This tip applies to every discipline of endurance sports. The concept is pretty simple: Basically, if we aren't generally relaxed when biking, running, swimming, etc. we’re burning more energy than needed. This also increases perceived exertion and costs us power and speed. Since we start every workout or race with a finite amount of energy reserves, any amount of waste is pretty important in these endurance sports of ours. I don't know about you, but I don't really want to waste energy in my next race.
Let’s take a second to demonstrate how this works. First, make sure someone cute is looking your way and then flex your bicep. Now why didn't your hand go flying into the side of your head? It’s because your triceps tensed to resist the pull of the bicep; And it happened without you thinking about it. In the context of cycling, the same thing can happen in our legs every time the pedals go around - especially if we’re pushing hard and concentrating on any particular part part of the pedal stroke. Throughout the motion, tension in our legs can get in the way and resist the motion of other muscles. And because we’re already working hard, it’s easy to mistake this excess tension amidst the work the legs are already doing.
If you have a power meter on your bike, you can easily see this effect during hard steady-state efforts. Simply focusing on relaxing the legs and allowing them to flow through the pedal stroke will show an instant difference of at least a few watts for the same or lower heart rate and perceived exertion. Even without a PM, you can compare times of all-out efforts on the same section of road or trail. It’s a safe bet that the times you “relax into the effort” will be better performances.
In the context of running, I find that unnecessary tension has a double-whammy effect. Besides the losses in speed and efficiency, my experience has shown an increased risk of injury. I find this quite common when an athlete keeps tension in their leg in an attempt to control their foot landing. The volume of dogma around heel-striking has many athletes in fear of their heel ever contacting the ground. When this happens, they often tense their lower legs - often subconsciously. This tension takes away the natural ability of the lower leg to act as a shock-absorber. Common results are stress fractures and a pain around the kneecap, often broadly diagnosed as 'runner's knee'.
This loss of energy due to tension holds true for other parts of the body, too. The arms, shoulders, neck and face are all prone to being tensed, which burns extra energy and increases perceived exertion. This can also lead to shallow breathing - something we'll cover in the next tip. The grimacing “pain face” we all know and love can be a major cause of tension. Relaxing the face is a great way to remind the rest of the body to relax as well - psychologists call this the facial feedback hypothesis.
The many faces of pain.
Besides simply focusing on relaxing on the bike, there are a couple drills that can be done to help get our pedaling smoother and more natural. Repeated intervals from 1-10 minutes long at the highest cadence we can smoothly maintain are very helpful. Single-leg pedaling drills are also great for smoothing your pedal stroke. Make sure whenever doing these drills that your pedal stroke is perfectly smooth. It’s better to practice 110 RPM’s smoothly than 130 bouncing out of the saddle. We’re building muscular memory here, so make the motion perfect. In a few rides, you should be able to comfortably spin a much higher, smoother cadence.
So give this tip a try next time you’re out for a hard ride or race. Take inventory of your body and try to relax into the harder efforts. Just paying attention to where there’s tension in your body can be helpful for reducing its effects. The more aware you are of your own natural tendencies, the easier it will be to fix.
If this makes a difference for you, I'd love to hear about it. Feel free to drop me a line.