Limiting radial pedal forces greatly reduces maximal power output and efficiency in sprint cycling: an optimal control study

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2023 Apr 1;134(4):980-991. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00733.2021. Epub 2023 Feb 24.


A cyclist's performance depends critically on the generated average mechanical power output (AMPO). The instantaneous mechanical power output equals the product of crank angular velocity, crank length, and the tangential pedal force. Radial pedal forces do not contribute to mechanical power. It has been suggested that radial pedal forces arise from suboptimal pedaling technique and that limiting these would increase AMPO and efficiency. Here, we presented an optimal control musculoskeletal model of a cyclist (consisting of five segments driven by nine Hill-type muscle-tendon units) to predict maximal AMPO during sprint cycling at different levels of allowed radial pedal forces. Our findings showed that limiting radial pedal forces has a detrimental effect on maximal AMPO; it dropped from 1,115 W without a limit on radial forces to 528 W when no radial forces were allowed (both at 110 rpm). We explained that avoiding radial pedal forces causes ineffective use of muscles: muscles deliver less positive power and have a higher muscle power dissipation ratio (average mechanical power dissipated per unit of average positive power delivered). We concluded that radial pedal forces are an unavoidable by-product when optimizing for maximal AMPO and that limiting these leads to a performance decrease.NEW & NOTEWORTHY In the literature, but also in the "cycling field" [e.g., trainers, coaches, and (professional) cyclists], it is often suggested that trying to limit/avoid radial pedal forces enhances cycling technique and with that maximal average power output and efficiency. In this paper, we introduce an optimal control model of a human cyclists (consisting of five segments and driven by nine Hill-type muscle-tendon complex models). With that we not only show, but also explain why limiting radial forces is a bad idea: it will decrease maximal attainable AMPO and will decrease efficiency.

Keywords: cycling technique; effective force; energetics; index of effectiveness; optimal control.

MeSH terms

  • Bicycling / physiology
  • Foot
  • Humans
  • Muscle, Skeletal* / physiology
  • Tendons*

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.21711020