From Alex, a former YMCA instructor colleague who was in category II for 12 years, raced as a pro for 3 years, won 2 national championships, and was the 2003 state team time trial champion.
Top BAD things she's seen over the years:
- Low RPM (Revolutions Per Minute; cadence). I've had instructors telling me that I'm not working hard enough because I'm pedaling too fast. Good cycling generally involves higher RPM (80-120) than beginners are comfortable with at first. Of course, you may approach a 'hill' so hard (with so much resistance), that you cannot maintain high RPM.
- Upper Body Movement. I've had instructors tell me I'm not working hard enough because my upper body is too still. Good cycling generally involves little or no upper body movement. Of course, some movement is natural at high levels of effort. Not only should the upper body be still, it should be RELAXED. If you can effortlessly keep your upper body still and relaxed while spinning high RPM, you are on your way to good technique.
- Poor Pedal Stroke. Instructors have often told me to pull this way or that, with little regard for the most effective technique. Beginning cyclists have a very short power stroke. They only push down quickly on the down stroke. Good cycling attempts to lengthen the power stroke beyond the bottom of the cycle as far as possible. To achieve this, the conscious effort is "pulling back." Think about moonwalking, or "scraping mud." Admittedly, this can be difficult for cyclists without clipless pedals. Nevertheless, cyclist should not be instructed to pull up, push forward over the top, or even to push down (down is all too natural).
- Excessive Gymnastics. While instructors are free to ask students to do much of what they feel is best, I would discourage inefficient movements on the bike that tend to interfere with correct pedal technique. As Ray S. has pointed out, they are often discouraged because they are DANGEROUS. This includes rapid stand/sit transitions (with frequencies less than 15 seconds); moving forward or back with respect to the saddle; and any upper body movements other than hand positions, standing, or stretching.
Now the list of what constitutes Good Pedal Technique, starting with the feet and working up:
- Light feet. Weight on the seat not the feet.
- High RPM. Feet move at high RPM (80-120) whenever possible (until resistance is so high it is impossible). If you are bouncing on the saddle, you are probably spinning faster than your technique allow at this point.
- Drop Heel. Attempt to drop heel (heel will not actually drop below ball of foot) at bottom of pedal cycle to include calf muscle in action.
- Moonwalk. Scrape mud off shoe; pull back through bottom half of pedal cycle. This pull-back motion is perhaps the most important technical improvement and the real key to success in cycling. It takes years to develop this somewhat unnatural technique and the tendons and muscles to support it. Even when mastered, it does not come naturally. The reason is to involve more muscles in the cycle and lengthen the "power cycle" over the short down-only technique of beginners. More muscles shifts the burden of hills etc to your heart and away from your legs. Your heart will be your work horse, only needing carbs to keep going. Legs fill with lactate and cannot be trusted like your heart.
- Hips still. Imagine a glass of water on attached to your belt that should not spill. Attach another glass to your forehead: your body follows your head's movement. Don't spill the water.
- Relax. While your hips and head are still, they should also be relaxed. This can be a challenge, esp. at higher RPM. Analogy: a smooth cyclist is 'playing the piano.'
- Flat Back. Back should be flat, not curved (hunched), nor hyper-extended (butt too far out). The best reminder of this is the position that allows your jersey to ride the lowest on your lower back.
- Wrists straight. (This applies more to road cycling, but injuries can result if you hit a bump with wrists locked in 'down' position.)
- Bend elbows slightly. (This is more for road, too, but good to learn.)
- Breath. Breathe in through the nose deeply and slowly, out through the mouth when possible (at lower intensity). This will help lower your heart rate and make you more efficient. The spin bikes have no calibration for reality; no speed, distance, or calories burned. As a result, spinners get sloppy, since there is no advantage to being efficient. But if you want to become a better cyclist, indoors and out, you will benefit by being efficient, and spending all your energy on forward propulsion rather than on sloppy styles. For outdoor cycling, I like to suggest thinking in terms of going 'faster' rather than going 'harder,' since often speed increases are possible without any additional effort (i.e., at the same heart rate) through efficiency increases including those outlined above (as well as mechanical advantages like aero positioning, etc.). Unfortunately, no speed or efficiency criterion is available indoors.