Bike Fit Blues

Apart from the self inflicted, and enjoyable for some, burning pain in your quads and lungs when you’re pushing hard, cycling should be a pain free experience. It’s no coincidence that it’s the chosen rehabilitation activity following many injuries as it’s zero impact and therefore incredibly kind on your joints. However many cyclist do experience pain, niggles or discomfort when riding so, why is this so and what can they do? Fortunately Phil Burt, physiotherapist to the Great Britain Cycling Team and consultant physio to Team Sky, is on hand to get to the bottom, sometimes literally, of some of the most common cycling aches and ailments.  Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.

Do I need a professional bike fit?

You can get a really good bike fit and a great understanding of the subject by following the advice in my book, Bike Fit: Optimise your Bike Position for High Performance and Injury Avoidance. However, if you are experiencing problems or feel you’d be reassured by having professional input, having a fit could help. Look for a fitter who uses a dynamic method, such as video analysis or motion capture and who also performs a thorough physical examination of the rider. With any professional intervention, whether it’s a bike fit or physio, you should believe in what you’re being told, feel like you’re being listened to, treated as an individual and not just given generic answers. You should notice an almost immediate difference if you implement the changes they suggest, if not, after three treatments from a physio or a single bike fit, go somewhere else.

1. Neck
Constantly looking forwards for hours on end can put a lot of strain on the neck. Riders in the infamous Race Across America have had to quit because their neck’s have failed them and they’ve even developed braces to counter this problem. If you’re suffering neck pain on the bike, it’s probably because your bars are too low, saddle too high or a combination of both. This relative vertical distance between your saddle and bars is known as drop. This can be especially heightened in aggressive time trial or triathlon positions. Your neck muscles can adapt to an aggressive position but it takes time. Raise your bars to a position where you’re not experiencing pain and slowly lower over time as your body adapts to handle the new position.

2. Hands and wrists
Again, the most likely candidate is that your drop is too great, you’re putting too much weight through your hands and inflaming vulnerable tissue such as the ulnar nerve. Along with raising your bars, take a look at your bars and gloves. If the girth of your bars is too narrow it can cause problems. A double wrap or bar-tape can work wonders and some anatomically padded gloves will help too. Also, on a road bike, get into the habit of regular switching hand positions.

3. Shoulders and arms
Numbness or discomfort in your shoulders is another pointer that your handlebar drop is too extreme and you’re putting too much weight on the handlebars. Raise your bars and
also check they’re the correct width. Reach, the horizontal distance from the tip of your saddle to your bars can also be a factor, stretching you out to much and straining your upper body. The same applies if your triceps tend to ache. In a time trial position, your shoulders should be almost directly above your elbows. Too far forwards or back and you won’t be comfortable.

4. Lower back
It’s not unusual for riders to experience some lower back pain but this can just be a case of fatigue and, with and increased fitness, it’ll ease. Also cycling can be one of the best forms of exercise for people suffering from chronic back pain. Saddle angle can be a factor, a slight forward tilt (2-4 degrees) helps many riders. Then look at drop and reach, if your bars are too low or far away, this can put a strain on your lower back. Double check your saddle height also. Take a look at yourself, have you got tight of stiff hamstrings? If they are, they could be preventing your pelvis from rotating sufficiently and your lower back will bear the brunt of this additional workload. Some regular flexibility work could help resolve this.

5. Backside
We didn’t evolve to sit on saddles for hours on end so it’s not surprising if you get a bit sore. Saddle choice is incredibly individual and, to be honest, it’s really a case of trial and error. Make sure your saddle is level though, or slightly forward tilted. Nose up is a recipe for guaranteed soreness. Invest in decent quality shorts and be aware that even slightly differently positioned stitching can cause issues. Use chamois cream, it makes a massive difference and, even if riding on the flat, stand up out of the saddle regularly. Finally, keep things clean down there, use an antibacterial soap, never re-use dirty shorts and don’t sit around in your shorts at the end of a ride.

6. Knee
Although knee injuries and problems are fairly common among cyclists, it should be remembered that cycling, on a correctly fitted bike, is an incredibly knee friendly activity. Are you new to cycling, have you suddenly ramped up your training or been doing some big gear work? All of these factors can cause your knees to be sore. Knees are complicated but, if you’re suffering any sort of knee pain when riding, the first thing to check is your saddle height. If you’re sure this is correct and your knees are still giving you problems, it’s probably worth consulting with a physiotherapist with knowledge of bike fitting. Cleat set-up, crank length and a number of soft tissue issues can all effect the knees and a professional check-up is probably the quickest way to a solution.

7. Feet
If you’re suffering from sore feet or hotspots, the first thing to check is the size of your shoes. Sometimes, just backing the straps off a little or changing to a slimmer insole can sort things out.

Have a look at your cleats, are they correctly set-up?
• With your foot in your shoes, feel along the inside of your foot for the large bony prominence at the base of your big toe. Use a marker pen to mark its position.
• Do the same with the outside of your foot for the prominence at the base of your little toe.
• Take off the shoe and draw two parallel lines across the base of the shoe. The first straight across from the first mark and the second from the second mark.
• The midpoint between these two lines indicates the fore and aft position for the centre of the cleat.

This will give you a neutral cleat position. You might have to tweak rotation and width but it’s a good starting point.

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This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.