Cycling: mashing versus spinning
February 5, 2010 1:14 PM   Subscribe

Finally realizing that competitive cycling (for me, triathlons), like swimming, is as much a matter of skill as it is of cardiovascular strength, i've been studying the science behind pedaling. To date I've come to the conclusion that there are "mashers", those who grind the downstroke, and there are "spinners," those who try to keep equal pressure on the pedal throughout it's revolution. I ask fellow cyclists (those who even think about these things) whether one style is preferable over the other. There's no general concensus. My question is this: to get into a spinning mode with a big gear, don't you at least have to mash to build up momentum, at which time the spinning takes over? In other words, is there a transition? I do all the drills (one leg pedaling, the push-your-toe-to-the-end-of-your-shoe at about 11 o'clock on the stroke, the 9-and-3 focus) and I can't get the hang of one (mashing) or the other (spinning). Anyone have a similar experience and, hopefully, a provisional answer? Thanks.
posted by holdenjordahl to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Spinners are winners. Serious answer: it depends. It has to do with your body type. Some folks are diesels, big power in big gears at low RPMs. Some folks are like two stroke engines, high RPMs, not so much brute force. If you can't get the hang of either, you are over-thinking a little. Most people are one or the other. One just feels right.
posted by fixedgear at 1:37 PM on February 5, 2010

Response by poster: thanks, fixedgear.
i definitely am overthinking this.
i'm a natural masher and the thought of spinning a big gear at 90 rpm seemed daunting, if not impossible. that's the mantra i kept reading and hearing : 90 rpm. but even 65-75 rpm in a big gear feels a lot more natural (not mention a ton faster) than 90+ in a smaller one...
cool, thanks.
posted by holdenjordahl at 1:42 PM on February 5, 2010

Best answer: I don't really have an answer for you (I mash when I'm commuting and don't want to break a sweat, and spin otherwise), but there is this:

When asked if it was better technique to mash a big gear or spin a small gear, Eddy Merckx thought for a moment and said 'Its better to spin a big gear.'
posted by skintension at 1:44 PM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I understood mashing to be using more leg power to push a higher gear at a lower cadence and, conversely, spinning to be using a higher cadence, a lower gear, less leg power and more impact on your cardiovascular system. Smooth, round pedaling would be desirable for both, it's just more obvious if you're bouncing in the saddle at 100 RPM.

Presumably you'll be shifting up to get into a comfortable gear for your target cadence (and maybe HR or power). I think this is where true mashing or spinning takes over once you've settled into a rhythm.

And, agreeing with fixedgear. What type depends on your body. I'm mostly a masher myself.
posted by turbodog at 1:44 PM on February 5, 2010

Best answer: Here's maybe a more practical answer if you have a power meter or HR monitor. Simply try a couple of timetrials on the saw route (8-10 minutes each say) at a good tough HR in mashing style and two more in spinning style. Compare which generates more power or takes you farther down the road.
posted by turbodog at 1:52 PM on February 5, 2010

Best answer: I'm a spinner (having started out in bike racing) and now I'm a triathlete I tend to gear down anyways, esp if it's a longer race. One of my race goals is always to get off the bike and feel fresh in the legs. Sometimes the temptation to push a bigger gear is there, but baked quads on the run is never fun. If you can heave a gear and get off the bike and feel fine, then do what works best for you.

To work up to spinning, you do need to push the gear as you increase speed, but this shouldn't take longer than a minute. I keep mindful of whether I'm on top of it or not and whether I should change down if it's not happening. I spin at 80-90 rpm, but it's on the lower end of this if I'm on the big ring.
posted by poissonrouge at 2:02 PM on February 5, 2010

Best answer: When I raced I was a masher who wanted to be a spinner but could never get used to it.

Spinning is definately easier on the knees and is what I try to do now since mine have gone to hell in my middle age. When I'm out on the trail 75% of the riders I see are in the wrong gear. Either spinning at 200 rpm or grinding along at 30 rpm.

BTW, the difference between mashing and spinning has little to do with power production on the upstroke.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 2:14 PM on February 5, 2010

Best answer: to get into a spinning mode with a big gear, don't you at least have to mash to build up momentum, at which time the spinning takes over?

No. Not to snark, and with apologies to fixedgear, but that's what derailleurs are for.

I do believe that you can train up to higher cadences. I did this with a friend who was getting more serious about cycling: she and I would go out to an isolated loop with a straightaway; we'd drop into a very low gear and sprint like crazy for the length of the straightaway, then recover for the rest of the loop. Repeat 10 times. Did that every day for a couple weeks. At the end of it, she was comfortable riding at a higher cadence.

I don't think of myself as a masher, although I'm not a particularly smooth spinner either. I will say that for the longest rides I've done, I've kept it mostly on the big ring and hunkered down. For shorter local rides I definitely keep it higher than that, on the small ring. But I think that as long as my cadence stays above 60 it's OK.
posted by adamrice at 3:08 PM on February 5, 2010

Best answer: I am a bike mechanic, but I am not your bike mechanic.

You may also have to adjust your so-called 'cockpit' when you change pedaling styles. Have you been professionally fitted? Check especially your saddle height, position, and possibly cleat position. Some riders prefer a slightly shorter (2.5mm) crank when they transition from mashing to spinning, but that's often indicative of a poor crank fit in the first place— you should ideally be able to do either.

There shouldn't be too much of a transition in your pedaling style over a given terrain, rather you should ensure you're shifting to stay where you're comfortably generating power. One of the reasons behind speeds increasing in bicycle drivetrains is more fine control over pedaling cadence without a big jarring jump when you shift.
posted by a halcyon day at 3:46 PM on February 5, 2010

Best answer: Mashing screwed up my knees.
posted by zachawry at 8:13 PM on February 5, 2010

Best answer: Old road racer here, never a triathelete. I have always believed high-rpm spinning to be superior to "mashing." I thought mashing was the consequence of less serious cyclists not using clipless pedals or toe straps; without them you can only mash, and with them you can apply force through nearly the whole crank rotation. I think the comparison to automotive engine is apt, where the engine performs best at a certain rpm and your job as operator is to keep it there as much as possible.

Also, I think good sprinters really don't mash, they are actually torquing all the way around.
posted by werkzeuger at 9:02 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: As a bit of an aside, I recall Greg LeMond describing the way he visualizes pedaling, particualrly on the back and upstroke, as "digging my bare toes into a shag carpet and pulling them backwards."
posted by werkzeuger at 9:04 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: Longtime road racer here. Nthing all the others who say "it depends," as everyone has a somewhat different pedalling style. But the person who can utilize the full pedal stroke more efficiently is going to have a leg up (sorry) on the person who stomps the pedals. I hate to mention Lance Armstrong, who had a ridiculously fast, fluid pedal stroke; compare that to the pedal stroke of Jan Ullrich, who was a masher.

One-leg pedals drills are terrific reminders for me of the holes in my pedal stroke (particularly with my non-dominant leg), and whenever I am on the trainer, I do a couple sets at the beginning and at the end of my workout. Think of scraping the mud off the bottom of your foot. And yes, excessive low-cadence riding will contribute to messing up your knees.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 11:47 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: werkzeuger: Lemond also said the upstroke is like pushing your knee toward the bars.
posted by turbodog at 2:23 PM on February 7, 2010

It's fashionable (especially in the US) to say "oooh, Lance Armstrong was spinning at 110rpm, I should too." Just remember that his VO2/max and lactate threshold far exceeded even that of most pro cyclists and bears absolutely no resemblance to that of amateurs, so trying to emulate his cadence is likely counterproductive.

It's actually trivially easy to figure out your optimal cadence. Just maintain maximum effort without breaking your anaerobic threshold, and vary the cadence until you find your power peak. You can do this with nothing more than a long stretch of road and a speedometer on your bike: ride as hard as you can without going anaerobic, and play with the gearing until you find the cadence that results in the highest speed. For me, it was often one gear smaller (higher rpm) than what I felt was right.

But you know what, I still just ride at whatever cadence is comfortable. In the big picture, winning against other age-groupers is pretty unremarkable. So it just boils down to meeting and beating personal goals which should be adjusted for any changes in technique.
posted by randomstriker at 2:32 AM on February 9, 2010

Just happened across this and thought you might find PowerCranks interesting. They are cranks that have a freewheel mechanism built into each arm, so that you can't use your working leg to push your relaxing leg up the backstroke.

I have a pair I got "cheap" at ~$275 on eBay, and let me tell you, the first thing you learn is that you're not going to put an appreciable amount of power into the up-stroke, no matter how hard you try. It's simply too much to ask of the hip flexors that they put out power on par with your quads. All you can really expect is to take the dead weight off the off leg so that more of your downstroke gets to the rear wheel. The cranks are supposed to strengthen your hip flexors so that they can do so.

(The second thing you learn is that they're fragile. My used pair needs a $100 overhaul after one season of using them for commuting. In the world of cycling, I'm big - 185lbs - and they can't take it. Bigger cyclists are usually mashers, in my experience. So it's an interesting tool but not a long-term thing.)
posted by richyoung at 12:07 PM on August 18, 2010

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