Toe Down vs. Heel Down
Pedal efficiency is a cycling nerd subject. We all know how to ride a bike but the triathlete who’s really dedicated really wants to know how to ride a bike. Really.
Pedaling technique is an argument over how to be more efficient. Should you ride toe down? Heel down? Or somewhere in between?
Through my research and experience, great cyclists and triathletes have accompanied all forms of pedaling techniques. The legends have run the full gambit of toe down, heel down, and average. So it only stands to reason that this kind of pedal technique is not necessarily indicative of your cycling prowess.
Thus, I suppose we could technically just stop here and say it doesn’t really matter which you gravitate towards.
But of course, it’s always interesting to understand why a triathlete might prefer pedaling toe down vs. heel down so that we can understand what kind of cyclist we might be and why we should accept it.
A toe dipper tends to have a longer pedal stroke. Triathletes with toe down typically sit higher and primarily use their legs as the lever while diminishing use of their feet. Toe dippers will also have a force vector at the rear of their stroke and, since all actions require an equal and opposite reaction, this tends to push the cyclist more forward onto their arms and hands. As a result, the rider will sit further back on the saddle to compensate and relieve upper body weight.
Contrast that with a heel down triathlete. Heel droppers use their feet as the lever in conjunction with their legs. They tend to have a lower saddle height, all other things being equal, and a shorter overall pedal stroke. Obviously, this means their force vector is more forward and, as a result; they’re pushing themselves back on the saddle. Therefore, heel droppers are allowed to sit further up on the saddle to compensate for the weight distribution.
What does this all mean? It means we all ride differently. Toe dippers may have less overall leverage but they retain a longer pedal stroke. On the flip side, heel dippers have more leverage but a shorter stroke. Essentially, and again. all other things being equal, the power output gets balanced. One does not necessarily have the advantage over the other.
What this means for you is that you should only focus on the criteria that benefits your pedaling technique as it now stands.
Steve Hogg, perhaps the world’s best known independent bike fitter, has the right advice in mind regarding how to approach effective pedal technique. I highly recommend his article on the subject at this link.
In short, improving pedaling technique is a result of reasonable flexibility, good posture, and bike and cleat position.
Cycling and triathlon nerds know that flexibility from the hip flexor, and, as a result the lower back and hamstrings, are key to preventing restrictions from your hip movement when pedaling and, most importantly, utilizing the glutes – the body’s most powerful muscle group responsible for movement.
Posture, or in other words, core strength, is required to maximize priority utilization of the right muscle groups, such as your glutes and quads, when staying upright on the bike. If your posture suffers, you’ll inadvertently transfer effort to other muscle groups that do not add anything to your cycling, all just to stay upright. These are weaker muscles like the lower back, shoulders, and arms. Poor posture also hinders your lungs and, by effect, the oxygen intake that contributes to your overall efficiency.
Bike and cleat position, according to Steve Hogg, is primarily meant to give you the best functionality without you having to think about it. His logic is that rather than overthink pedaling technique, ensure that how your body functions on the bike is at its most optimal state. Good pedal technique will follow as a result of the central nervous system responding to what’s most efficient.
I couldn’t agree more. Good flexibility, posture, and bike and cleat position were the pieces of the puzzle that always contributed to my triathlon cycling performance the most – for better or worse. When I was tight and inflexible, I noticed the difference in my muscular endurance on long rides. When my posture suffered, so did my lower back. And until I had my position corrected I was losing out on both aerodynamics and power.
Whether my toes pointed down or my heels stayed flat on the down-stroke was mostly inconsequential when the heat of hard triathlon interval training or racing was on.
On the other hand, this isn’t to say that there aren’t other ways of looking at pedal technique. In Part II, we’ll consider toe down vs. heel down on the flats as compared to hill climbing. We’ll also consider the technique of “ankling” and attempt to determine if it has any merit. Come back for the next post to learn more!
When comparing toe down vs. heel down from a pedaling efficiency perspective, these ‘techniques’ have little to say in terms of absolute advantage so long as all other aspects of triathlon cycling competency are equal.
TALK WITH TRIDOT:
Are you a toe dipper? Are you a heel dropper? Or are you what’s considered average? Have you tried experimenting with your pedaling technique and, if so, what did you find?
JARED MILAM is a former professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and former member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 17 years of competitive running experience and 12 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.