Here at Endeavor Performance we enjoy giving our clients a variety of challenging workouts. To this end, we believe single-legged cycling drills are among the most beneficial exercises a cyclist or triathlete may perform. However, many people don’t enjoy these drills during workouts. Why? The short answer is because they are hard.
For those who aren’t familiar, a single-leg drill is exactly what it sounds like: You pedal with just one leg. This is best done on an indoor trainer— rather than outside—because you have more stability, you don’t carry momentum on the trainer, and you can completely focus on the task at hand. Attempting this drill on a standard outdoor ride would make it harder to receive the full benefit, as one would have to control their coasting and focus on ensuring the safety of one’s surroundings.
Single leg cycling drills are designed to improve your overall pedaling efficiency and leg strength. Pedaling with only one leg forces you to be strong throughout the entire pedal-stroke, rather than simply pushing down and pulling up. This eliminates what we call the “dead spot” of your pedal stroke: the dead spot is the point in your pedal stroke where the smoothness has been lost, generally around the eleven o’clock position.
There have also been studies that demonstrate single-leg pedaling can benefit those recovering from an injury; either working your functional leg while the other recovers or providing a low-intensity exercise for your recovering leg. In fact, four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome recently used single-leg exercises while recovering from his horrific crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Froome had basically shattered his right leg and wasn’t able to walk, let alone ride on it, for weeks. In videos posted on social media throughout his rehab, Froome is shown still training on his functional left leg! His strategy was to keep his left leg strong and efficient while his right recovered, then, once the right leg recovered enough to ride on, he incorporated single-leg exercises to help restore strength and flexibility.
Here is the video of Froome’s single-leg rehab: https://twitter.com/chrisfroome/status/1153983012515848194?lang=en
There have also been recent studies to show the performance benefit of single leg training. One showed that experienced cyclists could, after just two weeks of performing single-leg workouts, generate the same power with less perceived exertion, and leg pain (Abbiss et al. 2011). Another study published in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy took cyclists through a 7-week training program, which included four days per week of high-intensity single leg pedaling: 15-20 intervals lasting 20 seconds in duration during each session (Bell et al. 1988). Participants saw a significant increase in their VO2 Max at an average of 9.8% in their trained leg, VO2 max also increased by an average of 6.5% in the untrained leg.
Single leg exercises also have the benefit of showing you any discrepancies between your right and left legs. If you don’t have the convenience of a dual-sided power meter, then these drills are perfect for identifying any discrepancies in leg strength or mechanics. For example, if you perform 4-rounds of 30 seconds per leg, and you find you’re more “choppy” on your right than you are the left, you may need to focus more on pedaling mechanics. Alternatively, if your left leg at the end of the workout seems to be more tired than your right, you may have a strength discrepancy. Great ways to improve some imbalances include; resistance training, physical therapy, flexibility, or, of course, more single leg drills!
The major focus when performing these drills is applying power throughout the entire pedal stroke, especially at the bottom, back half, and over the top—where most people tend to struggle. Focusing on this movement will also allow improvement to your overall pedaling mechanics and staying smooth. In order to better visualize this, rather than slamming down on the pedal and yanking back up, try to think about pushing the pedal with the ball of your foot over the pedal spindle, keeping your heel slightly elevated. You don’t want your foot to be completely flat or your toes to point too far down at the floor, this should allow you to keep constant pressure and power on the pedals. You want to avoid the clanking you would normally hear right before the top of the pedal stroke and try to keep constant chain tension.
One final tip for single leg drills is to remember that they’re difficult for EVERYONE. These take a lot of practice to get right and to get right consistently. Single legs are best done in your off-season or base training period. A great way to start is by doing 30 seconds for each leg, with 20 seconds of rest between. Rest 1 minute after you perform an effort for each leg, then go back into the 30 seconds on with 20 seconds rest. Do this for 4-5 rounds, incorporating it into any of your indoor training sessions!