How to Avoid Overuse Injuries when Cycling
Cycling is a great low-impact exercise that all age-ranges can enjoy. Like most activities, however, there is a risk of overuse injuries from cycling due to technique and/or training errors. Whether you are cycling to help regain strength from your knee replacement, sweating to a Peloton class, or training for a Gran Fondo, you will find these tips helpful to prevent an overuse injury!
Common training mistakes
A common training mistake for cyclists is increasing the volume of training too early. A general recommendation is to not to increase your mileage/time by more than 10% each week. For example, if you ride 50 miles in one week, you should increase your mileage a maximum of 5 miles the next week. If you are doing Peloton cycling classes, don’t jump from a 15 minute ride to a 45 minute ride right away. Instead, choose a 15-20 minute ride and increase time up by a few minutes.
It is also recommended to only change one thing about your training at a time. If you are a beginner rider, focus on increasing your time/mileage at the same intensity. For example, you don’t want to start training at higher intensities such as sprint work, hill climbs, or tabata classe too early. Beginners should build up their endurance at a medium intensity (5-7/10 difficulty) and increase time/mileage to improve their base level of fitness. Once you’ve built a good base, then you can start implementing higher intensity training. Slowly increasing your mileage and building endurance will ensure that you are not overloading and putting yourself at risk for burnout or injury!
Another common training mistake is over-gearing which puts more stress on your joints. This means that you are in a harder gear and biking at a lower cadence. Overall, a lighter gear where you can maintain a higher cadence is more sustainable than a low cadence at a hard gear. Later in this post we will talk about ideal cadence ranges!
Common cycling Injuries
The most common overuse cycling injury is knee pain. The common culprits of knee pain in cyclists are typically due to bike fit and training errors. For example, a low saddle height, a saddle too far forward, harder gears, lower cadence, hill climbing, and improper shoe fit can overload the knee and cause pain over time.
Other common overuse injuries include distal iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome, low back pain, neck pain, achilles tendinopathy, hand and foot numbness, and buttock pain. Fortunately many of these injuries can be prevented with your bike set up and strengthening muscle imbalances! Most bike fit settings can be changed at home with a few common tools. Later in this post we will give you tips on how to properly set up your bike. If something doesn’t feel right or if you’ve had an injury in the past, you can go to a local bike shop or a PT to get bike fitting recommendations specific for you!
An ideal cadence for cycling should be around 60-110 revolutions per minute (RPM). Most stationary bikes and programs should give you your RPM in real time. If you are new to cycling 50-60 RPM is okay if you are using a light resistance as you work your way up to a faster cadence. A steady state cadence for most cyclers will be around 85-90 RPM. If you are in a hard gear and it’s difficult to stay above 60 RPM, you should lower the gear because there is an increased stress on your knees. Additionally, a high cadence >120 RPM with light resistance can also be unsafe. You can easily lose control with low resistance which could put your joints at risk! A good rule of thumb is to stick with the range of 60-110 RPM when you are cycling!
Your bike set up
Changing your saddle position is one of the easiest ways to help prevent an overuse injury. Research from a recent systematic review found that improper saddle position is a risk factor to anterior knee pain, distal ITB syndrome, low back pain, achilles tendinopathy, and buttock pain (Kotler et. al.).
Ideally, your saddle height should allow you to have a slight (10-15 degrees) knee bend at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
You can use this saddle height calculator to find the best fit for you according to your height: https://www.cyclist.co.uk/tutorials/3207/how-to-change-your-saddle-height
For an ideal set up, you should also make sure your saddle isn’t too far forward or back. To find if your seat is in the right position, place your pedals in the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. Drop a string in front of your knee and it should bisect the pedal. If the string is too far forward, your seat should be moved back. If the string is too far back, move the seat forward. Optimal seat position can help prevent injuries such as knee pain, ITB syndrome, and achilles tendinopathy.
Your handlebars should be far away enough that you have a slight bend at your elbows. If you are riding on a stationary bike, the height of the handlebars should be at a height where you don’t feel your back excessively rounding or you feel like you’re putting a lot of weight through your arms. An easy tip is to sit upright and extend your arms in front of you and hinge forward where you feel like you can keep a neutral position. On a road bike, your handlebars should be at the level of your seat or slightly lower for a more aerodynamic position. If you are new to road biking, having your handlebars slightly higher is okay as you get comfortable being in a more forward position. Over time you can lower your handlebars to achieve the aerodynamic position but you don’t want to start there at the beginning. It is important to make sure your handlebars aren’t too low or else that could lead to low-back pain, neck pain, or hand numbness from putting too much weight on your hands.
People often think that cycling will always cause buttock pain because you are sitting on a narrow seat. Often buttock pain is due to just getting used to the position, lack of saddle padding, saddle shape, increased weight through the saddle, and infrequent positional changes. You should be wearing padded cycling shorts when you are cycling for long duration’s to avoid buttock pain. If you follow the recommended bike position guidelines above, this will also help offload weight through the buttocks and decrease pain. There are many great affordable options for padded bike shorts or seat cushions to increase your comfort level.
Exercises to prevent injury
Cycling is a primarily sagittal plane motion, meaning you are moving mainly in an up-and-down cyclic motion. If cycling is your main form of exercise, muscles that move in different planes are often neglected in training. This develops into strength imbalances which makes you susceptible to injury. Common strength imbalances include weak hip abductors, vastus medialis (quad muscle), core muscles, upper back muscles, and weak/tight hamstrings.
These muscles can be trained in numerous ways, but these exercises are good starting points to address common muscle groups that promote better alignment for cycling. These are recommended to include in your strengthening regime to avoid muscle imbalances.
Side plank + abduction – This exercise combines core strengthening and glute med strengthening. Hold this pose for :20 for 2 sets.
Bulgarian split squat – This exercise targets your glutes and quads (favoring the vastus medialis) as well as challenging your stability. Unilateral exercises are also great for determining any side-to-side strength differences. Complete 8-10 reps per side for 3 sets.
Banded dead bugs – This exercise strengthens both your core and your hip flexors. Complete 10 reps per side for 2 sets
Dumbbell row – Upper back strength is important for keeping good spinal alignment when you are cycling. Any variation of a row will target the muscles that keep your back in a neutral position. Perform 6-8 reps for 3 sets.
Single leg romanian deadlift – Muscle imbalances between quads and hamstrings is the leading cause of a hamstring strain injury. Prioritize strengthening your hamstrings eccentrically to build their power and strength. This exercise targets both your glutes and hamstrings as well as balance. Complete 6-8 reps per side for 3 sets.
Overall, cycling is a great cardiovascular and low-impact form of exercise but there are a few things to consider before you jump on a bike to reach your training goals. If you follow these guidelines you will significantly decrease your chance of sustaining an overuse injury over time.
Bini, R., Hume, P.A. & Croft, J.L. Effects of Bicycle Saddle Height on Knee Injury Risk and Cycling Performance. Sports Med 41, 463–476 (2011). https://doi.org/10.2165/11588740-000000000-00000
Kotler DH, Babu AN, Robidoux G. Prevention, Evaluation, and Rehabilitation of Cycling-Related Injury. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2016;15(3):199-206. doi:10.1249/JSR.0000000000000262
Agur, Lee. Fore Aft Saddle Position. https://ilovebicycling.com/fore-aft-saddle-position/
Karp, Aaron. How to Set Up an Exercise (or Spin) Bike Properly. https://www.hss.edu/article_set-up-exercise-bike.asp
Cyclist Magazine. How to set and change your saddle height. https://www.cyclist.co.uk/tutorials/3207/how-to-change-your-saddle-height