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Clipless Pedals: Enhancing Performance or Covering Up Dysfunction?

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Filed Under (Fitness, Knee Injury, Knee Pain) by Rick Kaselj



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If Something Improves Performance is it Better?

Better is a relative term, especially when talking about artificial means of performance enhancement. The mistake people make is assuming that because something improves performance it must be better and therefore you want to use it all of the time. The fact is that equipment can either enhance good technique and fitness, or cover up technique and fitness gaps, and there is a huge difference between the two. The first will let you tap into your own abilities even more and the second will lead to plateaus and overuse injuries.

Mountain Biking and Clipless Pedals

In mountain biking this is seen in the rampant use of clipless pedals, but ours is not the only sport that has this problem and we can learn something by looking at the parallels between our situations. In fact, the best analogy to explain this concept is the use of a weight belt when squatting or deadlifting.

How Clipless Pedals are Like a Weight Belt

Using a weight belt will help you lift more weight, which technically makes it “better” from a performance point of view. However, anyone who knows anything about strength training knows that you don’t use a weight belt all of the time. You save it for when you need it, but on average, 80-90% of your lifts should be without it.

Why is this?

If a weight belt is “better” then why do the strongest guys in the world not use it all of the time?

The answer is because they know that you must build your technique without it so that you keep yourself honest and do not start to use the belt to cover up technique flaws. Watch someone who really knows how to squat and his technique will look the same with or without the belt and his best raw squat (using no belt) won’t be too far behind his squat while using a belt.

Compare this with the average gym rat who uses a weight belt for everything. It doesn’t take a highly trained strength coach to see that they their technique sucks and if you took the belt away and exposed their pathetic core strength they wouldn’t be able to squat nearly as much. Most of us would agree that in this case you are better off building your technique and fitness “raw” and using the equipment to enhance that base.

Specialized Equipment is for Competition

In fact, most sports have specialized equipment that is “better” than normal training equipment but they only use it to get used to it and for competitions. Track has racing shoes, swimming has special suits, and I believe that clipless pedals belong in the same category – equipment that does enhance your performance but not something you should be using all of the time since they can be used to cover up technique flaws.

What Does the Research Say?

The truth is that you should be able to ride a bike relatively well with some good flat pedals and shoes. In one study (Mornieux et al. Int J Sports Med 2008; 29:817-822) it was found that the pedal stroke of elite cyclists looked the same on flats and clipless pedals. Another study (Korff et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007; 39:991-995) showed that pedaling in circles or pulling through the top of the pedal stroke resulted in a less powerful and efficient pedal stroke – ┬áin other words, there is no “magical” pedal stroke that is only available by attaching your foot to the pedals.

If you can’t pedal half as well without being attached to your pedals then that is a sure sign that you would benefit greatly from some time spent riding “raw”, so to speak, and building your technique and fitness base without the aid of being attached to your bike. Once you can ride almost as well on flats as you did on clipess, go back and try clipless pedals again and I’ll bet you see a big difference in how effectively you can use them.

Variety is the Key

It is always a good idea to go back from time to time and spend some time on flats, just to keep you honest. During the off season make sure you do your indoor intervals with them since you can’t really practice clipping in and out anyways. During the riding season at least spend a couple rides each month on flats as a way to check your technique and make sure that you aren’t developing any bad habits along the way.

The dirty little secret is that the best riders are already in this category – take away their clipless pedals and they would still be the best in the world. They are using clipless pedals to enhance their already great technique, not make up for the fact that if their feet weren’t attached to the pedals they would fly off on every climb or rock garden. Training “raw” is a lesson that every sport has learned and we would benefit from not trying be at “100%” all the time and developing our technique and fitness base without the help of artificial enhancements. Clipless pedals are “better” in some regards but with that knowledge needs to come the perspective on how to best use them.

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MTB Strength Training Systems is the world leader in integrated performance training programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. As the strength and conditioning coach for World Cup Teams and 3 National Championships, his programs have been proven at the highest levels. James has helped thousands of riders just like you improve their speed, endurance and skills on the trail. Visit www.bikejames.com to sign up for the free Trail Rider Fundamentals Video Mini-Course.

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Comments posted (10)

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Rick,
I agree with this. I started racing mountain bikes in the early 80s–before clip less pedals and suspension came into the sport. I think I developed better bike handling skills as a result of that experience. It’s not to say clip less pedals and suspension are amazing tools–they are–but I am grateful that I learned the sport without those aids and I think I am a better rider for it.

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The only problem I see with your hypothesis is that you assume clipless pedals are for keeping you “attached” to the bike, when in fact they are designed to allow your leg muscles to work throughout the entire pedal stroke and not just on the downward push. As a cyclist, the quads, which are utilized on the downstroke, already become over developed as they are larger and stronger muscles doing most of the work, versus the hamstrings which are utilized on the upstroke. This inbalance can cause knee issues due to uneven forces pulling and shifting the patella.The altered alignment stresses ligaments and tendons.Excessive use of “flat” (non clip-in) pedals would only exacerbate this situation.A better solution would be to incorporate glute and hamstring strengthening workouts (leg curls) . This would correct alignment of the knee, improve pedal efficiency and boost performance.One legged drills and pedal stroke isolation drills are great tools to use sparingly.

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Granted – this article relates to MTB.

However, if the central principles are applied, then are we to believe that road and track cyclist should be riding flat pedals to stop them developing ‘equipment dependant’ technique?

Spare me.

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James Wilson Reply:

I think you may be missing the point – powerlifters and Olympic weightlifter compete with weight belts but they don’t use them all the time in training. Track runners run in special shoes that make them faster but they don’t train in them all the time. Swimmers have special race suits that they don’t train in all the time.

I am not saying that cyclists shouldn’t use clipless pedals in competition (although most would be shocked at how well they would do without them), simply that not using them has some value and can help ensure that you pedal stroke technique is solid. In any sport having equipment dependent technique is not optimal – you should own your technique and then apply it to the equipment.

I just think that despite what all the advertising money pumped into the cycling industry by the clipless pedal and shoe makers say that flat pedals have a lot of value and can actually make you a better rider.

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@Joe Petersen – Thanks for the insights. While I understand where you are coming from your understanding of how the body powers a pedal stroke is off a bit. Your hamstrings are not made to produce power by curling at the knee (leg curls are a terribly dysfunctional exercise) and instead are made to produce power at the hips while helping to stabilize the knee joint. The idea that you need to curl your leg through the bottom of a pedal stroke is simply wrong and based on old and faulty logic – you want to flex the hip to push the leg through the bottom of the pedal stroke, not flex the knee.

Just like when running you don’t want to produce power by flexing the knee, you simply use knee flexion to get the leg back into position for the next “push”. The human body is made to push, not to pull, and trying to apply pulling (curling the knee is a pull) to lower body locomotion isn’t the most effective thing to do.

You want to produce your power at the hips, not the knee joint. The reason that cyclists have the knee issues they do is because the knee joint lacks stability, not strength. On a side note this is why I am an advocate for standing up more to pedal because it forces the knee and hips joints to act more naturally than seated pedaling does.

So again, there is no “magical” pedal stroke that is only available through clipless pedals. The studies I cited show that elite cyclists apply force to the pedals in the exact same way on flats as they do with clipless pedals – if clipless pedals were allowing you to recruit different muscles at different times then the force application through the pedal stroke would be different.

Clipless pedals do allow you to produce more power and ride faster but that is for very different reasons that the idea that you need to curl your knee or pull through the top of the pedal stroke. The stiffer sole and attachment point artificially strengthen the weak link in the feet, much like a weight belt artificially strengthens the weak link of the low back. While artificially strengthening the weak link dos improve performance in the short term relying and it too much does have long term drawbacks.

I understand that this application of functional movement to cycling is new and calls a lot of what we assumed about the pedal stroke and the value of clipless pedals into question and I don’t expect for everyone to agree with me – clipless pedals are like a religion in cycling and I am basically saying your religion is based on a faulty pretext. However, if you take a step back and look at how the human body optimally moves and compare that to what we are told about the pedal stroke you start to see some glaring discrepancies. All I am trying to do is bring some new things to the discussion.

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James,

Thank you for all you do. I took up trail riding intensively just a few months ago. Mutiple people told me that clips were the way to go, I was almost convinced as my feet kept bouncing off my pedals, but I discovered your site just in time. I picked up some high quality flat pedals and focussed on my form as you recommend. I now feel really solid on my bike, almost glued to my pedals and no longer feel the need to get the clipless. As I increase my skills I may consider them for racing, but perhaps I do not even need them…

Your advice just makes so much sense. I am riding with great confidence and my performance is increasing.

Thank You
Philip.. member of your inner circle…

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Philip Madeley Reply:

PS. That image is a picture of my wife, not me! Not sure how to change that…:)

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Email comment that I got:

Hi Rick,
My name is Joe Petersen. I own a small Personal Training studio and have trained and coached for years. I’ve also been an elete athlete for many years as well. I’ve been teaching indoor cycling for about 20 tears now, as well as racing and coaching cyclists and teams. I am an 8 time State Champion and also an 8 time Race Across America winner.(transcontinental record holder in 4 categories) I recently replied to your article on clipless pedals. I am a fan of yours and respect you immensely, so I wanted to also respond to you individually. The following was my reply.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
The only problem I see with your hypothesis is that you assume clipless pedals are for keeping you “attached” to the bike, when in fact they are designed to allow your leg muscles to work throughout the entire pedal stroke and not just on the downward push. As a cyclist, the quads, which are utilized on the downstroke, already become over developed as they are larger and stronger muscles doing most of the work, versus the hamstrings which are utilized on the upstroke. This inbalance can cause knee issues due to uneven forces pulling and shifting the patella.The altered alignment stresses ligaments and tendons.Excessive use of “flat” (non clip-in) pedals would only exacerbate this situation.A better solution would be to incorporate glute and hamstring strengthening workouts (leg curls) . This would correct alignment of the knee, improve pedal efficiency and boost performance.One legged drills and pedal stroke isolation drills are great tools to use sparingly.
*********************************************************************************************************

This is just my perspective and my experience, based on years of experience, extensive research, personal injuries, clients injuries and conversations with doctors, physical therapists and Sports injury Orthopedists.
Yours in Health and Wellness,
Joe Petersen, owner
Building Better Bodies Fitness

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@ James Wilson: This has been an interesting discussion indeed. Most things in life can be debated and reasonable sounding rationalizations applied to support either side. The bicycle is one of the most amazing inventions ever… created, it allows the human body to work synergistically with machine to produce an incredibly efficient mode of transportation. Perhaps your lengthy and somewhat redundant response and your assumption that I don’t understand proper body mechanics as they are applied to cycling stems from your misunderstanding of my brief comment to an article that I felt would do more harm than good to the cycling community as a whole. The article was based on erroneous information and then utilized comparisons to completely unrelated activities to support its conclusion. There is no denying that hamstrings are used in cycling and no denying that the quads are disproportionately stronger. Leg curls do have a bad rap, because if not done properly they can cause injuries. My reccomendation that they be utilized to strengthen the hamstring in no way implied that knee flexion and curling the leg on the bike was the goal. You assert that the human body “is made to push, not to pull”, when in fact all movement requires dominant and supportive muscles, accelerators and decelerators, stabilizers and rotators. Without strong biceps and hamstrings the kinetic chain would not work efficiently. You also are “an advocate for standing up more to pedal”. I can stand and pedal for hours and hours on any terrain, but I’m also intelligent enough to know that it is not conducive to optimal performance. I also find your “study” on elite cyclist to be somewhat skewed. The study claims the force with both pedals is the same, I’ll buy that. But it goes further to say “” if clipless pedals were allowing you to recruit different muscles at different times then the force application through the pedal stroke would be different.”” You do lift with your hip as you say on the upstroke, but its not a passive lift as it also adds to the overall torque of the entire pedal stroke.(even more so when TTing or climbing) This cannot be done on flat pedals so they limit the power output. The other problem with flat pedals is that they allow the foot to move fore and aft as well as laterally. From an engineering standpoint this is like changing the length and pattern of a piston arm and does not promote optimal performance. For Joe Q public riding on a beach cruiser at 5 to 10 MPH this is not an issue. The cadence is slow enough to allow adequate compensation for stroke discrepencies. For a competitive cyclist riding with a much faster cadence under a much heavier torque the imbalance would be obvious. Lets compare an olympic dead lift with or without a weight belt to cycling with or without clipless pedals??? Really??? A deadlift is a deadlift, the movement is exactly the same.(specificity) It is a limited one time power move and is over in seconds. Cycling on the other hand is a complex series of repetitve movements over a much longer period of time. If the saddle height is right, if the body is positioned on the bike to maximize the riders strengths then it only makes sense to utilize clipless pedals to maintain that position. The “application of functional movement to cycling” is awesome and if we were riding in a petri dish or some simulated ideal lab setting it might almost make sense. Let me ask you this: Put Lance Armstrong on a TT bike with clipless pedals and have him time trial for 20 miles. Now let’s repeat the experiment with ‘flat’ pedals. Who wins this race ? Lance clipless? Lance flat pedals? Just to be clear, clipless pedals are not a crutch, or meant to “keep you attached to the bike”, they do however allow for more fluid movement and incorporate more muscle involvement.(if the bike is fitted properly) I appreciate your thoughts and views, people should never blindly accept anything as fact without exploring for themselves and gaining a personal and complete understanding based on experience and fact. We can agree to disagree here. Training at length in flat pedals as you suggest does more to compromise smoothness and pedal efficiency than any benefit gained through extensively isolating one facet (albeit the main one) of the pedal stroke and overall function between man and machine.

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james Wilson Reply:

We will just have to agree to disagree. I see it how you power a pedal stroke differently, as do a growing number of cycling coaches. I mentioned in a previous reply that Andrew Coggan, Ph. D. author of Training and Racing With a Power Meter did a presentation in which he cited the two studies I referenced and came to the same conclusion – the old thoughts on how to power a pedal stroke are based on faulty logic and that how you describe it is simply wrong. If you took the time to look at the studies I cited you would see that the best way to power a pedal stroke is not pushing and pulling as you describe but a powerful downstroke with a more passive return of the lead leg.

I have discussed this concept with people like Gray Cook, leader in the field of movement based training and Darcy Norman, head cyling coach for Athletes Performance and the T Mobile Cycling Team and they agree with my assessment of the pedal stroke. I am not a lone crackpot saying controversial stuff with no backing – I researched my position and am confident that while not popular it is correct. While not every coach I have talked with may share my views on the value of flats they all agree that we need to move past the old thoughts on powering a pedal stroke through “spinning circles” as you describe.

So now we have a choice – you can read thr studies and check out some of the evidence I have presented and let me know what you think or we can agree to disagree. Whatever you decide, at the end of the day we are both trying to do the best we can with the info we have – I just think that there is a lot more info out there than you may be aware of.

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