How to avoid common cycling injuries
We all know how annoying being injured is. Being in pain is no fun and not being able to give your best on the bike if you can cycle at all, is immensely frustrating. Being physically injured will also likely have a negative impact on our mental health, so how to ensure we’re helping ourselves avoid injury?
When injured, it’s only natural to look for a treatment (well most people will, some will try to soldier on through the pain, but this isn’t the best long-term strategy!), and this is a reason why we see a number of subscribers initially sign up to VitxCycle, and then stay because part of the recovery journey is learning what your body needs to stay fit, healthy and strong.
VitxCycle was designed to ensure cyclists are giving their bodies the essential vitamins & minerals needed to support good health, aid flexibility and recovery post exercise. Making sure you're giving your body the building blocks it needs for good health is a great start to help avoid future injuries, bit it is only part of the picture when it comes to injury prevention. So what else can you do to help avoid enforced time off your bike?
Prevention is better than a cure
1. Bike fit
A good bike fit with a good professional fitter is your first step injury prevention, especially from those small twinges which can turn into bigger problems, but it doesn’t guarantee you'll avoid a cycling injury. How you fit on your bike frame is only half the equation. The other half is down to the cyclist’s frame and how balanced, robust and mobile it is!
2. Strength training
Strength training isn’t all about building big muscles, it’s about making them strong and resilient. Doing exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges, and kettlebell work can all help make tendons, cartilage, bone, and all the tissues you don’t see in the mirror—as well as your muscles—strong and resilient. Hitting the gym (or home exercising) once a week will maintain your current level, more than this and you’ll start seeing improvements. During the off season many cyclist reduce the intensity/time on the bike and increase their strength training and then as the weather gets better will reverse this.
3. Warm-up, Stretching & Mobilisation
Most of us just hop on our bikes and start riding. But, to prime your muscles and connective tissues to pedal, you should move them first. Just two minutes of activating your muscles and taking your joints through a full range of motion can help get your muscles ready for action and avoid soreness and injury.
Stretching the muscles and the connecting tissue you are using both before and after a ride is a great way to prime and help them recover too….pay particular attention to your quads, glutes, hips, calves and hamstrings. This will also aid post ride recovery and help reduce next day stiffness. (There are so many great yoga/Pilates stretches/exercises which focus on virtually muscle you’re sure to find the one you need with just the minimal amount of searching on the internet.)
Cycling can be a very static activity (especially when training indoors) forcing muscles into the same position for hours on end and this repetition can increase the chance of injury. So adding in some mobilisation to your rides/turbo sessions is a good idea by moving around on the bike, sitting up and moving your spine and rocking your pelvis forwards and backwards will all help. The latter will also help with pressure sores on the turbo.
4. Massage, foam rolling etc – basically giving your body some TLC
Treat your muscles to some TLC, it might be uncomfortable/painful in the short-term but they’ll pay you back the next time you’re on the bike. Working out tightness/knots, increasing blood flow and therefore aiding your recovery are all benefits associated with massage and foam rolling.
5. Smarter training
Do you have a training plan? If not you should think about creating one. As cycling is non-impact, it’s easy to over-train. Getting the right mix and timing for your hard sessions (2-3 max per week), recovery rides (min 1 steady spin per week), strength and conditioning sessions (1-3 per week depending on the time of year) and rest days (at least one full day off per week) is so important to help avoid injury and drive the desired improvements.
The most common cycling injuries
Given the nature of cycling, certain body parts (legs, back and neck) are more prone to injury so it’s important to pay special attention to these areas when it comes to injury prevention. If you have an injury or experiencing pain, it’s always a good idea to seek the help/advice from a physiotherapist or alternative health care professional, who can diagnose the issue and then help develop a treatment plan for you.
Cyclist’s Knee (Patellofemoral pain syndrome, PFPS)
Symptoms: pain under and/or around the kneecap during activity and/or while at rest.
Prevention: Take the pressure off your knees by keeping your supporting muscles, especially the quads, supple. The quads attach to the shin bone through the knee cap (patella), so the forces you generate while pedalling put a lot of load on that area in a small range of motion.
Stretching out your quads, hips and glutes to help maintain suppleness and helping remove tension in your leg muscles with massage/foam rolling.
Lower back pain
Symptoms: aching, burning, stabbing pain, and stiffness are all hallmarks of lower back pain, which can occur on one or both sides of your back
Prevention: Work on your spine mobility, stability, and strength as being in a forward folded position for prolonged periods of time puts stress on the muscles that stabilise our spine.
Mobilise your spine by taking it through its full range to relive tension by doing some gentle exercises, cat pose is a great one for stretching out your spinal muscles, both forward and backwards.
Doing strengthening exercises 2/3 times a week working your posterior chain muscles that hold up your back, including your glutes, erector spinae and hamstrings will help keep your back pain away. Exercises that help activate your glutes are important here as these are the muscles that stabilise our pelvis in the saddle, which helps your back muscles from working overtime preventing you from rocking side to side rather than overworking those muscles and therefore becoming painful. Exercises such as the plank can also help build muscular endurance for the lower back which will help limit/avoid the pain we feel there, especially after longer rides.
Symptoms: pain at the base and/or sides of the neck, having difficulty turning your neck from side to side and/or pain while holding up your head.
Prevention: Posture. Posture. Posture! A proper bike fit here is important, ensuring you have a position on your bike where your position is natural for you, where you can look forwards with your eyes not by tilting your head up.
Doing strengthening exercises for your shoulders and upper back muscles (mid and lower trapezius, rhomboids and other small muscles in your upper back) will massively help, because if those muscles that support you on the bike start to fatigue, your neck ends up bearing more burden than it’s built to handle.
Lateral hip pain
Symptoms: achiness, irritation, burning in the hip
Prevention: Keeping your hip flexors, rotators, and stabilisers mobile through stretching (especially the piriformis, which is a small muscle located beneath the glutes) so the muscles in your glutes and hips don’t tighten up and trigger pain. Including a regular stretching routine as part of you training plan is always a great idea for both treatment and preventative reasons. You can also try trigger point release with a tennis ball for those persistent tight muscles too, that a foam roller just can’t reach.
Symptoms: pain and stiffness along the back of the heel, Achilles tendon, and/or bottom of your calf
Prevention: Ensuring your calves and Achilles tendons are in the right condition to withstand the demands of pushing big gears at speed and grinding up long, hard climbs. Over flexing the ankle in the pedal stroke, rather than holding it stable to serve as a platform is normally the culprit.
The long-standing practice of peddling like you’re scraping mud off your foot actually engages your calf, which is not the most efficient muscle for the job and puts a lot of stress through the Achilles and can cause inflammation and irritation. Riding with a more natural pedal stroke which engages the glutes and quads rather than using a dropped heel on the downstroke will give you greater efficiency and take stress away from the Achilles area. A good training drill to help find a more natural pedal stroke, is to almost forget about your legs below the knee allow the lower half of your leg just to be guided by the pedals and concentrate on your knees going up and down in a nice balance rhythm.
If you do are suffering with stiffness, then Eccentric calf raises are really good for helping stretch out the whole area, reducing tightness and training the Achilles and calf to go back to functioning in their correct range.