On my last blog I discussed the effects of running on a treadmill to log our late winter running miles during to this abnormally artic Colorado winter. This encompassed some ideas to stay healthy while running indoors to prepare for outdoor running. What I also realized is that we triathletes and cyclists are probably spending even more time inside on a trainer or spin bike. Due to the wind chill factor of biking outside my tolerance for cold on the bike is much much lower than running. If it is less than 40 degrees out, I am heading to the warmth of my basement so that my fingers and toes don’t turn purple zombie-like colors and so I can make my way through the latest season of The Walking Dead. Yes, that means I have been outside on my bike only a handful of times since December 2013. My bikes are getting dusty and I am getting my money’s worth out of my bike trainer.
Inside or outside, cyclists have a lot of time to think on the bike. Often enough, bike rides are limited more by mental fatigue than physical. Lately, other than thinking about what TV series I should watch next on the bike (House of Cards?) I have been pondering what things we should be doing with our body on the bike to prevent injuries and to maximize our biomechanical power output. Cyclists are known for being number nerds and triathletes are perhaps the nerdy-est of all endurance athletes (I can say that because I am a nerd and triathlete!). We get consumed with thinking about power outputs, heart rate, cadence, the make of the bike, components of the bike, etc. It is a culture that people outside the sport may never understand.
The make of the bike and components are a factor in performance, as is proper training and bike fit in order to achieve your athletic goals and to stay healthy. Much has been written and discussed about bike fit and proper training and that will not be the focus of this blog. What I wanted to discuss is what we should be doing with our body on a properly-fitted bike.
As much as I love cycling, it can be argued that it is not natural. The first bike was created in 1817 in Germany and was thought of as a “running machine” as it didn’t have pedals. Bikes evolved drastically and comically through the 1800s and into the early 1900s. The modern bike as we know of it now did not come in to wide spread use until the 1960s and 1970s. That means humans have been utilizing bicycles as transport and exercise for only the past 40-50 years. This is in contrast to running which has arguably been around since the beginning of human existence. Even swimming has been documented on cave dwellings of up to 10,000 years ago.
There are a few “not natural” things we do on a bike that could contribute to injury and abnormal stress on certain areas of our body. One is the lack of trunk rotation that is available on the machine. Most movements, be it walking, running, swimming, dancing, etc., require good trunk rotation and rib mobility to facility proper respiration and proper femoral-pelvic-abdominal-thoraco-shoulder movements and mechanics. With each step and breath we take there should be rib movement and a thorax rotational component. Cycling can limit this due to the fixed position of our arms on the handle bars.
Other factors that make cycling “not natural” is our tendency to only feel the front of our foot on the pedals and overuse our calf muscles. This tends to over-work our gastroc-soleus complex to attempt to apply force into the pedals. By having a tendency to use the calf muscles to push the pedal down, we will require our quads to do much of the work to extend our knee to push on the pedal. These extensor muscles may also cause us to tighten our back muscles.
Back pain and knee pain are the top cycling-related injuries we see. Much of this is due to the overworking of the back muscles and quad muscles. The quad muscles will tend to over-work as we cycle which ends up putting excessive and abnormal force through the patella-femoral joint. This may get a diagnosis as patella-femoral pain syndrome, ilio-tibial band friction syndrome, patella tendonitis, or simply knee pain. Back pain on the bike will typically manifest first as a tightness in the back that limits your cycling comfort and capabilities and can radiate pain into your hips or SI joint. The pain is often from over-working of the back muscles, improper positioning of a body on a properly fitted bike (assuming you have a good bike fit), and lack of proper thorax mobility and expansion.
Enough of the mumbo-jumbo anatomy. Simply put, much of the injuries and pain we see with cyclists on a properly fitted bike are due to lack of proper trunk mobility and overuse of extensor-tone muscles (calves, quads, back muscles). So what can we do? What should we be thinking about on the bike to prevent injuries or to facilitate a proper transition back to cycling after recovering from an injury?
First of all, if you are experiencing pain or discomfort on your bike, go see your physical therapist or physician. You will likely need specific manual or non-manual techniques to address your body’s biomechanics before you put that body on a properly fitted bike. These are ideas that I have come up with to think about as you are biking to ensure optimal biomechanics and to prevent injury.
- Relax your back! Let your back slightly round and relax. This may require you to let your pelvis tilt back on the saddle.
- Relax your calves! Those little muscles at the end of the leg should not by applying significant force to the pedals. Rather, they should be transferring force from the bigger muscles closer to your pelvis. For some people, it helps to think about dropping your heels down as you are pushing on the pedal.
- Feel those glutes! The quads and glutes are your main muscles generating force to push on the pedal. Most people are overworking their quads to extend their knee in order to apply force to the pedal. Those butt muscles need to be pulling the femur down to take stress away from the quad. This will help prevent knee injuries and from a performance standpoint you will now have a really big muscle helping you pedal. Most cyclists we see have “lazy butts” that need to learn how to work again!
- Feel your sit bones. The weight of your upper body needs to be going through your sit bones evenly on the saddle. Many cyclists cannot feel their sit bones, and if they can often only feel one side. Cyclists cannot feel it primarily because their back muscles are working too hard and are pulling their pelvis forward (see picture A). If they are only feeling one sit bone, they often have significant pelvic asymmetries and need a “body fit” before they get a “bike fit” to make sure their body is in the right position.
- Breath “in to your back”. As mentioned above, the fixed position of the handle bars can limit proper rib and thorax mobility and function. This will cause our back and neck muscles to overwork to stabilize our spine and to breathe for us. To help oppose this “unnatural” position, it can be helpful to do some breathing exercises while on the bike. Keeping your back relaxed and rounded, slightly tighten your ab muscles by pressing downwardly on the handlebars. Now focus on breathing into the back of your chest wall, expanding your back with the air pressure from the inhale. You should feel a stretch or expansion sensation between and just below your shoulder blades. This will help decrease your back muscle tone and help facilitate proper positioning on the bike and can be practiced throughout your bike ride.
Picture A: This is Becca riding with lots of extensor tone. Her calves and quads are over working, she cannot feel her sit bones on the saddle, her back is tight, and she is breathing with her neck. Uncomfortable and inefficient.
Picture B: This is Becca relaxing her back, feeling her sit bones, breathing with her diaphragm, feeling her glutes, and generating much more power than the other position.
Again, if you are experiencing pain on the bike, go see your physical therapist or physician. These tips will not likely cure your pain, but they can help prevent you from getting injured in the first place and will help you transition back on to the bike as you recover from injury. All of these techniques can be done inside on a trainer or outside on a bike. As the daylight becomes longer and the temperature rises this spring, the roads here in Colorado are sure to be flooded with cyclists who have an affinity for their calves, quads, and back muscles. Like Rick and his clan constantly warding off zombies in “The Walking Dead,” we cyclists need to be constantly fighting back those extensor muscles to ensure a long, healthy cycling and triathlon season.