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Is Cycling Harmful to Your Knees?

November 21, 2023

Cycling is widely praised for its low-impact nature, which suggests it's gentle on the joints. However, what many cyclists might not realize is that the repetitive motion of cycling, especially at high cadences exceeding 4,000 to 5,000 revolutions, can lead to discomfort and potential joint issues.

For some, issues related to bike fit or individual technique manifest over time, resulting in noticeable knee pain, one of the most common symptoms encountered during cycling. Studies indicate that up to 60% of recreational cyclists experience knee pain at some point due to excessive riding. So, does this mean cycling is harmful to the knees?

The concise answer: No. Cycling is beneficial for your overall health and can be joint-friendly. Expanding on the answer: knee soreness often stems from common issues that, when identified and corrected in time, allow you to ride pain-free and joyfully.

Riding Too Hard, Too Far, Too Soon

The primary reason cyclists injure their knees is by suddenly riding longer, faster, and/or more aggressively than before. Your connective tissues can't handle the load you're placing on them, leading to joint inflammation and swelling.

Solution: Gradually increase your mileage or time, adding 20% to 25% per week until you reach your target.

Hunter Allen, founder of Peaks Coaching Group and co-author of 'Training & Racing with a Power Meter,' advises, 'The biggest caution is not increasing distance within a week but being consistent with every ride. If your longest ride was 40km, don’t jump to 80km the next week. It should be 50km, then 60km, perhaps followed by 75km, and eventually 80km.'

Approach intervals, sprints, and hill climbs during rides with caution. Avoid sudden jumps into mountain biking or repetitive interval sprints without proper warm-up. Ensure your muscles and connective tissues are warm before exerting force for smoother joint movement.

Incorrect Saddle Adjustment

Poor saddle fit can result in pressure points, discomfort, and injury. Professional cyclist Sara Bresnick suggests a quick check before riding: position the pedals at 6 o'clock and 12 o'clock, placing your heel on the lower pedal. Your leg should be straight, equivalent to a 20 to 25-degree bend in the knee while pedaling. When both feet are parallel to the ground (3 o'clock and 9 o'clock), the front of your knee should be above the ball of your foot.

'As a rule of thumb, if you're experiencing front knee pain, try slightly raising or moving the saddle backward. For rear knee pain, try lowering the saddle or moving it slightly forward,' Bresnick suggests. 'Remember, even a 1mm adjustment can make a significant difference, so don't make too many changes at once.'

If despite following these cycling tips, your knee (or any other body part) still feels discomfort, seek professional assessment for both you and your bike.

Low Cadence Pedaling

Pedaling in heavy gears with a low cadence (below 60 to 75rpm) places high stress on the patella (kneecap). Use lighter gears to reduce the load and aim for a pedaling cadence above 80rpm. This also has the added benefit of improving endurance; higher cadences in lighter gears have been proven to enhance stamina.

Neglecting Core Strength

What does the core have to do with knees? Almost everything, as it forms the platform for your pedaling, involving your glutes and hip flexors. A strong core helps maintain stability on the saddle. When fatigued, your pedaling mechanism can collapse.

In a study involving 15 competitive cyclists, researchers found that after core fatigue training, cyclists shifted their legs from side to side more, placing greater stress on the knee joint, leading to discomfort. Resting your core muscles and regularly exercising them keeps them strong and fatigue-resistant.

Limited Flexibility and Range of Motion

While pre-exercise stretching remains a debated topic, poor flexibility unquestionably leads to pain when cycling as your knee joint can't move healthily.

Pre-ride stretching and foam rolling major leg muscles can alleviate discomfort. Regular massage helps eliminate adhesions, preventing muscle knots and 'locking up.'

Misaligned Cleats

Foot position directly impacts knee positioning, making correct cleat placement crucial.

Adjust cleat placement so that the ball of your foot is directly over the cleat axle. If you're prone to knee pain, consider positioning slightly backward. Your cleat angle should align with the natural angle of your heel, avoiding unnatural toe-in or toe-out, which can stress your knees.

Bresnick warns against excessive float (how much movement space there is when clipped in). Too much float can cause knee sway, wasting power and stressing joints. Typically, around 4.5 degrees is an optimal float angle.

In conclusion, cycling isn't inherently harmful to your knees. Understanding and addressing these common issues can make your cycling experience pain-free and enjoyable, promoting overall joint health and fitness."

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