What is cycling economy and how do we improve it?

Improve your performance on two wheels without having to ride harder? It is possible and it’s all down to cycling economy. Here’s what you need to know.

Imagine generating a certain amount of power with lower energy expenditure than you do now. Or imagine pushing more watts with less exertion. Wouldn't that be the dream? Well, that dream can become reality and doesn’t even require improving your FTP (functional threshold of power) or logging more VO2max sessions. Sure, these routes won’t hurt but you should focus on something else. It’s time to talk about an oft-neglected metric: cycling economy.

What is it? Why is it important for cycling performance? And, more importantly, how do we improve it?

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The physiology

Tom Bell, coach of the High North Performance coaching company. Photo: Bell archive.

In physiological terms, we define economy as "the oxygen cost for a given power output", says Tom Bell of Harrogate-based coaching company High North Performance. (Bell practices what he preaches with national and international victories in hill climbs and MTB races to his name.) “For example, someone's economy might be utilising two litres of oxygen per minute at a fixed 280 watts.”

In other words, it’s the volume of oxygen required to move the body at a given speed or power output, so to become more economical means pushing the same power output for a lower oxygen cost per minute. Or sustaining more watts for the same oxygen cost. Before we delve deeper, it’s important at this juncture to separate cycling economy and cycling efficiency (gross efficiency). They're not synonyms.

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“Some people use economy and efficiency interchangeably,” says Bell. "But there's a difference. While economy’s about oxygen cost related to power output, efficiency is the percentage ratio of external work compared to total energy expenditure. World-class riders are around 25% efficient compared to recreational riders who are around 13%.”

Importance of good cycling economy

Bell mountain biking. Photo: Bell's archive.

Cycling economy is one of the key performance determinants alongside VO2max and lactate threshold. That might surprise you but the fact data generally comes from hitting a lab means cycling economy is less common in coaching and training practices. But that doesn’t mean it should be neglected.

“There could be two or three athletes with the same VO2max but their race results won’t be the same because their economy differs,” explains Bell. “The athlete with the highest VO2max won’t win the endurance race if their economy is poor."

Related: What is cycling torque and how to improve it.

Generally speaking, the longer the event – like long sportives or mountain-bike marathons – the greater the influence economy exerts on race results compared to VO2max scores. On the other hand, it’s less of a determinant in short events like hill climbs and short track races.Tom Bell. Photo: Bell archive.

It begs the question: how do you improve your cycling economy? “The most proficient way is simply by increasing training time,” says Bell. “Typically, that’s going to be via low-intensity rides.”

Improved economy’s related to the amount of slow-twitch fibres in your muscles, so more of these will make you more economical. And unlike VO2max, which decreases with age, the good news is that economy can improve as the years pass by, as long as you spend more time training at lower intensities and increase your training volume.

The biomechanical economy

Photo: Jake Yarranton Precise Performance.

Improving economy isn’t simply a physiological task. There are gains to be had through bike fitting, pedalling technique and core workouts. “From a biomechanical standpoint, economy is about transmitting power down to the bottom bracket through the cranks and eventually to the back wheel with the minimum amount of losses,” says Rachel McKay, coach and bike fitter at EliteBikeCoach.

That includes ticking off fundamentals like ensuring your bike’s functioning properly and the chain’s lubed. You should also focus on your bike position. “It’s about finding your optimum, sustainable position so that your muscles can generate maximum power,” says McKay.

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McKay typically focuses on having everything – shoulders, hips, knees, feet – pointing straight ahead to both limit the lateral waste of energy and to avoid twisting forces through the joints. “Some riders have particular joint issues, so we have to make slight adjustments. But as a rule, in general what we're looking for is everything pointing straight ahead,” she says.

A good bike fit should not only help you become more aero, first and foremost it’s about being more comfortable while pushing the power from your legs down to the cranks and pedals. That’s helped by ensuring your upper body is relaxed and doesn’t leach energy bouncing and wobbling around.

Improve your technique

Photo: Getty Images.

Once the rider’s correctly placed on their bike, McKay focuses on the rider’s pedalling technique. This can be a more complex task than you’d imagine, as our legs have evolved to walk and jog, not to rotate a pair of cranks in circles.

“Our legs are very good at pressing down [in the pedal stroke] from about the one o’clock position through to the five o’clock position,” says McKay. “But they’re not designed to do anything from that back half of the pedalling stroke.”

The solution, says McKay, isn’t the intuitive one, which is to pay extra focus on the pull phase of the stroke. This invariably means lifting the legs up and engaging the hip flexors. Don’t do this as you could potentially damage your hip flexors. Instead...

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“Many riders start pressing down on the pedals at about the one or two o’clock position. They stomp down and relax when they reach the four o’clock position. So they’re actually only putting torque through a small part of the pedal stroke. Then they drift the leg round, up, over the top, doing pretty much nothing, and then they stomp down again. Instead, start the pedal stroke earlier at around the 11 o’clock position.”

You might then think it’s about applying pressure at the bottom of the pedal stroke, often called the ‘scraping of the barrel’. Again, avoid this as it can cause issues to the hip flexors. “Ultimately, improving pedal economy comes down to what happens at the top dead centre [not the down dead one]. The trick is to stop that big drop off in torque and focus on picking up the pedal stroke early. By picking up the pedal stroke early, you'll generate greater power.” 

Strong core and strength

Finally, as we know from Newton’s third law of mechanics, each action has an equal and opposite reaction. The same happens when you cycle and push your pedals down: opposing forces apply to your leg from the bottom up. So if you don’t have a strong core balancing these forces, they can destabilise your upper body and decrease your pedalling economy.

“To get your legs doing the talking, you need to have a really stable pelvic floor and solid core," explains McKay. That’s achieved not only by the standard core exercises off the bike but also through specific drills on the bike and changes in position.

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If you’re looking for an example of economical excellence, look no further than the legend that is Lizzie Deignan. “She’s amazing,” says McKay. “She’s obviously worked hard on her body and core, and her position is textbook. Fantastic.”

Improving your cycling economy’s a surefire way to better biking. With the sportive season on the horizon, there’s no better time to action the changes mentioned. Allez, allez, allez…!

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