Achieve an Effective Pedal Stroke on Your Mountain Bike

Mountain bike racer

The efficiency of your pedal stroke on your mountain bike can mean the difference between a difficult ride and an easy one. Here’s what you need to know to pedal easily through even the most difficult trails. Learn these skills, apply them over and over, and you’ll see your biking improve dramatically.

Align Your Legs

Look at how you’re sitting on your seat. It will help to have someone video you getting on your bike, then riding around a bit. If you want to take this to the next level, try getting a video of yourself going up and downhill, too. Take video from the front of the bike, too.

First, you want your knees, hips, and ankles all about the same width out from the midline, or from the bike. You don’t want to stick your knees out or have your feet much narrower than hip-width. Your leg is like a piston that pushes the pedal around and it will work most effectively when everything is in line.

Some people say that it’s better for your knees if you keep them slightly inward, tucked in toward the bike. If this alleviates pressure for you, then it’s the position you should use. Just remember that it isn’t quite as efficient as the piston position outlined above.

You’ll also want to experiment with different seat positions. If you look like you are extending too far or like your legs are cramped, move the seat again and take a different video. You may decide that certain seat and leg positions are better for climbing and others for downhill and technical sessions.

Keep Both Legs Engaged

Feet with mountain bike pedals and bike shoes
Photo by from Pexels

If you’ve talked to anyone about pedaling, you’ve probably talked about developing an effective pedal stroke. This means that you need to keep both legs engaged and moving all the time, not just whichever leg happens to be pushing on a pedal at that moment.

While you won’t necessarily be raising the pedal with your leg, you need to focus on engaging that leg and moving it with the pedal as it rises and tops out, rather than relaxing that leg entirely.

All of this works to exert a steady pressure on the pedals, rather than the stomp-and-release that can feel more natural. Moving your pedals steadily means you can go uphills, downhill, and everywhere in between.

It may help you learn how to do this if you think of lifting your knees with every upstroke. Don’t lift them so much that you take them off the pedals but try to consciously pull them up towards you every time. This engages muscles and will, eventually, allow you to pedal faster and steadier.

This kind of pedal stroke is what allows experienced riders to get through technical or difficult terrain without so much as a frown. They have mastered the most efficient ways to keep their bikes moving and they use those when they need them.

Get Your Whole Body Into It

Well, maybe not your whole body! However, you should use more than your feet and legs to pedal. Hold yourself in the right position with a tight and ready core and engage your lower abdominals to help free your legs to pedal, instead of having to hold you upright on the bike.

Make sure you engage your glutes as well, especially when you’re pushing the pedal down and pulling your leg back up.

You want to find the right amount of tension for your upper body. If it’s too tight, it will tighten your entire back and down through your legs, which leads to extra fatigue and makes it harder to fully extend your legs to pedal.

Too little tension, though, and you won’t be ready when you need to make a sudden turn or navigate an obstacle. Remember to keep your shoulders down, too, rather than carrying them up by your ears.

Change Foot Position Occasionally

Woman feet on bicycle pedal in sunset light
Image by Solovyova from Getty

On longer rides, you can get uncomfortable if you always keep your feet in the same position. You may even cramp up or have a body part fall asleep on you! That’s never fun!

While you don’t want to move your feet so much that it throws off your alignment, as mentioned above, you can try changing the angle of your foot when compared with the ground.

This allows you to use different muscles while not messing with your alignment. Even changing this angle for a few seconds here and there can keep the primary muscles feeling better for longer.


Start by practicing any new pedal technique somewhere easy. Gradually increase the difficulty until you can keep the same technique going no matter where you are. You may even want to make yourself a schedule so you always know what you’re practicing today, where, and for how long.

Incorporating a regular focus on pedaling into your biking routine will help you improve your stroke and, therefore, all of your rides. You’ll learn how to pedal like the pros, rather than like an amateur. Eventually, this practice will allow you to take on ever more challenging rides and achieve your MTB goals.

What questions or concerns do you have? Leave a comment below!

Achieve an effective pedal stroke on your mountain bike


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