By Aly Hodgins, Sport Physiotherapist at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario for Cycling Canada
It’s well known in the therapy world that the easiest injury to treat is the one that never happened. It’s simple to say and harder to do.
Many of us just want to get out and ride, and only think about injuries when they happen. I bet you would pay more attention if I told you that improved performance and injury prevention can be the same thing.
Implementing some exercises and setting reminders for yourself before, during and after your ride will ensure that you have a more comfortable, pain-free ride, as well as help your body make the adjustments for all your future rides.
Combatting low back pain
The issue: You’re halfway through a ride, still far from home and your back is aching. There are a couple of simple steps to prevent this common complaint.
Improving posterior chain length can go a long way to protecting your back. When your hamstrings are short, your low back needs to flex more when you are riding. A good bike fit can improve comfort if you don’t have the flexibility yet to get into position.
What to do: Trying some simple “sit and reach for your toes” stretches every day will help you to gain flexibility over time.
Glute activation is also an important component to protecting your back on and off the bike. The more closed your hip angle is (TT position vs road riding) the harder it is for your glutes to contract. Before you get on the bike, a little activation can wake your glutes up so they are working from the start. Some squats or bridges, with big attention going to those glutes, will help you find them early in your ride.
Tight hip flexors (iliopsoas) will contribute to low back pain as they attach on to the lumbar vertebrae (bones in the low back). A regular stretching routine of your hip flexors can improve that length and tone well before you go for a ride. Try a kneeling lunge stretch to get that increase in flexibility.
Preventing knee pain
The issue: Another common complaint amongst cyclists is anterior knee pain, or pain around the kneecap (patella).
What to do: Having a proper bike fit—ensuring your seat height is within an appropriate range—is the first step in preventing increased compression through the patella.
Stretching your quads regularly will help manage the tension through the patellofemoral joint (under the kneecap). Back to glute activation! The push phase of your pedal stroke should not be a “quads only” movement. Your glutes should be in there as well. Getting those glutes primed for a bike ride can prevent knee pain as well.
Neck pain and headaches
The issue: As we move from our trainers and into the sunshine, your neck will appreciate the change. Spending a lot of time looking in one direction is hard for our muscles to maintain. Looking around at the scenery is a welcome change for those muscles. The small sub-occipital muscles at the base of your skull are responsible for keeping your head up so that you can look at the road ahead. These are common causes of neck pain and headaches.
What to do: Off the bike, try to maintain good posture (think tall through the spine). On the bike, sitting up, looking down occasionally and generally checking out the views around you, will help keep the muscles from tightening up too much.
A simple exercise to do off the bike is a chin tuck. Sitting up tall, draw your chin in towards your throat keeping your nose pointing straight ahead. This is a light stretch for those over-active suboccipital muscles.
The issue: Do you get pins and needles in your hands as you ride? Pressure on the sensitive nerves in our hands can result in this uncomfortable sensation. Try changing your grip up as you ride. Move the contact pressure from thumb side to pinky side. Move from the hoods to the tops and back frequently if you notice this tingling often.
What to do: A little core tension can also help to offload the weight on your hands. Take some pressure off by simply thinking about your posture. A little increased tension in the upper back every so often, will help reduce that tingling sensation. And of course, a proper bike fit can help to diagnose weather your position is the cause of your symptoms.
If you have tried the above suggestions and have not noticed an improvement, please see a qualified heath care practitioner to properly diagnose the cause of your symptoms. Low back pain, knee pain and hand tingling/numbness can be caused by many different things. The above are common corrections that may help but will not solve everything. A rehab professional (chiro, physio, massage therapist) will be able to give you specific solutions to your specific problems.
To learn more about injury prevention and how Aly treats some of Canada’s National Team track cyclists, follow Aly on Instagram at @alyhodgins.pt.