Cycling injury prevention tips

Health benefits, environmentally-friendly transportation, and exhilarating fun are just a few of the many reasons why cycling is so popular. What makes cycling so different from almost any other sport is that it’s both excellent cardiovascular exercise and low-impact. Because of its low-impact nature, cycling and spinning are used for recovery by athletes from almost all sports, from runners to football players. It’s also the reason there are so many lifelong cyclists; while athletes participating in sports like running, tennis, and soccer eventually succumb to injuries resulting from repeated impact, it’s not unusual to see cyclists continuing to enjoy their sport during retirement years.

Just like any other sport, cycling is not without its risks. When best practices are ignored, even the safest of sports can become dangerous. Spills and crashes might seem like the most obvious causes of cycling injuries, but in reality, once the rider gains a bit of experience, they become quite rare. Statistically, the most common cycling-related injuries result from bad form.

Enthusiasts persist despite injury, demonstrating that this sport is one that inspires commitment - even in the face of challenge and discomfort.

If you are one of the 80 million Americans who loves to ride, then read ahead to learn about how you can reduce your risk of cycling-related injury. By simply increasing your awareness of certain injuries and methods of injury prevention, you can avoid having to endure injury-related challenges and discomfort.

Knee problems

Overuse, combined with improper form, can render your knees vulnerable to injury. Clipping into the bike pedals is a great way to extract more power from every pedal stroke, but creates a relatively rigid interface between the bike and the rider’s skeletal system. When done improperly it can cause serious, if not devastating injury. It is highly recommended to have a proper bike fit performed by a professional fitter and have it reviewed and corrected if necessary, after six months.

Just like with any strenuous exercise, gradual increase in volume is the key to success. Since cycling is low-impact, you might fail to recognize when you’re “overdoing it.” When you start cycling it’s important to “listen” to your body and recognize fatigue. Include exercises such as lunges, planks, squats, and step-ups in your off-road training. Stretch after each of your rides and keep your training regime consistent with gradual, rather than drastic, changes.

Anterior (front) knee pain is common and is often caused by quad tightness that can cause the patella (knee cap) to track incorrectly. It can happen to riders who sit too low or too far forward. As a result of improper seat setup, excessive force is exerted on the knees. Check the position of your bike seat to ensure that seat position is not the culprit of your pain. If it is, adjust your seat in small increments, no greater than ⅛ of an inch at a time, spend some time off the bike and when the soreness goes away, give it another try.

Posterior (back) knee pain is commonly related to your hamstrings. If the saddle of your bike is positioned too high or too far back, you can hyperextend your leg and overload the capacity of the knee to handle its workload. If you have posterior knee pain, lower your seat and move it forward. Briefly apply ice once an hour, and spend time stretching and foam rolling your hamstrings, calves and glutes.

Medial (inside) and lateral (outside) pain in your knees can also result from form and overuse issues similar to those that cause anterior and posterior pain. If you have pain on the sides of your knees, you may also want to look at your cleat position. Your knee pain might be from an inward or outward tilt from cleats that are not set up to be straight.

If you’ve reached the limit of adjustment on your cleats or pedals, you might need to look into cleats or pedals that allow more sideways rotational movement, also known as float.

Shimano’s yellow cleat has 6 degrees of movement at both heel and toe, while the blue cleat simply pivots at the toe and the red cleat does not pivot at all. Look’s red cleats offer 9 degrees while grey cleats have 4.5 degrees of float.

Speedplay offers a single cleat model but its float is adjustable via grub screws from fixed to 15 degrees of movement.

Lower back pain

Your competitive drive resulting in long hours spent improving your riding times may end up hurting your lower back. The lumbar region of your spine is vulnerable to nerve interference from excessive flexion, which may necessitate medical intervention.

Some initial lower back pain can be expected if you’re a beginner cyclist and just now starting to build hours in the saddle. As a newer cyclist, your back muscles aren’t used to stabilizing your body while riding and get especially worked during hard efforts, such as a climbing.

When riding in the saddle, make sure to maintain a neutral spine: your back should be relaxed with a relatively straight line from your shoulders to your hips. If you notice that your core is not engaged, you might be riding in a slouched position that is putting unnecessary load on your back.

If you’re an experienced cyclist suffering from chronic lower back pain, it might be time to review your fit. Improper position on the bike is the most common cause of back pain.

Incorporate core training as part of your fitness regimen to help support your back. Core training is often overlooked by cyclists but is an essential part of maintaining fitness. Your core is not just your abdominal and back muscles, but is rather a collection of hundreds of muscles that work together to give your core stability. Adding a core-focused exercise regimen, such as Pilates, to your training can not only make the pain go away, but make you a stronger rider.

Achilles tendinitis

Achilles tendonitis is inflammation of the Achilles tendon, located on the back of your lower leg just above your heel. Inflammation can be caused by micro-tears, which are often the result of overuse. Stretching helps keep this tendon pliable as well as increase circulation to the area.

If you have Achilles tendonitis, take some days off from training to rest and ice the injured area. Check your bike seat: if it's too high and your toes point downward, your calves remain contracted, which can overstretch the tendons. Lower your saddle so that your toes point up during the lower portion of each pedal stroke.

Muscle tightness

Muscle tightness can result from any kind of athletic or physical exertion, and cycling is no exception. Prolonged time in a seated position can foster tight hip muscles, in spite of the fact that you're actively moving your legs. This can be prevented with stretching after every ride.

Include hip flexor stretches after each ride to loosen up your hip muscles. While riding, pay attention to proper form and maintain good posture. During the ride, stand and pedal occasionally, especially up steep grades, to stretch your legs.

Saddle sores

Prolonged friction from too much time chafing and sweating on the saddle can cause painful skin lesions knows as saddle sores. Sometimes, they are a minor annoyance, and other times, they can keep you off your bike completely. In some cases, they can even become ulcerated and result in infection.

Make sure that you saddle is not too high. Wear cycling-specific shorts or bibs, with minimal seams to reduce friction. Apply chamois cream before every ride to reduce friction and kill bacteria. Shower and dry the area immediately after each training session, and wash your shorts or bibs after every ride.

If your saddle height is right and you continue getting saddle sores even when regularly using the chamois cream, your saddle might be not right for you. Before buying another saddle, see if your local bike shops offers demo saddles. You can try out a new saddle every couple of rides until you find the one that really works for you.

Foot numbness

If you're not riding in cold weather and are still experiencing foot numbness, the culprit is likely your shoes. Foot numbness could be caused by a number of factors, ranging from the shoe being too narrow in the toe box or instep, to soles not providing enough support for the arch, or the cleats being too far forward, placing excessive pressure on the ball of the foot. It also might be that you’re tightening the shoe buckles too tightly, cutting off the circulation.

To isolate the source of your problem, you need to start paying attention as the numbness sets in during your ride. Usually, numbness originates in a specific area and slowly spreads around. Next time you ride, try to pinpoint the area of your foot that starts feeling numb first. If the numbness originates near the ball of your foot, moving your cleats back a couple millimeters might solve your problem. If the numbness originates near the instep or the waist of the foot, try loosening the buckles.

When all else fails, you might need to consider new shoes. Your shoes are important interface points between you and your bicycle. If they aren’t perfect, your ride will never be perfect. Visit your local bike shop and try as many shoes as possible, and take notes. While you won’t be able to try out the shoes out on a bike, you can get a good idea if the shoe is a good fit by spending some time with it on your foot. Move your feet around to make sure they clear your ankle bone, spend some time lounging in them to ensure they don’t cut off circulation and finally walk around on the carpet so see if they create any hot spots.

Shops that specialize in bike fitting often have equipment that can quickly determine if you need a specialty insole to correct your foot-knee alignment.

Shoulder pain

If you ride a long distance while bearing too much weight on your hands and with your elbows locked, you may experience shoulder pain. Try relaxing and lowering your shoulders and bending your elbows, allowing then to work as suspension.

Hand numbness

The most common cause of hand numbness is an improper position, usually resulting in a long reach to the handlebar. When riding with your hands on the hoods, your elbows need to be slightly bent and there should be a 90 degree angle between your torso and your arms.

Next time you ride, pay attention to your wrists. There should be a straight line from your elbow through your fingers, with the index finger resting on the brake lever.

If your position is right but hand numbness persists, your riding gloves might be too tight or not right for you. Next time you put your gloves on and grab onto the handlebars, pay particular attention to where and how your hand gets compressed. Your gloves might feel fine on a relaxed hand, but might pinch and cut off circulation when flexed around a handlebar. Consider getting gloves with move padding. There’s a variety of gloves on the market, from very basic to those with high-tech gel pads that do a great job of absorbing road vibrations.

Experiment with your tire pressure. Over inflating your tires results in a stiff ride, where all the road chatter is transferred to your body, resulting in unnecessary fatigue. Tires that are over-inflated have a diminished contact point, which negatively affects both the cornering grip and the braking distance.

If your bike is equipped with an aluminum handlebar, consider upgrading to carbon one. Unlike aluminum, carbon does a great job at absorbing road vibrations.

Consult a professional

There's more to cycling than hopping on your bike and going for a ride. It's a sport that is as demanding as it is fun, but it can result in injury and discomfort. Fortunately, you can minimize or even eliminate these issues with the right preparation, form, equipment and exercises so that you can continue to enjoy your time on the road. For your own health and safety, see your doctor if you experience any significant or ongoing pain. The above are merely suggestions for prevention and are not meant to replace a doctor's treatment or diagnosis.

Keep yourself protected

Velosurance was created by cyclists for cyclists, it recognizes the need for equal bicycle insurance protection and offers a highly customizable policy designed to provide coverage for almost any risk associated with cycling. The policy covers the bike for theft and damage, and offers optional coverages including gap medical, liability, vehicle contact protection, and even roadside assistance, if you ever get stranded far away from home.

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