Good cycling form consists of five components: breathing, sitting position, pedaling technique and expression on the face.
How’s your cycling for Good cycling form consists of five components: breathing, sitting position, pedaling technique and expression on the face.
How’s your cycling form? Form is what makes professionals look stylish and effortless. Well, on the inside it hurts like hell, while on the outside, it’s all poker face, souplesse and perfect poise.
Form is actually a combination of several aspects: how you hold your body on the bike, how you sit on the saddle, how you pedal, how you breathe, and what expression you have on your face when riding uphill.
The perfect place to assess and improve your form is on the turbo-trainer, but this isn’t only about looking good, although that’s a nice side effect. The drills that develop good form improve performance, help prevent injury, and make you go faster while looking professional.
Good form is essential because it improves cycling efficiency, which means that you can ride at the same speed with less effort. In other words, you can get the Holy Grail: speed gain without effort cost.
Like many improvements in cycling, good form doesn’t come easy; it demands practice. However, it’s easier to master than, for instance, increasing climbing speed, which requires big fitness gains or lower weight.
You can improve your form through the simple repetition of good practice. Repetition includes the complex set of movements linked to good form in the brain. This is often called ‘muscle memory,’ but the more correct term is motor learning. Through repetition, the brain is trained to be able to duplicate the movements without paying special attention or conscious thought, leading to them becoming automatic.
If you practice frequently, you’ll improve your coordination and synchronization of the muscles used in cycling, automatically riding like a professional and doing it economically and efficiently. There are very few easy wins in cycling, but developing good form is as close as you can get. There are five most important elements to good form, and here we will look at them more closely.
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1 DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING
Inhale and let your belly ‘pouch out’. Exhale, while focusing on hollowing out the belly, with a small cavity forming under the ribs. Belly out, belly in, take long breaths.
2 SITTING ON THE SADDLE
Pay attention to where your sit bones are on the saddle. Rotate the pelvis very a little forward—think about pushing your pubic bone towards the handlebars. Once the sit bones are in the right position, it’s about maintaining good posture by being vigilant.
3 PEDALLING TECHNIQUE
The easiest way to get to know your pedal stroke is to do single-leg drills. As you pedal, focus on how the pedal stroke feels, then include the other foot back in and pedal normally. Try to power your way through the weak spots you’ve identified.
4 UPPER BODY STRENGTH AND POSTURE
Dynamic and static plank routines are among the most effective workouts to do indoors. Try to build them into your turbo time, with a short routine either before or after a session.
5 POKER FACE
Begin the upper body self-check routine at the head. When the interval gets really painful, your own pain face works wonders for relaxing the facial muscles.
1 DEEP BREATHING
Breathe in: take in oxygen. Breathe out: expel carbon dioxide. Breathing is actually a simple exchange of gases. The harder you cycle, the more CO2 is produced by the body and the greater the necessity to get rid of it and replace it with oxygen. That’s all straightforward.
There are two types of breathing, and one is far better than the other for the kind of hard, sustained aerobic efforts that allow cyclists to climb well or maintain high speed on the flat.
Shallow or thoracic respiration may be best described as panting. Breaths are hard and short and the heart has to divert more blood to the lungs to make the gas exchange more efficient. Heart rate rises and you feel out of breath and a little out of control. It’s not the best way of breathing through a sustained effort because it’s not especially efficient. Thoracic, or chest, breathing means that muscles are working to try to expand the rib cage which only flexes to a limited degree and allows only a small expansion of the lungs.
Diaphragmatic, or belly, breathing is a much better technique for cyclists to breathe when working hard. The diaphragm is a large muscle which is located beneath the lungs. Expansion and contraction of the diaphragm gives the lungs more room to expand downwards towards the abdomen which is far more flexible. A greater volume of gas is taken in and breathed out and because the duration of each breath is longer, the exchange of gases becomes more efficient resulting in a lower heart rate and improved cardiac efficiency. Diaphragmatic breathing creates the illusion of a beer belly—and you can often spot this in professional riders. These are lean people but if you look carefully at a pro rider on a hard climb, you’ll often see what looks like a beer stomach. It’s not, of course—it’s an obvious sign of diaphragmatic breathing.
The turbo is a great place to practice. After a good warm-up, set yourself up for a 5-minute interval at time trial pace. You should be working hard but at a rate you think you could maintain for an hour. It should be hard but manageable. Aim for a good cadence of 85-90rpm and try to time your respiratory in response to your pedal strokes. Use one foot to keep things simple and breathe in for two complete revolutions, then breathe out for two complete revolutions. As you improve, push this as much as three revolutions per breath.
How to do it?
Forcibly exhale, and as you do let your stomach ‘pouch out’ by consciously trying to give yourself a ‘beer belly’. Inhalation will take care of itself, but as you do it, focus on hollowing out the belly, creating a small cavity under the ribs. Belly out, belly in, long breaths—yeah, this is it, you’ve cracked diaphragmatic breathing. Once you’ve got the hang of this vital technique, increase the length and frequency of the intervals. The diaphragm is a muscle and using it fully will increase its strength.
2 SITTING ON THE SADDLE
How are your ischial tuberosities today? Don’t know? What about your sit bones? The ischial tuberosities are two bony swellings at the lower back section of the hip, which bear most of our weight when sitting down. Sit bones are especially important for cyclists for fairly obvious reasons, and two factors are essential.
The first is to make sure that you have a saddle that’s the correct width and shape to support the sit bones. Secondly, posture in the saddle should be maintained to ensure that the sit bones can do their job. Let’s assume that your saddle is the right width and focus on posture. The reason that we want sit bones to carry most of the rider’s weight is twofold. It’s more efficient for weight to be carried by the skeletal structure because it gives a solid platform for pedalling. Conversely, allowing the delicate areas around the sit bones to be recruited for the weight-bearing task risks damage and soreness, in particular to many of the nerves and soft tissue in this area. The consequences can be pretty serious. It’s often said that the most important element of form is to sit ‘on’ the saddle rather than ‘in’ the saddle—making sure the sit bones are carrying the weight of the rider.
Again, the turbo, with its relatively few distractions in comparison to riding on the road, is a perfect way to practise posture in the saddle. Most of this is about experimentation, awareness and vigilance. While you’re riding, focus on where your sit bones are on the saddle. Can you feel them? Are they carrying the weight or has your pelvis slumped backwards in the saddle so that your weight is being borne by soft tissues?
One trick to get your sit bones in the right position is to rotate the pelvis very slightly forward — think about pushing your pubic bone towards the handlebars. When you’ve become aware and experimented with pelvic positions to get the sit bones in the right position, it’s about maintaining good posture by being vigilant. A good exercise is to get the sit bones correctly positioned and then complete a demanding interval. You’ll be tempted to let posture slip as you work harder, so focus on feeling the sit bones and holding position as the workload increases.
3 PEDALLING TECHNIQUE
Given it’s a relatively straightforward action, the advice around pedalling technique tends to get over-complicated. One of the most frequently given bits of wisdom is that cyclists should pull on the upstroke — the notorious ‘scraping-the-mud-off-the-shoe’ technique. While the evidence isn’t definitive, this advice can probably be safely ignored. Studies show two things: this pedalling technique is pretty difficult to do, and it doesn’t have much effect.
The same goes for the ‘ideal cadence’ theory. Again, there are competing conclusions, but today the majority view is that unless a very fast cadence (over 95rpm) comes to you naturally, then ‘self-selected’ cadence is probably better. This means that out on the road you should turn the pedals at a rate you’re comfortable with. Nevertheless, cycling indoors does provide a good opportunity to do some higher-cadence drills, not so much targeted at consistently increasing your natural cadence, but to practise a good pedalling action under pressure.
Good form is closely connected to the smoothness and fluidity of the pedal action, ensuring that each leg does an equal amount of work while making sure that the power stroke is maximized. Like the pros, we should be concentrated on pedalling in circles, not squares.
One of the fastest ways of getting to know your pedal stroke — and how to improve it and consequently your overall form — is to do single-leg drills, also known as isolated leg drills. While it’s theoretically possible to do these outside, it’s much easier to do them on the turbo.
Unclip one foot, support the other one either on the trainer or a stool, and pedal. Begin with an easy to moderate resistance and a cadence of 80-90rpm. Aim for 20-30 seconds and, as you pedal, focus on how the pedal stroke feels. Where are your weak spots? Where are you losing power? Clip the other foot back in and pedal normally, but try to power your way through the weak spots you’ve found. Swap legs and repeat the procedure.
Over time your pedal stroke will become more powerful and fluid; when this happens, lengthen the duration of the single-leg phases. Single-leg drills not only improve your stroke but also train the hip flexor muscles so you get a double benefit.
Once you have several of these sessions under your belt, using both legs, complete a couple of cadence pyramids. Cycle one minute with each at 80rpm, 85rpm, 90rpm, 95rpm and 100rpm, then come back down the other side in 5rpm steps. This isn’t primarily designed to improve natural cadence but to practise your improved pedal stroke as leg speed increases. This embeds the motor learning or “muscle memory” effect.
4 UPPER BODY STRENGTH AND POSTURE
Another part of good form is the ability to maintain a relaxed and stable upper body. Hunched shoulders and a death grip on the bars are a waste of energy and don’t look good. This is often referred to as a ‘quiet’ upper body.
A relaxed upper body is probably not as important to good form as deep breathing and efficient pedalling but it’s all part of the bigger picture. If you hunch up, move around and squeeze the bars, it’s more likely that other components of form will deteriorate, using up energy that could be used for pedalling.
A good core helps, and it’s a good idea to take some time to strengthen your upper body. Dynamic and static plank routines are among the best workouts to do indoors — try to incorporate them into your turbo time, with a short routine either before or after a training session. On the bike, maintaining a quiet upper body is all about awareness. As the turbo session gets more difficult, do a self-check. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed, your grip light and your hips rooted and level.
5 THE POKER FACE
The poker face is probably the defining characteristic of a pro cyclist. Having and maintaining a poker face, especially under pressure, is an exquisite skill. From the performance perspective, it’s probably immaterial, other than in avoiding showing weakness to an opponent.
Gurning may cost a little energy, and some people believe that a ‘pain face’ sends a signal to the brain that the body is under stress and numerous mechanisms engage to decrease energy expenditure. However, there’s little or no evidence for this. So let’s be honest — it just doesn’t look good.
Even when it feels really hard, it’s best to make it look easy; gurning shatters the illusion. Practise! Start the upper body self-check routine at the head, and when that interval really is painful, check if you’ve lapsed into pain face mode. You can also consider installing a mirror in your eye-line — seeing your own pain face works wonders for relaxing the facial muscles.
Good form is a combination of a series of parts, and to expect that each element can be instantly integrated into a beautiful whole is of course unrealistic. Practise each element separately and gradually combine them all into one unit. You can devote a couple of sessions in one week to deep breathing, and the following week focus on your seated posture. In week three, put these together. Then continue with enhancing your pedalling technique and in the end focus on maintaining the poker face. Last but not least, incorporate strength straining for your core into your week fitness plan.