When To Push Through Pain – And When To Pull Back!

Try these expert tips to make your ride a little more comfortable.


Ian McMahan |

You’re on the fourth ride of the week, and your body is rebelling. Your lower back is stiff as a board and both knees ache. You want to keep training, continue getting ready for that fall fondo, but your muscles and joints are screaming, “Stop!” At least that’s what you think. Cycling is supposed to hurt a little, right? I mean, look at all those guys in the Tour de France digging deep with grimaces.

Sure, in order to see improvements, you have to get a little uncomfortable. Jens Voigt, retired pro cyclist, had it right when he said, “Shut up legs,” but how wise is, “Shut up knees?” It can be tough to differentiate between the common aches and pains of cycling and tight muscles or overworked joints that are the start of a full-blown injury.

According to a recent study of recreational cyclists, hurt happens. The article, reported in the journal PLOS ONE, found that 63 percent of cyclists experienced pain while cycling. The body parts where pain was most often experienced were the neck, lower back, knee, and hands.

RELATED: 4 Bike Fit Tips to Knock Out Knee Pain

So while cycling shouldn’t hurt, it often does. Part of the difficulty in classifying good versus bad pain is with the definition of pain itself. “Pain is a really tough issue because it’s hard to know what someone else is feeling,” says Allen Lim, Ph.D., a sports physiologist and founder of Skratch Labs. “We all have different levels of pain tolerance, so what’s acceptable for me might not be for someone else.”

To gauge the seriousness of an on-the-bike ache, Lim uses a simple starting point: If the rider is experiencing so much discomfort that if given the option, he or she would stop, then that’s something serious.

Curtis Cramblett, a licensed physical therapist and certified cycling coach, has a checklist for aches or pains to figure out if they might indicate a more serious injury:

  • Persistence: Discomfort or soreness that doesn’t go away with time or gets worse with continued activity is something to address.
  • Type of pain: The signs that are generally more indicative of a serious issue are a sharp or focal pain, swelling usually presenting as a feeling of thickness, and mechanical joint symptoms (locking, catching, popping, warmth).
  • Nerve pain: Nerve issues – tingling, numbness, radiating pain or loss of strength – that continue after a café break or end of ride require attention.
  • Under recovery and overtraining: An “all-over” ache and systemic problem that can last for days and weeks and even stretch to months or years is serious. Some of the more telling signs are mental/emotional and can include grumpiness, lack of desire to exercise, and changes in sleep patterns and quality.
  • Location: Pain in the extremities, rather than neck or back, are less problematic. Pain in spine – neck, mid or low back – can head south quickly, even requiring surgery if left unchecked. Spinal pain might, but not always, coincide with nerve symptoms.
  • History: Simply put, those that have been hurt in the past are more likely to get hurt in the future, with a reoccurrence often more serious than the first. Also, pain and injury around an old trauma or surgery can be the hardest to treat.

The trick is to heed the yellow flag problem before it becomes a red flag injury, something that won’t just take a day or two off the bike to fix. “Address discomfort early and often – wherever there is smoke, there is usually at least a small fire as pain is usually the tip of a dysfunctional iceberg,” says Cramblett.

When these more serious red flags show up, first take a break until you address the cause of the problem. Figure out the root cause and start trying possible solutions. It’s here that Cramblett recommends addressing the Five Fs:

  1. Bike Fit
  2. Foundation (Training Variables)
  3. Form
  4. Flexibility/Mobility
  5. Food

Importantly, it’s not all about the bike. Lifestyle factors like sitting hunched over a desk all day, can create or exacerbate cycling overuse injuries. “The body is cement waiting to harden,” says Cramblett. And bending over a computer for eight-plus hours then bending over a bike can create a lot of mobility – or lack thereof – issues in the lower back, hip, and neck.

With all that hunching in mind, Lim says it’s important to incorporate cross-training activities like yoga to reverse your posture in the opposite direction.

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Better technique and efficiency can also lead to improved comfort and reduce injury. Lim says anything that helps the body perform will also help with comfort and injury reduction. For example, if saddle height is too low or too high, not only does efficiency suffer, you might be more prone to an overuse injury. “If you do it right, it will still hurt to go hard, but at least you won’t destroy your knees,” he says.

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While every pain on the bike isn’t orthopedic in nature, some of the “good pain” – muscular and cardiovascular – might not be necessary either, especially for those new to riding. “Cycling doesn’t have to crush your legs and lungs to be effective,” Cramblett says. “Aim to spend less time out of breath and more time at conversational pace. Most coaches recommend an 80/20 split, where 80 percent of training time is spent at lower intensities.” In other words, you’ll lay a great foundation of fitness riding at a pace that doesn’t strain your muscles or your lungs.

Lim agrees on slowing down, both literally and figuratively. “It’s all about adaptation and progression. Don’t rush things and don’t be a hero,” he says. “Look at it as a long-term relationship where you can continually work to get better.”

Sure, many of us find a little pride in suffering, but if you’re experiencing common aches and pains, there’s probably a simple solution – usually low hanging fruit, such as ergonomics or bike fit.

Above all, Cramblett emphasises this simple point: “Cycling doesn’t have to hurt. If cyclists do the right things, they can be comfortable on the bike.”

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