Body conditioning for pain free cycling

The joy of being on your bike comes from many things: feeling your body work; social interaction; fresh air; the sights, and perhaps also a sense of adventure. However, unwanted aches and pains can put a damper on the pleasure of the ride. Up to 88% of cyclists may experience one or more overuse injuries, which is a worry for the growing number of people (>2.5 million) in the UK who ride regularly, and initiatives promoting physical activity for health.

Neck pain affects up to one half of cyclists with around 30-42% experiencing knee and/or lower back pain. Other affected areas include the hand/wrist, buttock/perineum and foot/ankle. Women are up to twice as likely to develop neck and shoulder complaints, while cycling more than 160 km a week appears to increase the risk of low back pain by over three and a half times. Around 40% of cyclists with overuse injuries seek medical attention with knee pain the main reason for stopping cycling. Importantly however, no studies have determined whether overuse injuries were solely due to cycling.

Proper bike fit is crucial for comfort and injury prevention, but how fit the body is for cycling is perhaps just as important. With over 230 joints the human body is made for movement and adapts well to a variety of activities. Unfortunately, present day reliance on cars and largely sedentary occupations, have simultaneously brought about a huge decline in general physical activity. Most adults spend up to 60% of their waking day sedentary with 3-4 hours of time outside of work spent seated. Importantly, longer sitting time is linked to muscle loss and a decline in flexibility.

Consequently, body aches and pains due to sedentary behaviour and workplace postures could become problematic when combined with an unsuitable riding position and vice versa. A stretched position (saddle and handlebars too far apart) and/or inappropriate saddle angle are linked to low back pain. Additional strain can be placed on the lower back due to tight hamstrings. Incorrect saddle height and foot position can negatively affect leg mechanics and contribute to pain at the front or side of the knee. Gluteal muscles that are weak or effectively ‘switched off’ due to being sat on excessively will be less able to maintain knee stability and prevent overuse of upper leg muscles. A large study of over 1600 cyclists found that lack of pre-ride conditioning and inexperience were important contributors to overuse injuries.

If you want to reduce the bobbing and rocking at the your lower back/pelvis and banish back and knee pain, look at what the professionals do to keep their bodies fit for cycling. Bradley Wiggins revealed that his bike-related body conditioning involved ‘core’ muscle strengthening. ‘Core’ stability exercises that target specific postural muscles are popular for treating lower back problems. However, general strengthening exercises that incorporate postural control appear to be equally effective at reducing back pain.

Fortunately, a few conditioning exercises commonly used by the pro’s to stay race fit can be easily employed by all riders to stay cycle-happy without having to spend hours in the gym. A short routine of leg and core strengthening exercises and stretches recommended by British Cycling’s conditioning and Physiotherapy team can help you get started. Correct guidance to get the desired improvements in strength and flexibility is crucial when starting any activity programme, especially if you’re unsure. A qualified health professional can guide you safely through a manageable routine of key exercises that are right for you.

Group based sessions with other cyclists are a social and fun way to support you in establishing a conditioning routine for cycling and general health as a regular habit. Find out more about conditioning and flexibility classes for cyclists here at Active Health Physio. As well as maintaining your enjoyment of time in the saddle and that virtuous feeling of doing something healthy for your body and the environment, you may also get more power through your pedals!

*References for this article are available upon request