If you’re a cyclist, you know the blissful feeling of sunshine on your back, the breeze through your hair, and the ground moving beneath your feet. Listening to the hum of your tires and feeling the steady rhythm of pedaling forward can be meditative. It’s a wonderful way to clear your head, get outside, and exercise your body. It’s also a sport loaded with health benefits such as putting little stress on your body, targeting major muscle groups, increasing cardiovascular fitness, and strengthening joints. While it may seem like a perfect sport- it also has risks and injuries that you can prevent with proper training, equipment, and precautions.
We want you to stay in your saddle for many years to come, so we’ve listed ways to prevent the most common injuries before, during, and after your rides.
Cycling Injury and Prevention
Crashes and falls may lead to more severe cycling injuries, but there are other injuries and discomforts that you can experience without such a dramatic event. Body aches and pains, overuse injuries, and sores are among the most common discomforts when riding consistently.
Neck & Back Pain
As wonderful as cycling can feel, you may know that your neck and back can quickly become your top nemesis when riding. Unfortunately, the truth is that our bodies haven’t evolved to sit on a bicycle for hours on end with unnatural weight distribution. Darn! Our backs and necks are warped into funky positions, sometimes resulting in pain. Bumpy gravel roads for hours-on-end can lead to fatigue. If your shoulders and neck feel tired on your ride, hop-off and take a break. When you’re in the saddle, check your form by tightening your abs, elongating your torso, dropping your shoulders, keeping your chest lifted, and slightly tucking your chin. Make sure to fit your bike to your body, adjust handlebar height, and adjust your stem length. Lastly, keep your neck and shoulders flexible by targeting them in your regular stretching routine.
Wrist & Forearm Pain
Carpal Tunnel syndrome can be experienced from cycling. According to HSS, “The carpal tunnel, found in the palm, contains the medial nerve, which goes from the thumb to the ring finger. Resting too much weight on this area while cycling can result in symptoms such as pain when moving the wrist and/or numbness and tingling in the fingers.” To prevent pain, adjust your handlebars to allow for a slight bend in your elbows, flexible wrists, and proper stacking of the head and spine. Wearing gel gloves can help cushion and comfort the hands and wrists (and add a layer of protection to your hands in the event of a fall).
Knee pain can get the best of you when you’re out for a ride. Your knee is essentially a hinge between your hip and ankle. Everything in-between can cause complications if they’re too tight or unequal in strength. The most common types of knee pain in cycling are posterior knee pain (pain in the back of the knee), anterior knee pain (pain in the front of the knee), and lateral/medial knee pain (pain on the sides of the knee). Muscle tightness and improper bike fit are the most common culprits for knee pain. More on this later!
Patellofemoral Syndrome, Patella Tendinitis, and Achilles Tendinitis
Patellofemoral syndrome is the highest overuse injury that occurs in cycling. This is commonly pain at the front of your knee and around your kneecap (the patella). Maintaining strength, having proper form, and proper stretching can help prevent patellofemoral syndrome. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Patellar tendinitis is an injury to the tendon connecting your kneecap (patella) to your shinbone. The patellar tendon works with the muscles at the front of your thigh to extend your knee so that you can kick, run and jump.” If you are experiencing patellar tendonitis, make sure to ice the area if you are active and start to experience pain, strengthen muscles around your knee, and learn proper form and technique for your activity. Similarly, “Achilles tendinitis is an overuse injury of the Achilles tendon, the band of tissue that connects calf muscles at the back of the lower leg to your heel bone.” Prevent Achilles tendinitis by gradually increasing your activity level, strengthening your calf muscles, stretching, choosing footwear that can help prevent pain, and cross-training.
Saddle sores are, well, no fun at all. You might be familiar with the painful skin lesions that can develop on the parts of your body in contact with your saddle. The most common types of saddle sores are ulcerations, folliculitis, furuncles, and chafing. These inflamed, red sores can be caused by infected hair follicles and skin rubbed raw to various degrees. Prevent saddle sores by having a properly-fitting saddle, wearing proper lycra cycle shorts (or a padded lycra baselayer under baggier shorts), using chamois cream, and changing your shorts as soon as you finish with your ride. Seek medical attention if your sores appear infected or don’t heal quickly.
Road rash in cycling is caused by falling off your bike and grazing your skin on the tarmac. It’s one of the most unpleasant yet common injuries in cycling. If you experience road rash, thoroughly wash your wound, carefully cleaning away any road debris left on your skin. After cleaning, dry and use an antibiotic ointment, bandage, and change your bandage daily. Watch for possible infections and seek medical attention if your wound gets worse!
The most common broken bones are the clavicle (collarbone), wrist, hand, femur, humerus (upper arm), and ribs. While crashes can be inevitable, there are ways to minimize injury when falling off a bike. Global Mountain Bike Network has a video on how to crash on your mountain bike here, and Global Cycling Network has a video on preventing common road cycling incidents here. If you do find yourself in a sticky situation, learning ways to minimize impact could help reduce the possibility of broken bones.
All of us have been told to make sure to wear a helmet. While it may not be required by law in all states, it is the best way to keep you safe from the most severe types of injuries. Head injuries sadly lead to over 60% of bike fatalities. Protecting your head by wearing a helmet can reduce head and brain injuries by up to 75%. REI has a great guide on choosing a proper helmet size and setting up its correct fit to help keep you safe on your rides.
Additional Injury-Prevention Steps to Take
So now that you’ve learned about some of the most common injury and prevention steps, you may have noticed a theme. Proper bike fitting, stretching, and training can help you prevent most of these injuries! We’re going to elaborate a little bit on each one.
Buying a bike that correctly fits your body can help reduce injury. Once you’ve purchased a bike the right size, you’ll need to check components like the handlebar height, seat height, and cleat positioning. This is something you could research and do yourself, but speaking to a specialist at your local bike shop who’s already familiar with your bike specifications may get you a closer fit than doing it yourself.
Cycling requires repeated forceful motions. Each leg pushes independently of the other, putting a lot of strain and pressure on each by singling them out! You also must have proper balance and stabilization to hold yourself up on your bike. Your training routine should be focused on the full range of motion in your hips, knees, and ankles. You should also focus on your core and shoulders, as they help hold you up and stabilize your body. Research different training programs! Many are cycling-specific that will highlight these parts of your body.
Stretching & Mobility Exercises*
Many joints are taken to their end range in cycling, and gaining a range of motion in these areas can help keep you open to proper tracking and form. Yoga, BJJ flexibility programs, and other flexibility routines can help you keep your range of motion open. CyclingTips has an article on mobility exercises to improve cycling performance that walks you through knee extension, knee flexion, hip extension, hip flexion, hip abduction, hip adduction, and side bend exercises.
Alas, we in no way would want you to drop your favorite sport because of a fear of injury. In summary, here are our top tips for staying safe on the trails and road:
- Wear proper protective gear such as a helmet, lycra bike shorts, and supportive gloves.
- Research proper training and stretching techniques to treat and avoid injury.
- Seek medical help when necessary.
- Review top tips for cycling safety on the road.
Contact Idaho Sports Medicine Institute today if you’d like to learn more about recovery from cycling injuries!
*Please always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.