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A Physio’s Cycling Guide

COVID Warriors, this week’s blog is for the all the cyclists out there. From the Sunday Strollers to the Professional Peddlers to the Spinning Sparta’s there are a few tips here for everyone.


Conventional road cycling is a fantastic low impact form of aerobic exercise. In comparison sprint cycling and BMX are more plyometric in nature and aim to improve one’s anaerobic level of fitness. Overuse injuries are common in cycling due to the repetitive motion and sustained position. These injuries may creep up on you if you’re not careful.


So, how can we maximise your cycling performance? How can we eliminate injury risk?


Fitting Your Bike

Fitting your bike correctly could mean the difference between riding in pain versus comfort. For those chasing performance it can be the turning point towards maximising your potential. Cycling mainly occurs in a single plane of motion therefore, the repetitive nature of pedalling and sustained postures can translate to overuse injuries. An improper bike set-up will compound injury risk.


Key Areas of Your Bike


1. Saddle

  • Saddle Height: Seated on your bike place your heels on the pedal spindles and pedal backwards. Your saddle is too high if they come off or if you rock your hips side to side. Your knee should be completely extended with your heel in contact with the pedal at bottom dead centre (BDC)/06:00. Alternatively, place your leg at BDC/06:00 ensuring your knee is slightly bent at an angle of 30° - 40°.

  • Saddle Angle: Align your saddle parallel to the ground.

  • Layback: Layback refers to the forward/backward adjustment of the saddle. A plumb line from the patella or knee cap should dissect the front aspect of the pedal axel. Position your pedals parallel to the ground measuring in line with knee and foot in the 3 o’clock position.

2. Handlebars

  • Ensure your handlebars are placed in a position that tends towards an even curved spine such that you don’t strain your back, neck, shoulders or wrists.

  • Handlebar height:

Urban - 2.5cm above to 2.5cm below the level of the top of the saddle.

Mountain - 5cm to 10cm below the top of the saddle.

Touring - 2.5cm to 5cm below the top of the saddle.

Sport/Performance - 5cm to 10cm below the top of the saddle.

(MEC. Fitting your bike, 2020)


3. Stem

  • Adjusting your reach can be done with the stem which connects the handlebars to the steerer tube horizontally. Do not adjust your layback as that has been adjusted when looking at the saddle. For a more aerodynamic approach add a spacer to your stem allowing for a more streamlined position.

Ideally, your bike should be positioned on a static trainer when measuring these components. Alternatively, you can position yourself next to a wall. Remember comfort is key. Everyone has anatomical variants so the above info should not stop you making additional tweaks to gain optimal comfortability.


Intervention for Common Conditions


Knee Pain

The culprit of knee pain in a cyclist is often due to patellofemoral joint dysfunction although other conditions can’t be ruled out. A lower saddle height leads to more stress placed on the knee joint and quadriceps muscle overuse. Thus, a higher saddle within the normal range of 30° - 40° can lead to symptomatic improvement.


During the downstroke the knee may fall inward thus increasing stress on the inner soft tissue structures of the thigh and an increased joint pressure on the outer side of the knee. Improved muscle control promotes better alignment. Custom made insoles or small wedges placed at the hindfoot or forefoot can to prevent an inward motion at the knee.


Low Back Pain

There are a multitude of factors that could be causing lower back pain (LBP). The most common being a poor set-up. Cyclists are at risk of adaptive shortening meaning the length of muscle fibres shortens by means of adapting to prolonged positions. The forward leaning position seen in cyclists can lead to tight hip flexors. This creates an increased anterior pelvic tilt.

The forward leaning position requires a degree of lower back flexion. An increased anterior pelvic tilt may limit the flexion required in the lower back resulting in more regional strain. Adjusting the handlebar height can help take load off your lower back when cycling.


A high saddle can lead to compensatory side to side movement at the pelvis with your downstroke resulting in LBP. Furthermore, a recent study found core muscle activation imbalances, back extensor endurance deficits, and increased lumbar flexion while cycling are often present in cyclists with low back pain (Streisfeld et al, 2017).


The weekly volume of cycling can contribute toward LBP. Cyclists riding 160kms or more in a week are 3 times as likely to experience lower back pain (Schultz; Gordon, 2010).


Physiotherapy Considerations

The above injury list is not exhaustive, and an assessment will help determine where shortfalls lie and how we can overcome these through various Physiotherapy techniques. A Physio with the right knowledge of cycling bio-mechanics can help tailor your bike set-up based on your physical attributes.


Anatomical differences and different riding styles are key considerations we must consider when fitting our bikes. Eliminating the cause of pain versus solely treating symptoms will mean pain-free rides and improve performance.


Let us help you reach your cycling goals! Book an appointment now at Christiaan Moolman Physiotherapy Inc.

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