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I notice a lot of cyclists with massive sculpted calf muscles, especially the kind that clearly ride as a life-style without worrying about minimizing body weight.

I've switched cities, and gone from a 7km round-trip commute to 25km round trip. I've been cycling hard as a hobby and often clocked 200km or more per week. After 6 months, I find that it's my quads that are getting larger, and my quads that are sore and tired after long rides, while my calf muscles feel hardly involved.

Does this suggest something wrong with my technique and/or posture? Should I be working to involve my calf muscles more?

Possibly relevant: I cycle with a pretty aggressive bent-over posture, on a touring bike with drop bars. I use clipless shoes and have been working on applying more power in the upwards-stroke. I ride with my seat relatively high, but comfortable and I'm certain I'm not over-extending my legs.

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5 Answers 5

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I don't think you have a problem here. Physiologically, your thighs are the engine room of your legs. They are designed for endurance and power and can keep working at a high output for extended periods of time.

Your calves are more for short bursts of power, such as jumping or sprinting. They can't sustain high power output for any length of time. In distance cycling, your calves should be fairly passive. Attempting to work them harder will probably just result in fatigue and injuries.

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As a physician, I totally agree. Calf muscles have mostly a postural (static) function while pedalling. Besides, calf definition depends a lot on genetics, too. –  heltonbiker Jan 14 '12 at 0:06

I think that this is a function of every cyclist being slightly different. It's not a bad idea to have your bike fit checked by a knowledgeable professional though. Just keep in mind that this isn't an exact science, and comfort may override some recommendations.

Something that you can evaluate yourself is the smoothness of your cadence. Are you applying even force throughout the pedal stroke, with both legs? Do your hips stay level while pedalling, even at high cadences. Answering no to one of these questions may indicate a seat height issue.

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It might matter where your cleats are: whether they're more forward under the ball of your foot, or more rearward under the arch of your foot.

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There is a technique known as "toeing". Basically, as you turn the crank with your feet your toe angles up and down -- up at the top of the stroke and down at the bottom. This makes use of some of the strength/energy of the calf muscles.

But to do this well you must be riding with the ball of your foot on the pedal (generally implying toe clips or "clipless" pedals). If you ride with the arch of your foot on the pedal then toeing does little good.

Also, a good cyclist will have a (semi)conscious forward/backward motion with the legs, pushing forward at the top of the stroke and pulling backward at the bottom. Probably doesn't involve the calves much, but does contribute to overall power.

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I do this subconsciously and find it more comfortable than planting the arch of the foot on the platform. –  Vorac Nov 15 '13 at 15:10

It could be due to your bike fit, but there's a lot of power in your quads, and if you will note a lot of pros (very noticeable track) cyclists have large quads.

I think this might help you, it shows what muscles are responsible for what part of a pedal stroke: http://dropbar.freetonik.com/post/4994370468/what-muscles-are-responsible-for-what-portion-of

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Fascinating graphic. –  Unsliced Nov 30 '11 at 11:01
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This link seems to be dead. Is there another URL where it is available? –  amcnabb Mar 26 '13 at 17:57

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