are doing. Just need a short burst of power that lasts a few seconds? Push off harder and stride longer. Need a constant, relatively low level of power for a long time? Shorten your stride, increase your cadence, and push off less forcefully.


Cyclists have this same notion of power (and can buy cool cyclocomputers that will measure the amount of power they are putting out). Like runners, there are three ways to go faster. Pedal faster, pedal harder, and pedal longer (pick a higher/harder gear). Like running, one typically has to trade off one for the other. Pedaling faster requires you to pick a lower gear and (generally) pedal lighter. Pedaling harder requires pedaling slower. Again, this is only true if you want to keep your work output constant.


Suppose you are riding up a hill. You can go up this hill by pedaling faster (with a lower gear and less pressure on the pedals), or you can up by pedaling harder (but more slowly), or you can increase your “stride length” (choosing a harder gear, pedaling more slowly). All three of these methods will get you to the top in the same amount of time, but the demands on your various muscular systems will be different. If you want to get up the hill faster, you have to expend more power. E.g., you can pedal faster while maintaining your gear and how hard you are pedaling. Just as in running, pedaling faster puts more load on your cardiovascular system, while pedaling “longer” or harder puts more load on your muscles.


It’s important to keep in mind that none of this assumes a breakdown or drastic change of the running or pedaling form. The goal is still smooth transitions between the various phases of the running stride or pedal stroke. The basic sequence of events is still the same, although some compensation will be required to keep the body in balance (e.g., swinging your arms faster or getting lower over the handlebars).


Hopefully I’ve given you something to think about. I encourage anyone who’s interested to go out and try some of these concepts. Go to Harlem hill and try running up it in various ways. Ride your bike and experiment with maintaining a given speed but use different gears and vary the amount of force you put on the pedals. It’s an enlightening experience. I know it was for me.