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Workout Wednesday: One-Leg Cycling Drills

Triathlon Magazine Canada indoor Ironman bike training

Admitting you know who Andrew MacNaughton is would immediately date you, but Canada’s first uber-cyclist in the triathlon world was an avid technician, and a huge fan of one-leg cycling drills.

MacNaughton, for those who aren’t old enough to remember the sport’s early days, was the first man to ever win a triathlon using tri-bars. He beat Mike Pigg at the Crawfishman Triathlon (held just outside of New Orleans) in 1997 on a set of Boone Lennon’s Scott Aerobars. A few years ago, when I was interviewing Lance Armstrong during his brief triathlon comeback, he talked about MacNaughton and how he used to “ride away from everyone” at many of the sports premier races.


Born in Montreal, MacNaughton has been living in California since the early 1980s and was a fixture in the LA tri scene for about a decade. A former ski racer, MacNaughton has always been a stickler for details when it comes to technique, so I was hardly surprised when he took one look at my pedaling stroke and encouraged me to start doing one-legged drills.

“Think of your legs as two separate engines,” he said. “You need to be able to pedal your bike with one or the other.”

The idea with one-leg drills is to train yourself to push through the entire pedal stroke. Picture your foot is working its way around a clock as your foot makes one revolution. From 1 to 5 o’clock you are pushing down on the pedals. From 5 to 7 o’clock you are pulling back. (“Imagine you are trying to pull your foot out of the back of your shoe,” MacNaughton would always say to me.) From 7 to 11 o’clock you are pulling up – this time feeling like you are trying to pull your foot through the top of your shoe. The hardest part of the pedal stroke to master is the final phase, from 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock, where you are pushing your foot forward.

Since he lives in LA, almost all of the riding I did with MacNaughton was outdoors, so we used to do our one-leg drills on the road. Sometimes they would be on a flat road for 30 to 45 seconds. Other times they would be up a slight hill for up to a couple of minutes.

These days I try to incorporate one-leg drills into indoor sessions. They are a great way to enhance a warm up and give you something to think about and work on during an interval set or steady ride. As you are doing the one-leg drills, try to focus on keeping the pressure on the pedal all the way around each pedal stroke. You’ll hear or feel any dead spots (when you aren’t keeping pressure on the pedals – usually that 11 to 1 o’clock phase) because there will be a bit of a “thunk” when your foot has to catch up.

Here are a few sets that you can incorporate into your next session to work on your pedaling technique through some one-leg drills. You should do about a 10 minute warm up before getting started, then give yourself a few minutes after the set before you get into an interval session. Use the recovery (SRI – seconds rest interval) to give yourself time to click out or into your pedals. These sets are designed as a bit of progression, too – if you haven’t done much single leg work, start with the first drill and work your way through the other three.

1) 5 x {30 seconds left leg only/ 15SRI; 30 seconds right leg only/ 15SRI; 30 seconds fast spin with both legs}

2) 4 x {45 seconds left leg only/ 15SRI; 45 seconds right leg only/ 15SRI; 1 minute fast spin}

3) 2 – 3 x {30 seconds left leg/ 30 SRI; 30 seconds right leg/ 30SRI; 1 min left leg/ 30SRI; 1 min right leg/ 30SRI}

4) 1 min left leg/ 1 min right leg; 1:30 left leg/ 1:30 right leg; 2 mins left leg/ 2 mins right leg; 1:30 left leg/ 1:30 right leg; 1 min left leg/ 1 min right leg