This is a common phrase cyclists often use to sign off on an email or conversation, and it is their way of saying “Stay safe and don’t crash.” According to fitness data apps such as Strava, the number of new bicycle sales and bicycle ridership has surged since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The health benefits of riding bikes include improved cardiovascular fitness, decreased body fat levels, and the prevention and management of disease. In order to make cycling an enjoyable and sustainable activity, I recommend a properly fitting bike, basic knowledge of how to operate it, and the ability to address acute aches and pains before they transition to chronic symptoms.
How do I choose the right bike?
The short answer is to choose a bike that is the correct balance of comfort and performance for your style of riding. For the right bike size, frames come in a variety of shapes and sizes capable of tackling different terrains including pavement, dirt, and even snow. High performance bikes tend to sacrifice comfort for efficiency with skinny tires, aerodynamic geometries, and the use of lightweight but expensive materials. Mountain bikes allow the rider to tackle a variety of terrains thanks to larger knobby tires and suspensions systems in the front fork and rear triangle. Hybrid bikes have become increasingly popular over the last three decades and blend efficient components of high performance bikes with a more comfortable upright posture. This style of bike is ideal for commuters and those who enjoy an occasional weekend ride. Visiting a local bike shop is a great place to start and test out which style best fits your needs.
Do I need a formal bike fit to be comfortable?
The answer is it depends. For the recreational cyclist, an adjustment of seat / saddle height and handlebar position is often all that is needed to be comfortable for rides less than an hour. While riding a bike, here are some key joint angles to be mindful of:
- Knees should be slightly flexed (not locked straight) at the bottom of the pedal stroke
- Elbows should be bent roughly 30 degrees
- Your trunk should be slightly leaning forward, about 30-45 degrees
- Shoulders should be at a 90 degree angle from your trunk
Having a friend take a picture of you from the side and then analyzing these angles using a free smartphone app like Hudl is a great way to check the fit on your bike. For more avid cyclists and those riders using their bikes as a regular mode of transportation, a professional bike fit from a trained physical therapist may be the best option as the risk of repetitive use injuries tends to rise with more riding time.
Common injuries in cyclists
According to a study by Clarsen et al. in 2010, the most common overuse injury in professional cyclists was low back pain followed by knee pain. Neck pain followed by knee pain was most common in recreational cyclists. Other common injuries include wrist and hand numbness, perineum and pelvic floor pain, and foot numbness and tingling. While a proper bike fit can address and often eliminate these issues, a strengthening and mobilization program off the bike is an effective way to improve endurance and reduce pain when a proper bike fit has already been performed.
Common soft tissue adaptations
Cycling is a very linear activity meaning muscles like the quads, glutes, calves and hamstrings are highly active while pedaling. Muscle groups like the hip abductors, core and deep neck flexor muscles are notoriously weak in avid cyclists who do not engage in conditioning outside of cycling. Other common soft tissue adaptations include tight hip flexors, tight pectoralis major/minor muscles, increased thoracic kyphosis, and forward head posture.
Helpful tips to address common impairments
When it comes to a stretching program after a bike ride, I like to keep my routine straightforward by stretching in the opposite direction of how I was sitting on the bike in order to recover properly. For example, while riding the hips and knees are predominantly in a bent position. The opposite direction would be to stretch the hip in neutral or slight extension to lengthen the hip flexors. Similarly, I would stretch into knee extension to address tightness in the hamstrings behind the knee. The upper body / thoracic spine is in a relatively flexed position while cycling. Using a foam roller to mobilize the thoracic spine into extension is a great way to address mid and upper back stiffness. Check out this video for a quick demonstration of a post-bike ride stretch routine to fit into your training plan.
If you’d like to know more information about bike fitting by a physical therapist or have any pain that is limiting you from biking the way you’d like to, here are the Agile locations where you can find PTs who treat cyclist:
Written by Brett Lando
Brett earned his Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from the University of California, Irvine and a Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of California, San Francisco and San Francisco State University. He is a graduate of Agile’s year long Orthopaedic Residency and a Board Certified Orthopaedic Clinical Specialist. After residency, he successfully completed the Agile Physical Therapy Orthopaedic Manual Therapy Fellowship. He taught physical therapy students during their clinical rotations since beginning at Agile, and he currently mentors in the orthopaedic residency. Brett has a passion for cycling. He shares his knowledge and experience of bike fitting and cycling movement analysis with the Agile Fellowship and local cycling community.