If you’ve just decided to take your cycling up to the next level, rediscovered your passion for riding, or simply upgraded your bike, there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to your cycling fitness and how to exercise without damaging your body.
Commuting on two wheels, cycling on the weekends or even traveling by bike is the perfect workout; and, like all outdoor hobbies, should be painless.
If you’ve ever experienced pain after biking, chances are you spent more time in the saddle than usual. Many common ailments won’t make themselves known until you push your body past the limit it’s used to.
A professional fitting, along with a few simple adjustments, can mean the difference between a satisfying ride and an uncomfortable ordeal. Foot, knee or back pain after riding shouldn’t take away from pedaling in the present, and is often the result of an improper bike frame fit.
In addition, what you wear, the kind of bike you choose, and how you ride it are all important factors that will keep your body both healthy and happy while on the road.
If you’re planning on riding more often or increasing your distance, take a few precautionary steps to make sure you don’t wind up with any mid-ride aches. There are some judgment calls and adjustments you can make at home, especially if you consider yourself a casual cyclist or commuter.
A professional bike fitting is the foolproof way to go for those looking to get into racing, long distance riding, or just increasing their performance. Not all local shops offer fitting services, so you may have to call around to find one that does. A standard bike fit is performed by a certified fitter; most technicians have to complete coursework and pass special exams to gain a certification.
The process generally involves adjusting the handlebars, saddle, and pedals of the bike, along with cleat and other gear recommendations. Those are the three parts of the bike that your body comes into contact with, and the origin of most cycling pains.
Your fitter will all have an in depth conversation with you, covering your riding plans, pain or pressure you’ve felt in the past, and your medical history. If your ambitions are all about aerodynamics, expert advice can be priceless, especially when it’s tailored to your body and your ambitions.
When your health is at stake, it’s best to leave the fitting to the experts. However, if you want to start with the basics, the following tips can help you gain some insight in just a few minutes.
Make sure you know what size bike is right for you; you may have been riding a bike frame that was too small or large all along without realizing it.
The length of your bike’s top tube should correspond to your height. To find out the length of the top tube, measure horizontally from the middle of the head tube to the middle of the seat post. That measurement is usually marked in centimeters and can be compared to bike manufacturer size charts to determine your ideal frame size.
When standing over the top tube, you should have at least an inch of clearance between the bike frame and your body. If the frame you already have is well out of your size range, it’s best to start looking for a new bike; starting out on the wrong sized frame will only result in more issues down the line.
When it comes to how much you lean when you ride, it’s all about a comfortable reach that doesn’t strain your arms. On a road bike, a 45 degree angle between your upper body and pelvis is a safe bet. The angle between your upper body and arms (while holding the handlebars) should fall at about 90 degrees.
Changing your stem out is one way to address posture issues. The length of your stem can determine how close you are to your handlebars and how much you’ll have to lean in to get a comfortable grip. You can also try re-positioning spacers around on your steerer tube, which is part of the fork.
Your seat height is another crucial element to pay attention to, as a poorly matched seat height is often the cause of knee and lower back pain. The simplest way to check this is by sitting on your saddle as you normally would, while another person holds the bike steady.
With both feet on the pedals, extend one leg so that your foot is right above the ground and on the pedal. At this point, your leg should be slightly bent but almost fully extended. Look for a 25 to 35 degree bend in your knee. If your leg has a significant bend, or is completely extended, you’ll want to raise or lower your seat accordingly. Make sure to wear the shoes you’ll be cycling in as you do this, as they will alter your height.
When choosing a new saddle or returning to an old one, measuring your sit bone width can save you a trip back to the bike shop in the future. Most shops will have measuring tools, but there are also ways to do it at home, including using something as simple as a piece of cardboard to get an imprint of your sit bones. However, checking in at your local shop is best if you want a precise fit.
The angle at which your saddle sits can also make a huge difference. This often depends on the type of saddle you have, especially if it’s female-specific.
If pelvic-area chafing is a problem, consider wearing padded shorts, using chamois cream, or choosing a different seat. Women-specific saddles with center slits and a narrower design can relieve chafing and balance pressure while protecting nerves.
Saddle “fore and aft” is another element you can tweak to your advantage. This term describes how far forward or backward your saddle is positioned. All saddles should have a set of rails on which the seat can move around while loosened.
Known as “cyclist’s palsy,” numbness and aching in your hands happens when you put too much pressure on your handlebars. This is usually experienced during and after long distance rides and becomes worse over time.
Padded gel gloves are a simple way to relieve pressure on your hands and protect sensitive nerves. Your seat can have as much to do with your hands as your handlebars; pushing the seat back can help alleviate hand pain as well. Drop bars are often preferred on longer rides since they allow you to move your hands around in various positions. A hand exercise tool that you can squeeze or grip is worth a try in case you begin to feel weakness in your hands.
These small changes, along with regular finger exercises and frequent rest can help; ultimately, a bike fit will address this problem best, especially if coupled with other aches.
Your handlebar width can also affect how your upper body feels while riding. Narrow bars can force your shoulders into an unnaturally constricted position, while bars that are too wide will have you straining your arms. Measuring the distance between your AC joints (the spot where your collarbone and shoulder-blade meet on either side) is the general recommendation. The width of your bars should be equal to or slightly larger than that measurement, depending on preference.
If you’re experiencing foot pain, your shoe is usually the culprit. You might want to schedule a cleat fitting to make sure your cycling footwear (check our articles on mens cycling shoes and womens cycling shoes) is as perfectly matched to your foot as possible. Custom molded insoles are another way to go; formed to fit the exact shape of your sole, these nifty additions to your wardrobe will minimize impact while pedaling and provide another layer of cushioning.
Making sure your bike’s features fit your individual needs is the most important thing to keep in mind when shopping, changing parts, or re-acquainting yourself with an old bike.
If you’re purchasing a new ride from a shop, have an employee help you make initial adjustments and see how it feels over the next few days. Though at-home measuring methods work in a pinch, stop by a shop to get your exact measurements – and make sure you write everything down!
If any part of your body continues to bother you while you ride, don’t hesitate to schedule a bike fit; whether you’re hoping to break your distance or speed record, or just invested in a high end bike, comfort comes first.