For enthusiasts of cycling, one of the first major benefits that are trotted out is the fact that it is a low-impact sport. This means that it’s one of the ways to exercise where you are less likely to hurt yourself (barring accident) and it’s often seen as a great sport for people who are looking to lose weight, gain cardio endurance, and be all-around more fit.
One of the concerns, however, is that cycling can often lead to sore muscles in the knees, leading many people to wonder: is cycling bad for the knees?
Like any sort of athletics where you are using some part of your body, cycling can cause pain and, in this case, it’s most often to the knees and legs. The reason for this though is generally down to an issue with the rider, not the activity.
The act of cycling itself is not bad for the knees (and in fact is quite good for them), but if it is done poorly, you will be far more likely to be in pain after a while.
In this article, we’re going to look at the causes of knee pain in cyclists and ways to prevent them so that if someone asks if cycling is bad for the knees, you can say ‘no!’
We’re also going to look at the benefits of cycling for the legs and knees, in the hopes of really getting our readers over this fear of causing themselves pain.
The most common causes of knee pain are:
- Insufficient stretching
- Poor fit
- Lack of core strength
- Going too hard, too fast
- Poor positioning on the bicycle
Let’s take a closer look at these and you’ll see just how preventable all of it is.
When we think of poor fit, we usually think of helmets. In this case though, we’re speaking about the bike itself. Poor fit usually means riding on a bike saddle that doesn’t fit you properly and having a pedal height that is no good for you.
In order to check for this, put your pedals at the six and twelve o’clock positions, resting your heel on the lower pedal, and check your legs. Your leg should be straight and if both feet are parallel to the floor (Think three and nine o’clock positions), your forward knee should be over the ball of your foot. (Thank you www.bicycling.com for this quick check!)
If you don’t meet these specifications, then try raising your saddle or moving it back to prevent pain to the front of the knee and lowering it or moving it forward for pain in the back of the knee. But you don’t have to move it much: it only takes a couple of millimeters to help. And if it still doesn’t work, take your bike in and get it sized in by a professional.
Checking for fit and proper foot placement is the easiest thing you can do to prevent pain to your knees, as well as to your back and other parts of your body. You should always make sure that you are purchasing a bike that fits you rather than one which is too small or too large.
Poor Riding Position
Poor position is as detrimental to your riding health as a poor bike fit. Many people when riding their bikes don’t have a great posture. They slouch, overextend (or don’t extend enough), don’t position their arms or hands very well and bend their necks oddly. All of this means that riders are at a greater risk of injuring themselves or at least being in pain regularly.
It’s not easy to have a good riding posture because everyone is a little different in how they carry themselves and what works for one cyclist may not work for another. But there are some general guidelines you can keep in mind so that you can be comfortable:
- Keep your shoulders down. Holding your shoulders up will eventually cause painful stress on your shoulders, neck and back.
- Have a slight bend to your elbows rather than going too straight or too bent. And keep them tucked to your sides
- Keep your back straight but not locked. A lot of cyclists ’round’ their backs and that causes a lot of problems. For this reason, you’ll want to make sure that you keep up with your core strength as well (more on this in a bit).
- Don’t let your knees collapse inwards. Knee collapse is common because of the repetitive nature of pedaling but try your best to not allow it to happen. Knee collapse causes poor force distribution in the knees and ultimately, knee pain.
The main goal, of course, is to ride in such a way that you are both comfortable and properly positioned so that you can have a pain free ride.
Insufficient Warm Up
Most of us know that it’s important to do proper stretching and warm-up exercises before playing a sport, running, or climbing, but many people neglect to do it before cycling and that can cause injuries.
You can do very simple warm-ups such as stretches for the legs and arms, as well as making sure that your hips and back are loose and limber.
You can even do a warm-up simply by starting your cycling at a slow pace and building up to a faster speed over time rather than immediately jumping on the bike and trying to break speed records.
Doing a proper warm-up routine (and it doesn’t have to take much longer than 15-20 minutes) has several benefits. It helps your body take in oxygen more efficiently, gets your muscles loosened up, increases anaerobic metabolism and makes your joints more efficient.
All of this means that you can help your body absorb and make sure of the food you give it and prevents you from getting tired out too easily. And of course, it prevents injuries. So, minimizing your knee pain could be as simple as doing some stretches before you hop on your bike for the day.
Poor Core Strength
We mentioned before how important it is to have a good core so that you can keep your back in a comfortable position for riding. It’s also important because it lets you get the best platform possible to push off your pedals and to keep you stable.
If your core strength is low, then you’re more likely to have trouble pedaling and staying properly balanced, and that creates stress in the knees.
You don’t have to do a million crunches a day to improve your core (in fact, you really shouldn’t!), but some good core workouts can really help your cycling improve and reduce pain overall. Some good core exercises:
- The basic plank or side plank
- Superman pose
- Crunches (but don’t overdo them)
- Crunches with a twist/bicycle legs
What’s great about these exercises is that they don’t require weights or a gym, and you can do them at home before your ride and as part of your warm-up routine. And good core strength isn’t just beneficial to cycling and preventing aches and pains; it’s a good way to help your body just stay healthy and keep active for a long time.
The final way that you can beat knee pain while cycling? Stop going so fast and so hard! People who are new to biking are prone to going too hard, too fast, underestimated the level of work required to ride a bike. The problem is exacerbated if you’re riding over rough terrain such as trails or uneven pavement.
It’s important to make sure you start at a slow pace and build up to faster speeds over time. You should also take your terrain into consideration and if you’re going to be trail riding, make sure you get a bike with good suspension to handle the bumps.
The Benefits of Cycling for the Knees
We’ve looked at the ways that cycling can be bad for the knees, but this assumes you’re not cycling correctly, have a poor fit, or are using bad positions. If you’re taking care to ride a bike that fits you, warm up properly, and take care of yourself while you ride, biking can be good for your knees.
Cycling is considered a low impact sport which makes it good for exercising if you have osteoarthritis or any other old damage to the joints. It does this by strengthening the muscles around the knees which can then support them and reduce damage.
Cycling is also a great way to improve your overall leg strength and help build up core muscles which in turn helps to prevent knee damage.
Like any exercise, cycling can be both beneficial and cause problems, depending on your form. If you cycle with proper form, take care to do your warm-up exercises and make sure you choose a bike that fits you properly, you can both enjoy cycling and use it as a great way to strengthen your knees. Enjoy the ride!