If you’re someone like myself, with the weather getting nicer and the sun staying out a little longer, you’re starting to get the itch to get out on your bicycle.
With the abundance of quiet roads and trails on the South Shore, it’s the perfect place to spin your wheels. Cycling is a great form of exercise providing a huge variety of health benefits. Regular and consistent bouts of cardiovascular exercise have been associated with decreased risk of a wide variety of diseases and conditions including but not limited to: high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, several cancers, and depression.
As with any form of exercise, cycling carries a risk of musculoskeletal injury. Mind you, the benefits of exercise in my opinion far outweigh the risks by a long shot. Today I wanted to speak about some common causes of injuries I see as a Physiotherapist related to cycling and how to help you prevent and manage these to make sure you spend as much time in the saddle as possible.
Three of the most common cycling related injuries that I’ve seen in practice are lower back pain, neck pain, and anterior knee pain (pain at the front of the knee). These are more often than not related to overuse and training rather than trauma, and are usually brought about by either poor training habits, poor bike fit, or a combination of the two.
Now training habits can be quite a large umbrella, covering everything from how you train, where you train, and all the bits in between. First thing you need to ask yourself though is what is it you’re training for or why are you training? Are you a social rider, training for an event, or working on personal fitness goals? No matter your goals or your starting level of fitness, you have to introduce yourself to new forms of exercise gradually.
Your body and all the associated joints, muscles, and tissues have to get use to these new positions, demands, and challenge. They will adapt if given the right opportunity, but it takes time. So make sure to slowly build your time on the bike – you want it to be as enjoyable as an experience as possible. The larger the gap between your current fitness and goals/ expectations, the longer the time you should give yourself to train.
This principle also applies to varying terrain; don’t underestimate the challenges involved with hills, windy weather, or gravel roads/ trails. Just because you can comfortably cycle 20k on a flat road, that doesn’t mean you should assume a hilly gravel road would be just as easy.
Training habits also cover what you do outside of cycling. Rest (as much as we don’t want to believe it) is necessary to give the body time to recover and adapt. It is all the more important after challenging sessions or events. Most of the tissues in your body respond to the stressors of an event and will undergo a process of adaptation given the right stimulus, but also need the right amount of time.
Now this doesn’t mean I’m giving you an excuse to sit on the couch all day when you’re not cycling, but you should keep moving and maybe try a light form of cross training (e.g. swimming, hiking, or Pilates). Off days can be a great time to address mobility and functional issues, maybe work hamstring flexibility or neck strength to improve your comfort on the bike.
The fit of your bike can also play a big part in how comfortable you feel cycling. Sure some discomfort is normal with any new form of exercise, but pain that’s persistent or worsens is not. You shouldn’t get off the bike reaching immediately for your back or neck hoping it will get better with time. Lots of variables about your set up can influence both your mobility demands while on the bike and how your body deals with the forces you apply to the pedals.
Certain set ups may force you into too much low back flexion that may bother you on climbs, while others may force your neck into too much extension which can make seeing over the bars agony. My biggest advice would be to take the advice from various online forums with a grain of salt as they haven’t seen you on your bike and often what works for one doesn't work for all.
Take the time and go see your local bike shop or qualified healthcare professional for some bike fitting and exercise advice to ensure your bike fits you and you're fit for your bike!
Hopefully this helps give you a bit of insight into some common causes of cycling injuries and helps you reaffirm that cycling shouldn’t be a pain in your neck.