Today's author is Simon Eason. Simon is a Clinic Director and Physiotherapist at Garstang Physiotherapy Clinic
We seem to have been inundated by cyclists over the last few weeks at the clinic with a huge variety of different problems. I'm aware that the cycling community has some fairly strong viewpoints about riding set ups and divisive issues such as whether or not to wear a helmet, and I'll touch on some of these below but please bear in mind that I write from the point of view of health rather than what may or may not be technically correct for a cycling purist. For the record, I have recently bought a bike and, having not ridden for some 15 years, have enjoyed riding it despite a few aches and pains. I managed 18km in an hour on my first mountain bike on Sunday and haven't suffered too much. I do use a helmet; I've treated too many people that didn't.
Firstly, to be very clear, cycling is a great form of exercise. Lots of cardiovascular work, good muscle strengthening combines with a reasonable workout for your core and gets you out in the fresh air and, assuming all goes well, there's little or no joint impact. There was a nice little article on the BBC website yesterday about the physiology of professional cyclists but remember that they've had years of training. How is Bradley Wiggins different from the average man?
The main thing we run into in the clinic is people's desire to ride like a pro. It's easy (if you have the money) to buy a very advanced, lightweight bike which is perfectly set up for racing but not quite as well set up for the average middle aged person about to ride it. Here's a few areas where people go wrong:
Make sure your bike is the right size for you and is properly set up in the first place. Even slight changes in size can make massive differences to the angles at which your joints have to operate and can make the difference between a great experience and a very poor one. If you don't know what you are doing, get advice from someone who does, either a reputable dealer or an experienced friend. Backs and Necks suffer most from a bike that's the wrong size or poorly set up but too much weight bearing through your arms can leave you with upper back pain and shoulder problems too.
High seats and low handle bars are great for power through the pedals and good aerodynamics but can give quite a few back and neck problems. The low back is put into a very flexed posture for a long period and absorbs quite a few bumps from the road. The more horizontal the back, the more you then have to extend the neck to be able to see where you are going. We see quite a few people with sore backs and necks and even very minor adjustments to your setup can help - a seat 1/2 an inch lower, handle bars 1/2 an inch higher or closer to you can make a few degrees difference and that's a lot for an hour's ride. It may be less efficient for the bike but you may enjoy your ride a lot more. I saw a man a few weeks ago who lowered his seat by an inch but changed his pedal crank length to compensate. His back pain resolved. This point is valid especially for people as they get older as their body may not have quite the tolerance that it have a few years previously!
Knees are also a common problem. Often, this is poor technique; your knees are designed to run in one plane - straight up and down. As you pedal, your thighs should be roughly parallel with your knees running over your feet. If your thighs point in or out you may well end up with knee pain. Often this can be resolved by looking at your foot position on the pedal - if your foot points in or out, the rest of your leg will follow. Poorly set up bikes can exacerbate this. If your seat is too low, not only do you not get full value for every down stroke, your knees have to work harder to compensate. Do you have shoes/pedals with a cleat? Even a degree or two of rotation can cause significant knee and hip pain. Don't be afraid to make minor adjustments if you're getting pain, I've known people's problems disappear overnight by correcting this position.
Finally, don't bit off more than you can chew. If you're a new rider or a returning one like me, don't do too much too soon. Build up your strength and fitness gradually, adjust your set up in response to small niggles and problems and don't be afraid to get advice either from an experienced rider or shop or from a physiotherapist about your body. Happy cycling