By: Dale J. Buchberger, PT, DC, CSCS
In past years I would have written this column in May or June in anticipation of the summer cycling season. It looks like Mother Nature knew my schedule was off and brought the rains so I could get this done. I know there are some hard-core cyclists still pushing the pedals in the rain, but for the basement dwellers here is my injury prevention look at cycling.
You can’t prevent post traumatic or crash related injuries, but you can take steps to help your body tolerate those early training miles, making it less prone to overuse cycling injuries later in the season.
If you plan on riding more than an hour or two a day, it is a necessity to have a professional bike fit. You can spend hours, days, weeks or months trying to fit your bike through trial and error, but a few millimeters may be the difference between a painful ride and a comfortable ride. As we age, the muscles, tendons and ligaments in our joints and back tend to stiffen making a correct fit even more important. The basic premise of a bicycle fitting is to fit the bike to the rider, not the reverse. This may entail changing some components to get the fit you want. In the end, both the professional bike fit and the component modification will save you pain, sweat, tears, time and money.
Cycling is an efficiency sport as much as it is a strength and endurance effort. A bike fit places you in the best position for an efficient ride and an efficient ride is a pleasant ride. Here are a few general points to keep in mind with a bike fit. Please remember that this article is not a substitute for a professional bike fitting. Your bike seat should be level in order to support your full body weight and allow you to move around on the seat. Too much upward tilt can result in pressure points and buttock pain. Too much downward tilt can result in forward slide and increase the pressure on your arms, hands and knees. A seat position that is too high or too far back can often result in an irritated iliotibial band (ITB). The ITB is the band that runs from the outside of the hip to the outside of the knee. A seat that is too low or forward can cause pain in the front of the knee. A seat that’s too high will also cause your hips to rock side to side, which may cause contact discomfort on the saddle as well as lower back pain from excessive movement. If the handlebars are incorrectly positioned (too high, too low, too close, or too far away), this may result in neck, shoulder, back and/or hand pain. You should be able to comfortably use all the positions on the handlebars and bend your elbows while riding. When choosing a fitter find someone that has several years of fitting experience with the type of bike you are riding and understands cycling anatomy. Be choosey; it’s your bike and your body.
Cycling is a linear activity. This means that the majority of repetitions and action occur in a straight line. Consequently, the muscles that move and control us in diagonal patterns gradually break down with each linear mile we traverse. The muscles of the hip that assist in multidirectional movement are called the hip abductors. When these muscles become weak the ITB also becomes tight. This sets off a multitude of problems resulting in a host of injuries. Strengthening the hip abductors early in the year can help keep the knees in alignment during the pedaling cycle, reducing the risk of season ending knee pain. Stretching the hip rotators can further reduce the risk of ITB stiffness. Using a “foam roller” after training for 5-10 minutes will reduce post-training inflammation and improve recovery. Stiff and weak hamstrings (the muscles in the back of the thigh) can result in knee and lower back pain. Chronic stiffness of the hamstrings is related to progressive weakness. The hamstrings are very specific muscles and must be trained regularly or they atrophy very quickly and become stiff. The hamstring tension increases the strain at the knee and the lower back. Incorporating a stretching and strengthening routine for the hamstrings will improve your chances of a pain free cycle season.
It’s never too late to have your bike professionally fit, so schedule that first. Perform hip abductor and hamstring strengthening exercises 3-4 days per week. Stretch the hip external rotators (buttock), quadriceps (in the front of the thigh) and hamstrings (in the back of the thigh) daily. Lastly, be sure to use that foam roller after every training session. These simple steps will ensure a pleasurable season of cycling.