As the weather starts to warm up, like many cyclists, I am looking forward to the prime outdoor riding season. As a physical therapist and avid recreational cyclist, I have learned a few things to help make sure I have a successful, enjoyable, and pain-free year of riding:
One of the most important things is having your bike fit properly to you. I recommend a professional bike fit for a few occasions: if you are starting out cycling, purchasing a new bike, increasing your training, changing components, or have started noticing pain while cycling. A local bike shop can be helpful in connecting you to a professional bike fitter. A professional bike fit can make some comprehensive changes and adjustments to your bike, however it is helpful to know a few basics of how your bike should fit:
- Bike seat height: having your bike seat at the right height minimizes the risk of injury and can help you cycle faster and more efficiently. At the ideal seat height your knee should be slightly bent at the bottom of your pedal stroke. If your seat is too high you may notice you need to fully straighten your knee, point your toes, or rock your hips side to side to allow you to pedal. If your seat is too low you may need to bend your hips and knees too much and will not be able to pedal as efficiently or with as much force.
- Handlebar position: handlebars should be in a position where riders can put a portion of their weight through their hands and the shoulders and neck should feel relaxed when a rider is leaning forward on their handlebars. A handlebar too high, low, or with too far of a reach may cause increased shoulder tension, neck tension and pain, and changes in back position. If your handlebars allow, frequently changing your hand position while riding can reduce strain on your arms and neck.
Make sure to ride enough to optimize your cycling for your goals, while allowing proper time for rest and cross training. If you are new to cycling I usually recommend starting with riding 2-3 days a week, while more experienced cyclists may aim for 5-6 days a week. More experienced cyclists should look to have some variability in where they are riding including alternating longer and shorter distances, interval training, and a variety of terrain.
As with all sports, our body needs time to rest. Even advanced cyclists should have 1 or 2 days a week where they “rest” from cycling. Rest days may be a good opportunity to participate in another activity such as hiking, walking, or strength training as cross training. I especially recommend core and hip strengthening with movements that vary from the typical straight forward and backward movements emphasized in cycling. Examples include planks, side planks, bridges, lunges, lateral lunges, side steps, and clamshells. Cross training can encourage a variety of movements and can smooth out muscle imbalances caused by only exercising one way, which in turn can reduce risk of pain and injury.
Cadence refers to the number of revolutions per minute of the pedals. While cadence will vary based on the experience of the rider, targeted speed, and type of cycling, most cyclists should aim to have their gearing set to allow for low to moderate resistance that allows for cycling at 75-90 revolutions per minute. When going up a hill, make sure to change your gearing to allow for you to continue to cycle at 60-80 revolutions per minute. Too high of a cadence can result in reduced control, more bouncing on the bike seat, and reduced efficiency. Cycling with a low cadence and high resistance, nicknamed “mashing,” can put more strain on your muscles and joints and has a higher risk of overuse injuries. This technique also uses fast twitch muscle fibers that generate more force but have lower endurance. This means that cycling with too high of a resistance and low cadence can result in lower endurance and can leave you feeling more sore and fatigued after a ride. With lower resistance and a higher cadence, slow twitch muscle fibers are used which generate lower force but have much better endurance so you can pedal longer and more comfortably
Common injuries with cycling include achilles tendonitis, patellar tendonitis, iliotibial band syndrome, elbow pain, hand numbness, low back pain, and neck pain. If you are struggling with pain or numbness on the bike, and especially if you are starting to notice that it carries over into pain while off the bike, please reach out to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced physical therapists who can help you find solutions for your pain and get you back on the road. Best wishes for a healthy and safe riding season!
Written by: Carol Beck, DPT