What do you mean “Pedalling in circles”?


She asked “What do you mean pedalling in circles? I have no choice but to pedal in circles”.

She is right, of course. Unfortunately, some of us take cycling lingo for granted.

I spent 54 hours on a spinning bike over the past 2 months completing a customized training program with nothing to look at other than myself (I was facing a full length mirror), a cycle computer and my heart rate monitor. The workouts got progressively more difficult, analogous to 10-15 km climbs up steeper and steeper grades. My thoughts quickly turned to my pedal stroke. What could I do to complete this workout? What could I do to make my pedal stroke more efficient and, consequently, less tiring?

The answer was quite simple. Pedal in circles. Make use of all the leg muscles throughout the pedal stroke, not just on the down stroke. When climbing, at the top of the stroke, the heel lowers to engage the ankle, calve and hamstring muscles more. This is natural. The body knows what to do.

Now that I am out on the roads bikes more, I notice that I “pedal in circles” most of the time without even thinking about it. Two months of spinning indoors has done that. I find I climb seated most of the time and tackle steep inclines more easily. On the weekend I road a new route and encountered a short but very, very steep climb. A cliff. When it first came into view, I thought I may have to walk up. Surprisingly, I geared down and completed the kilometre climb without having to get out of the saddle and, much more easily than I expected.

If you don’t know what “pedalling in circles” feels like, try pedalling with one leg for a minute or two. This is a technique used by cyclists wanting to improve their stroke. You’ll find you cannot pedal unless you push down and pull up, engaging all the leg muscles to get back to the top of the stroke. I warm-up on the spinning bike using this technique. One minute with the left leg, one minute both legs and, one minute right leg for 10-15 minutes. I do this in a low gear and a high cadence just to get the feel of the stroke in preparation for the workout.

So, I said to her “engage all of your legs muscles during the pedal stroke and you will tire less quickly and, climb more easily”.


9 thoughts on “What do you mean “Pedalling in circles”?

    • I don’t think it matters. It’s about cycling efficiently and that benefits all types of cyclists. I commute to the office and have a lot of hills to navigate. I also do a lot of day trips and like to arrive with energy to spare.

      • I have to agree with you on this one… Especially because I’m still young enough to be a little vain and full circles give one a great ass. That notwithstanding, Dan’s right too… While it will help at any speed, the harder I push the bike, the more important efficiency becomes. Great post my friend.

  1. Is it possible to pedal with just one leg while using flat pedals or do you have to be using clipless to do that? Because I have tried on my flat pedals once before and I couldn’t make it work.

    • No. You need clip less pedals. I suggest you wait for better weather, purchase a pair of touring type cycling shoes (if don’t already have them) and SPD pedals. You’ll notice a big difference.

      I can’t get the image of you trying to “pedal in circles” with flat pedals and heavy winter boots.

      • Thank goodness, it seemed completely impossible so it is nice to know that it isn’t supposed to be possible. (I did try during the summer with shoes not my boots.)

        I am currently working on buying some type of road bike for this summer so I will definitely follow your advice for pedals.

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