Clipless Pedals: Enhancing Performance or Covering Up Dysfunction?

Clipless Pedals Enhancing Performance or Covering Up Dysfunction

If Something Improves, Performance is it Better?

Better is a relative term, especially when talking about artificial means of performance enhancement. People assume 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 vast difference between the two. The first will let you tap into your 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 with this problem, and we can learn something by looking at the parallels between our situations. The best analogy to explain this concept is using 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, making 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 most muscular guys in the world not use it?

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 knows how to squat, and his technique will look the same with or without the strap, 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 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

Most sports have specialized equipment “better” than standard training equipment, but they only use it to get used to it and competitions. The 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?

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 –  in 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 clips, 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, to keep you honest. During the riding season, at least spend a couple of rides each month on flats to check your technique and make sure that you aren’t developing any bad habits along the way. During the off-season, make sure you do your indoor intervals with them since you can’t practice clipping in and out.

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. 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 to 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 that knowledge needs to come from the perspective of how to use them best.

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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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