Cycling is a practical and increasingly popular way in which to travel, get out and about and to get some exercise. However, whether you’re exploring foreign lands, your local area or putting in the miles at your gym or in a spinning class, knee injuries can quickly bring you to a grinding halt. The mechanics of bike riding, the repetitive motion of the legs, make injuries a very real risk and knee injuries are by far the most common of these. Knee pain can affect every cyclist from the courier to the weekend rider but the good news is, it's nearly always preventable.
Identifying the Causes of Knee Pain
Most knee pain arises from only a handful of causes: riding a bike with the saddle incorrectly adjusted; poor technique; simply overdoing it; or bad diet. Any one of these factors are likely to put increased demands on the muscles and, by association, the knee joint. This, together with the repetitive action of cycling, leads to pain and injury.
The only way in which to determine the cause of your knee pain is to study each of the possible causes to determine the likely offender. And remember, it might be a combination of two or more different causes.
The Right Bike Fit
Bike fit is critical to preventing injuries, but also to gaining the fitness benefits of cycling. Correctly setting the saddle height and position will allow you more torque and more cycling power. However, novice cyclists tend to adjust the seat based upon comfort, placing the saddle too low and too far back. This is because the quads feel more powerful when the seat is set back and we feel stronger, but the pressure placed upon the knees is also greater.
While most people will find the right seat placement by trial and error, there is a formula to consider. Proper saddle height can be achieved by measuring the inseam of your leg and multiplying this measurement by 0.883. This produces the recommended height of your saddle measured from the centre of the bottom bracket. This should allow your knee full and fluid movement without requiring it to over flex or crutch up towards your body.
Once you get the height right, the saddle position can be determined with the help of a friend or fitter. Simply get on your bike and ask your spotter to analyse your posture. Your hips should be straight with the weight of your upper body and shoulders aligned over your hips when you sit up.
It’s also worth mentioning that, with your hips and shoulders in the right place, your feet should naturally follow suit. However, if you choose to wear clip-in cycling shoes your natural alignment may become disturbed. If you think this might be your problem, consider using pedal cleats which will offer a few degrees of movement and allow your feet to find their optimum position. Once you get used to this position, you can adjust your clip-ins to accommodate it.
Correcting Poor Technique
While posture is the number one factor in creating knee pain through poor technique, it can only be corrected when other elements of your technique, primarily those which lead to fatigue, have first been corrected. The most common of these is using the wrong gear at the wrong time.
Higher gears need greater effort and this increases knee stress. For this reason, most experienced riders reserve higher gears for when they really are appropriate. On hilly sections, a high gear can make you feel more efficient, however, other techniques, such as riding into the hill, and keeping speed and effort consistent may be more effective.
The other problem tends to be cycling at low cadences, or peddling slowly regardless as to the speed of travel. Peddling slowly requires far more effort than pedalling quickly and this increases the stress applied to the knee. For those using a static bike or spinner at the gym, the RPM readout is an essential tool for determining cadences. Riders new to cycling tend to pedal at around 70-80 rpm, but aiming for 90 rpm will reduce the chance of experiencing knee pain and injury. For those riding outdoors, a meter can be fitted to keep you in the right zone.
Too Much, Too Soon
In the UK especially, our cold, wet weather makes winter cycling somewhat unattractive and very often not particularly safe. Between November and February, it’s common for even the most dedicated cyclist to dial down the number of miles they rack up in a week. For the spinner or gym rider, the effects of the Christmas season will also eat into cycling time and once the new year begins we often make the mistake of jumping right in to make up for lost time.
Tired, unfit muscles tighten easily and this leads to knee injury. You might never forget how to ride a bike but after a couple of months on the couch, your muscles have. Trainers recommend increasing your effort slowly over a number of weeks. Start out at around 50 per cent of your previous training effort and increase by around 10 per cent a week.
Quad strength and training is essential to good cycling fitness. Keeping your quads fit and strong through winter will help you to get back in the flow of your normal routine.
Eating for Cycling
As every cyclist knows, you only get out what you put in, and this includes what you eat. Cycling is a strenuous activity and one that requires a healthy diet. To ensure a healthy body for cycling, it’s essential that you pay attention to your intake of high-alkaline foods, i.e. fruit and vegetables.
Alkaline foods have two important functions for cyclists, they offset the damage to muscles caused by acidic foods such as organic meat, wild caught fish, nuts and beans which although harmful are essential for protein and energy. Alkaline foods also help to manage the renal acid which is released by your muscles during strenuous exercise. Muscle fatigue and by extension knee injury is compounded by a poor diet low in fruit and vegetables.
Pay Attention to the Warning Signs
Most importantly, pay attention to the small aches and pains as they present themselves. These warning signs are there for a reason and once you learn their meaning you’ll be able to avoid injury more readily. Remember, never attempt to ride through training pain. The result will only be more injury. And if you do experience knee pain or injury, it’s a good idea to have it checked out by a specialist. That way you’ll be less likely compound the injury and you’ll back in the saddle in a shorter period of time.