By Curtis Cramblett, P.T., CSCS, Expert Level Cycling Coach
If you sat at your computer in a poor ergonomic position for six hours straight, bending and straightening your elbows 300,000 times or more, you’d expect a repetitive strain injury, right?
Cycling is similar in that it too is a poor ergonomic position with repetitive motions. In a six-hour ride your knees, hips and ankles will bend and straightening approximately 300,000 times. Your neck and back will be in a constant forward position. So if you want to prevent or get rid of aches follow Coach Curtis’s “5 F’s of Training”
1. Bike Fit: Andy Pruitt once said changing the seat height by a mere inch changes the mechanics and muscle actions of every joint in the lower extremity. I find that changing it by 1/16th of an inch can cause or alive pain! For example, if you decrease the seat height you increase the forces on the front of the knee, but if your saddle is too high, forces increase in your hamstrings, low back and hands.
WHAT TO DO:
Educate yourself on bike fits and make the appropriate changes. If you are doing rides longer than 2 hours or multiple days then I recommend getting a professional bike fit.
2./3. Fatigue ability (endurance/strength) and Flexibility
Think Yin and Yang of muscles and joints
Muscles need to be both strong and flexible to allow proper movement and support of the joints in your body. As mentioned above, this is especially important for cyclists because our joints are either stuck in a static position as with the upper extremity or in repetitive motion as in the lower extremity.
If joints are not flexible AND strong then you’re asking for trouble. What’s more, muscles on either side of the joint need to be balanced. For example, many cyclists have very strong quadriceps muscles (front of the thigh) and relatively weaker hamstring muscles (back of the thigh). This is similar to the unequal guide wires on a tent causing the tent to tip.
WHAT TO DO:
- Static positions need to be reversed. This means occasionally backward bending when you get off your bike.
- Strengthening and stretching both sides of the body joints. Incorporate pulling and pushing exercises to strengthen the upper body, and hamstring and quadriceps exercises for the lower body. --Use proper pedal mechanics (discussed below).
4. Fitness Progression - Proper progressive training
You might expect an injury if, in one week, you increased weights in the gym by 60%. However, many people think nothing of increasing their longest ride from a 40 mile ride to a 65 mile in one week, the same 60 percent increase. Once our bodies have reached their fitness limits they can only tolerate gradual increases of no greater than 5-10 percent per week of mileage or time increases. Frequent high-intensity rides or long rides with greater than moderate intensity will also lead to injury.
WHAT TO DO:
- Intense rides (greater than 75 percent of max heart rate) should be limited to one to 2-3 days a week.
- Gradually progress time spent on the bike and/or mileage in 5 to 10 percent increments per week.
- Every 3-6 weeks decrease your training time by 40-60% to allow your body to regenerate and adapt to training.
5. Cycling Form - How you pedal counts
Pushing hard gears is analogous to walking up a flight of stairs two or three steps at a time, when you only need to take them one at a time. By selecting easier gears you break up the same amount of work over more pedal strokes, taking a great deal of stress off of your knees.
WHAT TO DO:
- You should aim for a cadence (pedal revolutions per minute) of 85 to 95 on a flat road and no less than 70 on a hill. You can achieve this by selecting the proper gear for your ability. However, on a significant hill, this can present a challenge without a triple chain ring on your front gears.
- Improper pedal form will also cause pain: not pushing and pulling on the pedal. Or if knees are not staying in a straight line when you pedal then your form needs some work. If you notice your knees bowing out or in relative to the top tube of your bike, ouch, this is you.
- Use all your muscles to propel yourself forward. With proper pedal strokes, both your quadriceps and hamstrings play a part. Imagine your pedal going through a full circle; as your foot moves to the bottom position of the stroke, imagine scraping bubble gum off the bottom of your shoe. Then, pull your knees toward your handlebars as you bring your foot to the top of the stroke. This will take pressure off of the front of your knee and give those tired quadriceps a rest.
- Focus on keeping your knees going straight up and down. This problem is frequently a bike fit issue however.
6. Fuel and Hydration - Nutrition
Proper fuel, water, and electrolytes will fuel those muscular engines. With out it they will seize up, cramp and sputter. Imagine trying to run an unleaded car on leaded gas. This is what happens when we do not fill a body with what it needs to carry out those long rides.
WHAT TO DO:
- Research suggests 55 to 65 percent of our fuels should be in the form of carbohydrates, mostly complex. Fifteen to thirty percent of our foods should be fats and 10 to 20 percent protein.
- Drink between two and four liters of water a day depending upon your workout intensities. Watch your urine; it should be a light yellow color. Check your weight before and after a ride, it should not change by more than 1 pound if it does replace it with the water you have lost!
For recommended readings and more in depth articles on the subjects mentioned in this article, please visit my website at RevolutionsinFitness.com
Licensed Physical Therapist
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
USCF, USA Expert Level Cycling Coach
Certified Spinning Instructor