Which is Better: Pedaling More or Pedaling Less?

 

If you want to go faster, should you pedal more or pedal less? It may seem like a trick question, but really it’s not. Conventional wisdom would say that pedaling more yields more power and that makes you go faster. But pedaling more also burns more energy, which can leave you without the necessary energy for big efforts later in your event or training session. As with many aspects of cycling the answer depends on the conditions, and here is how to determine whether you’ll benefit from pedaling more or less in your next event:

In a big pack

When you’re safely ensconced in the belly of a big pack of riders you want to pedal less. Take advantage of the draft and only add enough power to the pedals to maintain your position. While spinning a light gear at a higher cadence is a good idea in many cycling situations, in this case you should shift into a bigger gear you can roll at about 80rpm. The goal – as you’ll see in most of the scenarios that follow – is to minimize hard or sudden accelerations. You have to pay attention, though, so you can respond quickly – and shift if necessary – to changes in pace.

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Criteriums

When you look at a power file from a criterium it’s a long series of power spikes. You slow down in the corners and accelerate out of them, over and over again. The harder those accelerations the more fatiguing they are and the fewer you’ll be able to execute. To be more successful in criteriums you want to reduce the intensity of these accelerations by carrying more speed through the corners. Sometimes this means pedaling more:  many riders stop pedaling too early as they head into a corner, which scrubs speed and necessitates a harder acceleration after the turn. You can also pedal more by starting to pedal sooner on the exit of a corner, just make sure you don’t hit your inside pedal on the ground. On some courses that are wide and have easy turns, riding near the front (where there is less of an accordion effect in corners) can be quite smooth, in which case you can try to go back to pedaling less to conserve energy.

Mountain biking

When it comes to mountain biking, the decision whether to pedal more or less comes down to opportunity. Mountain bikers often coast on descents, especially when descending out of the saddle. Some technical challenges on flat ground or descents also encourage coasting, and athletes may coast through short smooth sections between technical challenges. If your goal is to go fast, however, it pays to examine your style of riding and look for opportunities to pedal more. This was one of the things that helped CTS Athlete Rebecca Rusch when she set the solo speed record on the 142-mile Kokopelli Trail. She reduced the amount of time she was coasting so she was able to maintain a steadier effort overall. She minimized the need for high-power efforts and accelerations by not losing speed to coasting.

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Time Trials

To perform well in a time trial it’s important to look for places where your effort can make a significant difference. Going harder on the descent isn’t as helpful as hammering the climb because everyone can go fast on the descent; even with a big effort there you won’t go that much faster. On the other hand, giving a bigger effort on the climb can create a big time gap in your favor. The basic premise is this: Go harder when the going gets harder. Climbs and headwinds are the places where your efforts can gain you big advantages. So, it’s not so much pedal more or pedal less in time trials, because you’re going to be pedaling the whole time. But you want to focus your most powerful pedaling on the hardest parts of the course.

Cobblestones

Since I recently got back from riding the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix courses, cobblestones are still on my mind. One of the most important lessons about riding cobblestones is that you have to pedal more, not less. I think this lesson applies well to rock gardens in mountain biking, sand pits in cyclocross, and rough terrain on any bike. Momentum is absolutely crucial in these situations and as soon as you stop pedaling in rough terrain you lose momentum, and once it’s lost it is very difficult to regain.


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Ultra distance/Gravel Grinders

In the ultradistance space making a recommendation to pedal less or more isn’t so clear. When you’re talking about events that are 12+ hours, small time gains can add up to a substantial difference in finishing time. So pedaling on gradual descents to go slightly faster may only gain you a few seconds on each rolling hill, but 12 hours later that could be a 10-minute difference. On the other hand, coasting the downhills so you conserve energy to climb significantly faster – especially hours later – could create that same 10-minute difference, or more.

When in doubt, in any of the conditions mentioned above or any other conditions you encounter, two good principles to use in guiding your decision are:

  1. Hard accelerations or sharp power spikes (even if they don’t lead to much of an increase in speed) lead to fatigue faster. That doesn’t mean you should aim for one steady speed or power output at all times, but it does mean that more gradual accelerations are less fatiguing than sudden, sharp ones.
  2. Pedal when it’s going to make the greatest difference. When pedaling provides additional opportunity to maintain momentum or gain time rather than just staying equal with everyone else, then pedal. If pedaling more isn’t going to provide additional benefit (like in the sweet spot in the middle of the pack), pedal less.

Have a Great Weekend!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS


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Comments 6

  1. What about a century, I just completed my first century of the year while training for GFNY later this month. While training on hilly rides I ride a higher cadence 90-95 with my HR at a mid zone 4 mid zone 5. Todays century only had 2500 feet of rolling hills I was more comfortable at 75-85 at 19-23 mph drafting with my HR at a high Zone 3 low zone 4.

  2. I just discovered a high and low cadence alert on my new to me Garmin Edge cycling computer. I have the low set to go off at 85. It also has a race partner where you set its distance and time then you try to beat it. At one part in the course yesterday I hit a head wind. Over the winter I really worked on producing power in the lowest possible position on the bike. This along with the cadence at around 95-100 allowed me to gain time against the computer in what I thought would be the biggest loss on the course. Watching the heart rate also helped me during recovery making sure it dipped around 150 at a low 80 rpm before pushing the needle again. I was able to keep my avg heart rate at 96% of my max for the entire hour (I am 49) by watching heart rate and low cadence during recovery. Watching all of these numerics also makes it fun for me as I pilot through the course.

  3. And then there is the Tri. In this case conventional wisdom is to maintain your own race pace…based on your own training and abilities and the particular course. Here the balance needs to be one that plays to your own strengths. So a slower runner (like me) may make up needed time by pushing on the bike, but not to the detriment of burning out your legs. Pedaling more in an easier gear will keep cadence up, maintain speed and save your legs…for hills it seems to stay with the pack and wait for the opportunity to accelerate, get a lead often by standing and sprinting for short distances to pick up speed up hill for example and settle back in…saving the legs and managing incremental gains.

  4. Finding ones ideal cadence when climbing long hardish hills is more of a problem. Push too big a gear and before long your legs are banjaxed, too easy a gear and you are cycling on the spot. I suggest experimenting until you find what suits you and as hills differ a pre-sportive reconnaissance can have you looking good on the ‘Big Day’

    1. Than do as I do…ride the way you want when you want at whatever pace you want after all your riding because you want to. No line and no time.

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