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Cycling: How to Avoid Injuries from Pedalling | East London Acupuncture & Massage Therapy
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East London Acupuncture & Massage Therapy

Cycling: How to Avoid Injuries from Pedalling

07 November 2013
1

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen several people who’ve managed to give themselves injuries through cycling. They’ve injured themselves not by falling off or by having an accident, but simply from pedalling. They’ve also been very different in terms of experience and ability, from someone who just uses her bike to get around town, to a professional cyclist – so this type of injury can happen to anyone. Therefore I thought I’d outline some of the ways that you can cause injuries while cycling, and how to avoid them.

I love cycling. It’s undoubtedly the best way to get around the city (providing the weather isn’t foul!), as it’s quicker, cheaper and healthier than any alternative. It’s also a great way to see the countryside and get out of town. Additionally, as it’s a low impact activity – so injuries are fewer and further between than many other sports. There are, however, some things you’ll need to get right if you want to stay injury free, particularly if you’re using new equipment or increasing your training regime.

Saddle Height

Possibly the most important, for casual cyclists at least, is saddle height. Often inexperienced cyclists will leave the saddle too low, perhaps as this is how they were used to riding bikes as children, or maybe as it feels easier to dismount when the saddle is set at a lower level. When your saddle is set too low, the forces on your kneecap, or patella, will be too high. This can result in damage to the knee cartilage and cause patellofemoral pain. This pain often feels like it is directly under the kneecap. The recommendation for the minimum knee angle when the leg is at it’s most contracted is 70° or above. This was the case in the casual cyclist who I saw recently – her saddle was too low and thus she was putting excessive pressure on her knees as she rode around town.

Likewise, a saddle that is too high will cause problems. Usually the first thing that people notice when they raise the saddle on their bike is that riding becomes easier. A high saddle (at the correct height) will increase peddle efficiently. The temptation is therefore to put the saddle up too much. This can overextend leg and is likely to cause problems at the hamstring insertion points and increase tension in the iliotibial band (around the knee). Pain may commonly result behind the knee, and sometimes in the soleus or gastrocnemius muscles of the calf. Other problems can arise. In the case of the experienced, high-performance cyclist I treated recently, he had pain and tightness in the piriformis and gluteus maximus muscles, which were over compensating for the way he was overextending his leg. As a rough guide, when your pedal is at its lowest position, there should be a small bend in the knee (approximately 25°). If your leg is perfectly stretched the saddle is too high.

Cadence

Another mistake casual cyclists make is to cycle with too low a cadence. In cycling, cadence is the number of revolutions of the crank per minute; roughly speaking, this is the rate at which a cyclist is pedalling/turning the pedals. A low cadence (fewer than 60 rpm) not only taxes your muscles, but also puts extra stress on your joints. Most specialists recommend around 80-100 rpm as being the optimum, although some suggest up to 120 rpm.

When cycling you should therefore start off in a low gear and take time to move up through the gears. If you feel like you are ‘grinding’ rather than ‘spinning’ you probably should shift down a gear or two to prevent muscle and joint damage.

Pedal Technique

This really only applies to more serious cyclists who have begun to use pedal clips or straps. The temptation when starting to use these is to apply a ‘push-pull’ technique: pushing vertically down on the down-stroking pedal, while simultaneously pulling up on the up-stroking pedal. Although this seems sensible, the movements aren’t ones that we’ve not been designed for over the course of our evolution. Pulling up on the pedals, especially, can exert a great deal of stress onto our bodies that we’re not used to in our day-to-day activities. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the most efficient technique is a “horizontal” style, where the force is concerntrated through the horizontal movements of the pedals. This closely mimics the kind of forces we are uses to when running. For a complete explanation have a look at the video below (which also contains other useful information for pedal technique). I recommend all cyclists try horizontal pedalling, as it should really improve your efficiency.

Generally speaking, if you notice any recurring aches and pains, stop cycling and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my saddle too high or too low?
  • Am I pedalling too slowly (cadence too low)?
  • Is my technique OK?

Answering these should solve the problem, and the pains or aches being caused should, in my experience, resolve by themselves in relatively little time. If not, find a good acupuncturist or masseur and get them to take a look.

Happy cycling!

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