A few months ago I came across a discussion thread online about the benefits of a proper bike fit. The original question was along the lines of “If my knee is painful while riding my bike, should I invest my money in my body or a bike fit?” The ensuing discussion was really interesting. The overall consensus of the arm-chair bike experts were to get a good bike fit and that if you are in pain on a bike, it’s all about the bike.
Well, frankly, I disagree. And this is coming from a person who performs bike fits as part of MY JOB!
The more bike fits I do, the more I realize it is more about the body on the bike than the bike fit itself. Yes, a proper, professional bike fit is important. However, we really need to appreciate the body on the bike more than dialing the bike down to the millimeter.
Are you uncomfortable or have pain on the bike and are reasonably close to a good position on the bike (i.e., you are not riding a bike 2 sizes too small)? My answer to the original thread is that the issue is likely 50% body, 50% bike fit.
To explain, I would like to introduce two concepts about the body that is essential to understand why the bike fit not the whole story of feeling good on two wheels.
- Movement variability
- Learned body positioning on the bike
What the heck does movement variability mean? This is big in the world of physical therapy, training, and athletics. Movement variability is your adaptability and responsiveness to a given environment or movement. Low variability means you can only move within a finite range, higher variability indicates you are able to adapt quickly within a larger range.
Wordy scientific definition made up by Craig: Resilient adaptability of one’s environment utilizing healthy expression of polyarticular triplaner motion. (Thanks Tim R. for the input!).
Track sprinters can run 100 meters in a straight line = low variability in movement within the movement of running. Soccer players who need to move left/right/forward/back/rotate/jump have higher variability of movement within the movement of running.
A robot only trained to walk in a straight line in a lab will fall over once it attempts to hike on a rocky trail with variable surface conditions.
A golfer may be highly trained within her swing, but once she attempts to say, run a marathon she may get injured. She is well adapted to the golf swing, but her body may not respond well to the environment and stress of a 26.2 mile race. Similarly, a marathon runner who is highly trained to run for miles and miles in a straight line, may tweak his back while hitting the greens on the weekend. The golfer has low resilience to running and the trained runner has low resilience to the environment of golfing.
Those are macro examples, but what about on the micro level that is more relevant to cycling?
Someone who moves well will have good range of motion and neuromuscular control of their range in three planes. They will have a high variability of motion on the micro level…they can move in lots of ways and be pain free within each joint. These individuals can ride a bike with a terrible fit and still be fine.
Someone who moves in a less ideal way will have less resilience and adaptability of their environment. Their joint(s) may need to operate within a very finite range to not be painful. They will have a low variability of movement and will need a more precise bike fit to be healthy within the environment of the bike.
A cyclist or athlete can have global low variability of movement (the runner trying to golf) or they can have joint specific low variability of movement (the right knee while cycling needs to move within 35degrees to 110 degrees with a 10degree heel in foot position, but nothing outside that).
Example A: Silas the Cyclist. Silas could crush it on the bike…600 watt sprints, 300 watt sustained climbs and feel great. No knee pain. However, if he did a few body-weight lunges, his knee would flare up for a week. These lunges moved his knee out of his low-variable state of movement on the bike and resulted in pain. He also really needed to have his bike dialed in precisely to the millimeter to stay powerful and pain free on the bike. If his seat post slips down a smidge or he gets a new saddle, he has to re-asses his fit. Silas really needs to have the right angle on the pedal and seat height needs to be exactly right on with all his bikes, otherwise he gets pain on the bike. He really needs his bike fit dialed in to not vary too much from his pain-free range as he has low variability of movement of his right leg.
Example B: Betty the Biker. Betty came in for a bike fit as she got a new bike. She has been riding on this new bike for 6 months and felt great. No issues until the last two weeks, just a little left knee pain after about 30 miles of riding. Her fit was TERRIBLE by the standards of the professional bike fit world. Seat was too low, handle bars too far forward, cleats where all off, and more. But she had no pain! Betty has high variability of movement within the environment of her bike. Her joint and neuromuscular systems are resilient within a wide range of positions and movements and so was able to tolerate the terrible fit up to a point.
Betty needed a good bike fit to stay cycling for a long time without pain, however, because of her higher variability of movement was able to tolerate an awful fit on the bike for quite some time before the onset of pain and symptoms.
Silas’s fit was fine. Silas needs work on his body off the bike and perhaps his learned position and posture on the bike to improve his movement variability so as to be healthy on the bike. This is most cyclists who are having pain on the bike.
Make sense? So, improve your joint and body movement variability and you will be able to have a high resiliency on the bike with an improved tolerance to a wide range of positions on the bike.
This blog is getting wordy. Let’s break it in to two blogs. Stay tuned for Part 2: Learned position on the bike!
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