Riding a bike shouldn’t hurt. If it does, something is wrong, generally with your fit, gear, bike setup or riding style. – By Selene Yeager
With all those moving pieces, deciphering just what’s gone awry can be tricky. So we turned to physical therapist and bike fit specialist Kevin Schmidt, owner of Pedal PT in Portland, Oregon to help us troubleshoot cycling’s most common aches and pains.
These fixes are obviously not a substitute for a professional bike fit, but they will get you off on the right foot and may help you pedal pain free.
Common culprit: You’re too stretched out.
Try this: If you’re experiencing neck pain, first establish what a neutral head position on the bike should feel like. “The goal is for your shoulders to be able to make an angle of 90 degrees or slightly less between your upper arms and torso with your hands on the hoods,” says Schmidt. Anything above that, and your more forward positioned head puts stress on the upper trap muscles that support your head.
With your hands on the bars, tuck your chin in, engaging the muscles in the front of your neck and then look up. “That motion distributes the pressure through more vertebrae, versus hinging on only one or two segments, lessening stress on the upper cervical spine,” says Schmidt. Adjust your cockpit accordingly to maintain it. Try a shorter stem; raise your bars or lower your saddle if you tend to run it on the high side. “People are very quick to go to the stem first, but lowering the saddle a bit narrows the cockpit and brings you closer to the bars, lessening the reach,” he says.
Common culprits: Too much weight on your hands and/or too much (or too little) bend in your wrists.
Try this: Level your saddle. “The first thing I look at is the saddle tilt,” says Schmidt. “If it’s even a little nose down, you’re dumping too much body weight onto your hands. Make sure it’s level.” Handlebars that are too low also can cause hand pain. Try a higher rise stem. Then check your wrists. They should have a slight, 10 to 15 degree back-bend, on the bars. Too little or too much can be stressful. You can do a sight check by looking at the skin on the top of your wrists. Cock them up until you see creases or folds (that’s too far); then straighten just until the folds disappear.
Common culprits: Saddle too high or too low; poor core strength; mashing gears and/or too much differential between your saddle and bar height.
Try this: First check your position. If your hips are rocking side to side as you pedal, your low back is taking a beating—lower the saddle until they’re stable. If it’s too low, your knee has to come up above hip level at the top of the pedal stroke, which also can flex and stress the low back. Next check your posture. You should aim to have a flat back with normal low-back curvature. If your spine is rounded, you’re stressing your back. Roll your pelvis forward to create a neutral spine. Adjust the cockpit of your bike to maintain that position. Often that means bringing your handlebars and saddle closer to level with each other.
“Everyone wants to look like Peter Sagan with a super high saddle and slammed stem, but they’re rounding their spines and stretching out the paraspinal muscles, which support the spine and control movement between the vertebrae,” says Schmidt. “Those muscles are like Velcro, when you stretch them too far, they can barely hold on to support you and absorb the force from your pedaling legs.”
Speaking of force from your legs, mashing a super hard gear is like doing leg presses with zero back support. Shift down and raise your cadence to take some stress off your back. Then check your core strength. You should be able to take your hands off the bars (not while riding please) and comfortably maintain that neutral spine flexed position. If you can’t, it’s time for some bridges and deadlifts to strengthen your supporting muscles.
Common culprits: Saddle shape and/or saddle position.
Try this: A saddle that doesn’t fit your anatomy will be uncomfortable no matter where you sit on it. So the first check is that your saddle supports your weight on your ischial tuberosities (the hard bones you feel when you sit down) or the pubic rami (the pelvic bones further forward) not your soft tissue. However, even the right saddle will cause pain if you’re in the wrong position, says Schmidt. “The saddle needs to be level. Nose down or nose up can shift weight and cause problems.” A saddle position that is too high will force pressure on the perineal area, as well. Finally, too much reach to the bars can cause you to roll your pelvis forward and place weight on your sensitive tissues. Tighten your cockpit with a shorter and/or more high-rise stem.
Common culprits: Saddle height and/or cleat position.
Try this: Follow the old adage: If you have pain in the front of your knee, your saddle may be too low. If you have pain in the back of your knee, it may be too high. IT band pain in the knee (stabbing pain in the side of the knee) may also be from a saddle that’s too high. However, a really common and often overlooked source of knee pain is cleat position, says Schmidt.
“Cleats too far forward or too far back can stress the knee joint,” he says. “We try to line up the first big toe knuckle in front of the pedal axel.” Also check that you’re not pedaling toe down, but rather with a proper heel drop, so you use your calves as stabilisers and generate more power from your glutes and hamstrings, all of which remove stress from your knees.
Common culprits: Cleat position and/or shoe fit.
Try this: Check your cleats. If they’re too far forward, you’re pedaling too much with your toes, says Schmidt. “The toe joint flexor muscles are not meant to generate force and that can lead to cramping,” says Schmidt. Then check your shoe fit. Cycling shoes should be snug, but many riders go overboard here. “Pull the insole out of your shoe and stand on it. If your foot is spilling out all over the place, your shoes are too small and you’ll end up with compression, tingling and numbness,” he says. Also adjust shoe closure so it is slightly snug, but not tight over the top of your foot. If your feet still hurt, you may need custom foot beds or orthotics.