How to Make Your Bike More Comfortable
Whether you’re feeling a little stiff on a new bike or your old bike is suddenly starting to feel uncomfortable, you can easily make changes right at home. Often, we get stuck in an old, outdated bike fit that no longer works with our body or the newest bike geometry, and we’re afraid to make a change, like moving our seat post up or down or sliding our saddle a little further forward. But tweaking your bike fit can make your rides both more comfortable and more efficient.
To help you make easy adjustments to your ride, we asked bike fitter and author of The Midlife Cyclist, Phil Cavell, how to make your bike more comfortable, including common areas of discomfort and the best ways to address them. Plus, we find out when to get professional help, whether from a bike fitter or a physical therapist.
First, Record Your Ride
Before you start tweaking your fit, have a friend video you on the bike from the front, back, and both sides. This is most easily done on a trainer after you warm up so they capture you riding naturally. Being able to see yourself on the screen versus just thinking about feel is important, says Cavell.
Your riding style is probably a lot less smooth than you think it is, and a video helps you spot hiccups in your patterns of movement. “Most people are shocked when they see a film of themselves riding,” Cavell says. “We think our posture is perfect but that’s so rarely the case.”
Often, a quick look at your on-bike form on the big screen will highlight major fit issues, like if your saddle is so low that your knees are still bent at the bottom of your pedal stroke, or if your handlebars are so far away from your saddle that it looks like you’re stretched out like Superman.
Then, Take Some Measurements
If you’re nervous about changing anything in your bike fit for fear of making it worse, take a few measurements on your bike before you start making changes so that you can always reset it. Start with things like saddle height, saddle fore/aft, and handlebar height. (Most other changes will involve parts like a new stem or different cranks.)
8 Common Cycling Issues and Tips to Make Your Ride More Comfortable
1. Neck Discomfort
Easy fix: Start focusing on your posture on the bike before making any fit changes. “Often, neck pain is a postural issue, where the person is sitting on the bike like a sack of potatoes—like they’re in an office chair, rather than sitting on a bike in an active athletic position,” says Cavell.
You can assess your posture by considering how much pressure you’re putting on your hands, or how slumped you look when you view the video of yourself riding. The simple next step: Stop slouching.
Cavell notes it’s also worth considering what you have on your head: Are you holding your head awkwardly because you need to look up higher to see, or to get the right view through your glasses? Simple helmet, hat, or glasses adjustments can make a big difference, too.
Advanced tweak: Neck pain tends to happen due to the handlebars being too far away or too low, says Cavell. “You have strong muscles here, but they’re easily overworked,” he says.
A quick look at your side profile will show you if you’re craning your neck at an awkward angle to compensate for how far you’re forced to stretch to get to the bars. If you’re reaching far forward, consider a shorter stem, or moving your saddle slightly forward to close the distance.
If your handlebars seem low, you can use spacers to raise them slightly.
Seek professional help… if your pain is coming from one side. Symmetrical pain tends to be more fit-related and relatively easy to tweak, says Cavell, but if just your right side is hurting, you may need to see a fitter and/or a physical therapist in order to diagnose the root cause.
2. Hand Numbness
Easy fix: Check what you’re wearing. A smartwatch, tight gloves, or even just multiple layers or tight sleeves on your jacket can cut down on circulation to your fingers and leave you feeling numb, especially if your wrist is normally bent when you’re holding your handlebars.
Advanced tweak: You may have hand numbness due to that same slouched position that caused neck pain, says Cavell. The more slumped you are, the more weight is pressing down on your hands, which can lead to numbness. “I always ask people if they can remove their hands from the bars,” he says.
While you don’t have to have perfect balance and the ability to ride with no hands, you should be able to hold the handlebars without putting weight on your hands. “If you can’t unweight your hands, you’re in a loaded position rather than a neutral one,” Cavell says. “Your hands should be light on the bars, like you could play the piano on the top of the bars.”
Seek professional help… if those tweaks don’t work or you’re experiencing hand pain now that the numbness is gone. In this case, your hand issue could be caused by a problem higher up, often from a nerve near your neck. “This usually isn’t serious, but it’s something that’s going to be hard for you to fix yourself,” Cavell notes.
3. Low Back Pain
Easy fix: Most often, low back pain is a postural issue, says Cavell. “Try and make your position more neutral, more conservative,” he says. This means shifting to a more upright, comfortable posture rather than a low aerodynamic one.
Your saddle may also be too high, or you may be stretching too far to reach the bars—similar to fit issues that cause neck pain.
Advanced tweak: Your low back pain may be caused by your body attempting to avoid saddle pain! “We often see athletes, especially women, rotate their pelvis—rounding the low back—to remove pressure on the front of the saddle. And then they overflex the spine while hyperextending at the neck to get their eyes at the right height,” says Cavell. All of this leads to back pain.
Check your riding video: Do you look like you’re sitting with your low back rounded in a C shape, creating a sort of S curve from head to tailbone? If so, a new saddle might be the cure.
Seek professional help… if you aren’t feeling relief with those changes. In this case, it’s time for a professional bike fit, since it’s likely something more nuanced. However, before you go, Cavell suggests running one more experiment. “If someone has lower back, hip, or even knee pain with an uncertain causation, a powerful tool that we use all the time is to get folks to pedal on flat pedals in their sneakers,” says Cavell. “Then we have them reference any change of sensation or pain they feel.”
Doing this before your bike fit helps the fitter narrow down what the issue could be, because if your pain goes away when using flat pedals, your problem is likely that the foot/shoe/pedal interface is wrongly calibrated or you have some kind of unhelpful pedaling adaptation. This helps point your fitter in the right direction and allows them to make smarter choices right away.
4. Saddle Discomfort
Easy fix: Check that your saddle is appropriate for your sit bone width. Often, we stick with the saddle that came with our bike, but a saddle that’s too wide or too narrow in the spot where your sit bones rest on it can lead to serious discomfort in your nether regions, thanks to the pressure that it puts on that sensitive tissue.
If you’re not sure if your saddle is the right size, head to a bike shop and ask if they can measure your sit bone—usually done by sitting on a gel pad that leaves indents where your sit bones rest—and choose a saddle that has the correct width. (Sit bone width has zero correlation with body size: Larger bodies may have narrow sit bones, and vice versa, so don’t assume your saddle size based on your height and weight.)
Advanced tweak: Once you’ve dialed in saddle size, you may also need to change your saddle style if you still have discomfort. Some people find that a saddle with a big cutout or divot is the most comfortable, while others prefer a flat saddle.
You may also need to change up your chamois (padded bike shorts) or add chamois cream to the equation if your issues are more skin-related versus discomfort or numbness.
Seek professional help… if you have a saddle sore (either an open wound or a pimple or boil that’s painful) that won’t go away after taking a few days off the bike. You may have an infection and it may require either lancing the saddle sore with a scalpel (yikes) or antibiotics in order to treat it.
5. Pain in the Front of the Knee
Easy fix: The knee is a big hinge-joint in the middle of the leg and most problems come down from the hip or up from the foot—rarely are they caused by the knee itself. Physical therapists sometimes describe the knee as the victim in the biomechanical chain—and this is especially true for cyclists, says Cavell.
Again, check your riding video, looking at the front view of yourself riding. Are your knees wobbling from side to side and flaring out? If so, you’re putting a lot of pressure on that patellar groove or where your kneecap and the bottom of your thigh bone meet and—in simple terms—“making that knee angry.” Cavell recommends starting with raising your saddle slightly to take some of the compressive forces away from your knee.
Advanced tweak: Check that your cleats aren’t worn out and causing too much float (slight side-to-side movement). Because the goal is to keep your knee moving in a straight up-and-down motion, the more stable your foot position is while you pedal, the better it is for your knee.
Seek professional help… if this tends to be a trickier issue and the saddle shift doesn’t solve your problem. If you’re experiencing this pain off the bike when going up and down stairs, it’s likely patellar tendonitis, and you’ll want to work with a physical therapist to come up with a protocol to heal it, says Cavell.
6. Pain on the Side of the Knee
Easy fix: “The main culprit here is usually the iliotibial band and iliotibial band friction syndrome,” says Cavell. In that case, your cranks may be too long or your saddle may be too high. (It’s easiest to test your saddle height, so try lowering it slightly before you swap your cranks.)
Advanced tweak: There could be a foot instability at play here too, both in terms of old cleats causing instability by wobbling or from your stance (how wide your feet are set apart from each other on the pedals).
“A stress point on the side of the knee could come from the foot rotating as you pedal,” says Cavell. In this case, you could widen your stance slightly by shifting your cleats as far toward the inside of your shoe as they’ll go (only a millimeter or two), or you can look for a set of pedals with a slightly longer spindle than what you’re using.
Seek professional help… if the knee pain continues off the bike, or it’s only happening on one side. Knee pain that you ignore rarely gets better on its own.
7. Pain in the Back of the Knee
Easy fix: The back of your knee is a point of intersection for most of the muscles at play when you pedal. If you’re experiencing pain there, your saddle may be too high. That can cause tightness and tension throughout your whole posterior chain, which often shows up in the form of back-of-knee pain, says Cavell. Lowering your saddle slightly decreases the amount of extension required with each pedal stroke.
Advanced tweak: Have you changed your pedals or cleats recently? A slight shift in foot position can make a big difference in your knees, so if you can test an old set of shoes/pedals to see if the pain continues, that can help you make necessary changes.
You may realize that your new cleats are slightly farther forward than your old ones, or that your new pedals have a longer (or shorter) spindle than your old pair and the change in the width between your feet when you pedal is causing the problem.
Seek professional help… if the pain doesn’t go away after tweaking your fit. You’ll want to check with a physical therapist for pain that continues off the bike, or get a professional bike fit if the issues only show up while pedaling.
8. Numb Feet
Easy fix: Check your shoe style and size. Often, cyclists choose shoes for style, weight, and type of riding rather than for their specific foot size and type, says Cavell. But those with wider toe boxes may find that most road shoes pinch and cause numbness after a few miles.
To find your foot size, Cavell recommends standing on a piece of paper and tracing your foot with a pencil, then comparing that image to your cycling shoes. Is the outline roughly the same, or are you trying to cram your toes into something that’s long enough, but far from wide enough?
Advanced tweak: Try adding insoles. “Even off-the-shelf insoles are better than nothing,” says Cavell. While you can definitely get professional insoles made by a podiatrist—and that may be the best option for you—you can start with cheap inserts to see if they alleviate any of the issues.
Before buying insoles, assess your arches—low, neutral, or high—and buy insoles appropriate to your arch type. The Mayo Clinic recommends a simple trick to assess your arch: Dip your foot in water and step on a piece of paper. If the shape left behind is almost your whole foot shape, you have low arches. If it’s filled in slightly, you have medium arches. If there’s a wide dry space left in the middle inside of the foot outline, you have a high arch.
Seek professional help… if you start to feel other issues, too, like knee or hip pain. “Cycling is not like walking and running, where our feet need to move,” says Cavell. “What we’re trying to do is more like skiing, where we lock that foot in, and then remove all of that extra movement. We don’t want the foot going through any lateral movement because it causes instability all the way up through the chain—your knees and hips—so if you still don’t feel like your foot is stable, you may need to change your shoes or your pedal system.”
Don’t Wait – Ask a Pro
Our last caveat is that sometimes, it’s not worth waiting to seek expert help. “Any kind of very sharp pain or chronic pain that continues when you get off the bike should be checked out by an expert,” says Cavell. “You don’t need to try to fix everything yourself.”
If the pain continues when you’re off the bike or happens on every bike that you ride (road, gravel, mountain bike) despite different handlebar and pedal/shoe setups, start by checking with a physical therapist. If the pain is only on one of your bikes, a professional bike fit is the place to start.