No matter the distance you ride, you should be comfortable on your bike. If you have neck, back, or knee pain, saddle sores, numbness in the hands, feet or anywhere else, your bicycle probably doesn't fit you properly. A good bike fit can address these issues and also improve your pedaling efficiency, aerodynamics and actually make you faster. Your body is most likely asymmetric (one leg or arm may be slightly longer or shorter than the other). The slightest imbalance can lead to pain. While it used to be true that addressing these asymmetries was a bit of trial and error, the properly outfitted modern fit studio with tools like Retul, 360 degree viewing of client, wedges, shims, specific educational training, 2D and 3D video and motion capture, and experience, the qualified fitter can address these most common issues with more precision and greater long term results.
Your bike seat should be level to support your full body weight and allow you to move around on the seat when necessary. Too much upward tilt can result in pressure points. Too much downward tilt can make you slide forward while riding and put extra pressure on your arms, hands and knees, which can lead to injury. To adjust the seat height, wear your biking shoes and riding shorts and place your heels on the pedals. As you pedal backwards, your knees should fully extend in the down position. If your hips rock side to side the seat is too high. Now when you move your foot into the proper pedaling position, with the balls of your feet over the pedal, you'll have a slight bend in your knees.
You can also adjust the seat forward and backward (fore and aft position). With your feet on the pedals so the crank arms are parallel with the ground, the neutral position will put your forward knee (patellar tendon) directly over the pedal axle (often referred to as KOPS). Issues like saddle sores can be alleviated through proper positioning but may also be an issue with the saddle shape, clothing or another issue. These can and should be addressed in your fitting session.
The location of your handlebars can cause multiple issues. If your handlebars are too high, too low, too close, or too far away, you can have neck, shoulder, back, and hand pain, strain, soreness, excessive tightness or all of the above. A proper reach (distance to the handlebar from the seat) allows you to comfortably use all the positions the handlebars provide and to comfortably bend your elbows while riding. To properly support your upper body the handlebars must also be the proper width for your shoulders and placed at an appropriate height. Too high and you will increase lower back issues, too low and neck/ shoulders will be an issue. For all bikes handlebars come in a variety of shapes and sizes a good bike fitter will have multiple varieties to test and determine your appropriate shape.
(Professional Triathlete, Bryan Rhodes, New Zealand with bike fitter, Philip Casanta at Hypercat Racing)
Knee pain is most commonly associated with saddle position. A saddle that is too high or low, too far forward or back can all cause issues. Improper bike shoe or cleat position can also cause knee pain.
- A seat that is too high will cause pain in the back of the knee and hip rocking.
- A seat that is too low or too far forward may cause pain in the front of the knee.
- Improper foot position on the pedal (or improper cleat alignment) can cause pain on the inside or outside of your knees.
Individual anatomy may also result in knee pain. Cyclists with slight differences in leg length may have knee pain because the seat height is only adjusted for one side. Shoe inserts, wedges, shims or orthotics can address this problem. Another common cause of knee pain is using too high a gear (mashing), reducing the gear and increasing the cadence will reduce the stress on the knee.
Neck pain usually the result of riding a bike that is too long or having handlebars that are too low is a very common complaint. Check for signs like high shoulders, straight (not bent) elbows and craning of the neck as common causes. Handlebar width also plays a big role. Bars that are too wide will cause pressure in the upper back between the shoulder blades, while bars that are too narrow or extended will cause forward rounding of the shoulders. Tight hamstring and hip flexor muscles may cause neck pain by forcing your spine to round or arch, as well as a hyper extended neck. Improper saddle position can create these problems as well.
Foot pain or numbness Most commonly addressed via proper footwear, issues such as hot foot, numbness and arch pain among others, can be addressed through cleat positioning, insoles, orthotics, shoe tightness (width or over clamping), and pedal choice. Pedaling technique and gear choice also play a role in foot pressure.
Hand pain or numbness can be alleviated or lessened by wearing padded cycling gloves. Riding with your elbows slightly bent, not straight or locked, is always a key. Bent elbows act as shock absorbers and help absorb the bumps in the road, they also serve to relax the shoulders and neck area. Changing hand positions frequently on the handlebars can also reduce pressure and pain. Finally check your component positioning, brake and shift levers should be positioned in comfortable alignment of your wrists with the proper reach to work the controls.
Understanding that the pain as described above is not normal with a proper bike fit is step one in getting faster on the bike. The old adage of ‘no pain, no gain’ does not apply in the context of bike fit and cycling. Address issues like numbness and pain and you’ll be motivated to ride further and your performances will reflect your hard work!
-Philip Casanta. Phil is the lead bike fitter at Hypercat Racing, based in Ventura, CA. Phil has been helping athletes optimize their bike fits for over 20 years. Specializing in triathlon and time trial, Phil also works with extensively with road, mountain and cyclocross athletes. Retul and F.I.S.T certified, Phil’s expertise combines experience with art and science to produce the optimal fit for athletes based on their individual needs, biomechanics and athletic pursuits.