By Patricia Staszak, PT
Riding a bike isn’t just good exercise. It’s good for your soul, it’s good for your wallet, and it’s good for the environment. As a physical therapist, I can also report that cycling is a great activity for a wider range of people, because, unlike some weight bearing exercises like running, walking or even elliptical training, cycling is easier on your knees and ankles.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t add that, as with any sport that requires repetitive movement, overuse injuries are possible. The good news is proper bike fit and cycling technique can reduce the incidence of these injuries.
If it’s been awhile since you’ve ridden a bike, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the options and also how customized a new ride can be these days. And by customized, I mean specific frame geometry and seat, stem and handlebar adjustments to make riding a much more pleasant experience.
Your best bet is to visit a bike shop that offers bike fitting, or a physical therapist or fitness specialist. It’s amazing what a difference a seemingly minor adjustment in handlebar height or the position of the saddle can make.
Here are a few general guidelines to get your started though.
- Your seat should be high enough to allow for a slight bend in your knee when your heel is on the downward pedal.
- If you’re feeling pressure through your arms or hands when you ride, your first instinct might be to move the seat forward, but this can actually shift your body weight forward and makes the problem worse.
- There should be about 30 degrees of bend in your elbows to assist in absorbing the shock through your arms, and your wrists should be in line with your forearms, which will help you avoid stress on your joints or nerve impingement.
- The pedal stroke should occur through the entire 360 degree range of motion of the crank arm. Each foot pushes down on the pedal, but also steps over and sweeps through to assist with a full circular stroke.
- Make sure your knees move up and down when you pedal, not in and out. Also, your butt should be stable on the seat; you should not rock from side to side.
Let’s talk a little bit about riding position, because the bike you ride should complement your riding style. In other words, if you’re using your bike to run errands or get a little fresh air on weekends, a carbon tri bike with aero bars is probably overkill, not to mention dangerous.
There are basically three types of bikes and therefore three different postures: Racing, Touring and Upright. Racing is kind of self-explanatory – think Ironman or Tour de France. Racing bikes are super light and usually have a smaller “cockpit” so they’re zippy; the rider can maintain an aerodynamic position and also get lots of power when sprinting. It’s not something I’m going to go into in great detail here, because, though fun, it’s not entirely practical in an urban or bike trail setting.
The touring position is similar to racing, but touring bikes or road bikes are designed for extended time in the saddle over varying terrain, so the cockpit is a little longer, the frame is usually a bit softer, and the bikes handle a little better on turns and when loaded down with gear. Think Cadillac vs. Maserati. The rider is still forward enough to allow optimal power through the pedal stroke, and usually drop handlebars provide varying hand positions to help combat fatigue. It’s a great choice if you’ll be riding more than a couple of hours at a time.
The upright position is probably the most popular around town and on bike trails. On a “comfort bike” or hybrid, your upper body is at 60-90 degrees in a seated position, and there’s generally less stress through the upper body. The tradeoff is you’re less aerodynamic, and the pedal stroke is a little less efficient. But it’s a perfect choice for entry-level riders and those who bike commute or use their bike as a viable mode of transportation. The upright position allows you to see traffic and pedestrians better, and it’s super stable when avoiding potholes and other obstacles.
Next issue, we’ll cover some specific cycling overuse injuries and how to avoid them. If you would like help adjusting your bike or need some advice on what kind of bike to purchase, we’re here to help! Please give us a call or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.