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Bike Riding: Back to Basics

By Raghu Pulluru, MD

People love riding bikes because it’s a great way to get exercise; it has low-impact on your joints as you rotate your legs thousands of times during a typical ride. But small issues with your biking technique can cause big problems over time, including knee pain, the most common lower body injury in the sport.

Anatomy of Pedaling MovementThe Mechanics of Pedaling

As you pedal, your body is cycling through two phases – the power phase and the recovery phase. If you think of the pedal cycle as a clock face, the power phase is when you push the pedal downwards between the 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock positions – where your body generates force to move the bike forward. The recovery phase is when your pedal moves back up to the 12 o’clock position. During these two phases, muscles in your lower body are in constant use:

It’s not just your legs that are getting a workout, either. Biking engages your entire body to power your ride, giving you a full body workout, especially when on mountain terrain or inclines.


Common Injuries

Just because it’s a low impact sport doesn’t mean it’s one without potential for injury. Injuries can occur over time with repeated movement, or as a result of sudden movement, like falling off the bike. Common injuries for bicyclists include:

  • Knee pain
  • Back pain
  • Achilles tendonitis
  • Muscle tightness
  • Saddle sores
  • Foot numbness
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Neck pain


Tips for Success

To help avoid these injuries, and to make the most of your ride, you’ll want to ensure you have proper fit, positioning and regimen.

Fit Matters

Ride a bike best suited for the terrain and style of riding you’ll be doing. Make sure to use proper position and alignment. Seat height should be set so that the angle of your knee at the bottom of your pedal stroke is 30 to 40 degrees to avoid knee issues and maximize your pedal stroke. Check your seat’s forward position and tilt too. Your kneecap should be stacked over the ball of your foot. Move the seat forward if your kneecap is behind your foot, move it back if your knee is in front of your foot.

Finally, sit on the seat with your hands on the handlebars. Your arms should have a slight bend to them, to avoid pain in your back, neck, shoulders and wrists.

Fit applies to your safety gear as well. Choose a helmet, pads, shoes and proper cycling clothing that provide fit and comfort while protecting you on your ride.

Proper Footwork

If your fit is correct, it will be much easier to achieve proper foot positioning. Position the ball of your foot directly over the pivot arm in the pedal for maximum power and efficiency, as well as reduced pain and injury. When coasting, position your feet on an even horizontal line – at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. You’ll have a more balanced ride and can more efficiently respond to sudden shifts in your ride, like bumpy terrain or need for quick maneuvers. It also puts your feet into prime positon to restart power and recovery phases.

Build Endurance

It doesn’t matter if you bike daily or if you haven’t been on a bike in years, everyone needs to gradually increase distance and endurance to avoid injury. Sudden jumps in riding longer, harder or faster than you’re accustomed to puts stress on your connective tissues, which causes joint inflammation – they’re simply not able perform at the level you’re pushing them to. Take time to build on your speed, distance and harder terrain by increasing over a few weeks instead of over a few rides.

Cross Training

Cross training programs like weight training, yoga, Pilates, swimming and core exercises can increase performance and lower your chances of injury. Additionally, modern recovery methods such as massage, cold therapy, foam rolling and stretching help by enabling your muscles to repair and refuel faster, allowing for more rigorous training.

Whether you’re in a race, biking down a rough terrain or taking a leisurely ride with your family, make sure you have the proper fit and form to avoid injury. If you do experience pains or injuries, the DuPage Medical Group orthopaedics department is here to get you back on track. Schedule an appointment on line or call us at one of our Chicagoland locations.

Image Source: Cycle Season is Here in Vancouver, How is your Pedal Stoke? http://www.mypersonaltrainervancouver.com/cycle-season-is-here-in-vancouver-how-is-your-pedal-stroke/ (accessed 27 May 2016)


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