Cycling is a great way to get fit or to challenge yourself, and for some people it is a way to ease the stresses of commuting to and from work. Whilst cycling is identified as a low-impact form of exercise, there is still the potential for injury if you don’t take the time to prepare yourself physically and make sure that your bike is set up correctly.
In the second instalment of Össur Webshop’s in-depth look at cycling injuries, Michael Core takes you through some of the preventative measures at your disposal so you can stay safe while enjoying being out and about on your bicycle.
When you are just starting out in cycling you need to take things slowly – don’t jump on your bike and expect to ride 30 miles straight away. You will get the best out of your ride if you gradually build up both your training and distance covered.
Firstly, figure out what your goal is. Do you want to simply get fit, or do you want to ride long distances in a good time? Adapt your training to fit with your objectives to achieve the best results.
Start off training on good roads and onthe flat. Once your fitness improves, take on a hill or two. When you feel comfortable tackling hills, increase your distance and vary your rides to incorporate a variety of terrain, including short, steep hills and gradual, unrelenting climbs. If you are training for long distance riding, take it slow and steady at first. Keep building up the distance and include some speed work so that you can improve your times over the distance covered.
Once you have reached a level of fitness, you can build your training programme around three elements – intensity, frequency and duration. Add interval training to increase the intensity of your ride and your overall strength will improve. Train more often and over longer distances and your fitness and technique will evolve.
Strength, speed and endurance
Another set of three points that are important to becoming a successful cyclist are strength, speed and endurance.
Strength is about being able to pedal in the face of resistance. Headwinds, crosswinds and hills all need strength to overcome them.
Speed relies upon turning those pedals over as fast as you can. If you are racing, you’ll need to work on your speed to get your RPM up, for short steep hill climbs and for the finish. Combine speed with strength training and you will increase your overall power.
Endurance relies upon aerobic capacity and efficiency so you can keep going even when fatigue is setting in. If you can combine strength and endurance, you’ll be able to sustain a high workload over time. Add a long gradual hill climb to your training to improve your strength and endurance.
Don’t get stuck in a training rut. Changing up your training schedule will make you a stronger cyclist in the long run.
If you don’t feel as though you are making the most of your training time, consider finding a cycling coach who can design a programme of training to meet your needs and monitor your performance. Good professional advice will go a long way to reducing the potential for injury.
Understanding your gears
The gears on your bike are used to help you maintain a consistent and comfortable pedalling speed, regardless as to whether you are on the flat or climbing a hill. You can think of the gears like a car – you need to start off in a low gear before acceleration and you need your bike in a low gear when you are climbing a steep hill. High gears are for high speed, when you are putting in the most effort.
Gears are all about the best efficiency for you and the bike in combination, so using the right gear is important to your cycling technique and for avoiding injury.
Warm up and cool down
Everyone knows that a good warm-up is important before any exercise, but how many of us actually do it? Try and allow some time in your ride plan to stretch your whole body. It is not just your major leg muscles that are doing the work; you need to take care of your knees, back, shoulders and core. Yoga and Pilates exercises are often considered good ways in which to prepare your body for a hard training session.
The same applies to stretches after your ride. Sometimes you’ll just want to collapse on the sofa after a challenging ride but resist the temptation and take the time to stretch and relax those hard-working muscles. The better your cool down, the better you will feel the next time you jump on your bike.
Listen to and look after your body
Small aches can quickly turn into big pains if you don’t listen to your body. While you want to challenge yourself, it is never a good idea to try and ride through persistent pain. This is especially true for knee pain. Knowing when to stop, or back off the pace goes a long way to preventing cycling injuries. If you experience persistent pain that does not improve with a break from cycling, always consult a medical professional.
Make sure that you are building adequate rest days into your training regime. If you are over-training you’ll almost certainly feel tired, physically and mentally, and you won’t enjoy your time out on the road. And if you are feeling unwell, haven’t had enough sleep or just aren’t up for a heavy training session, take a break. Time out will allow your body to heal and will improve the quality of your training.
As with any exercise, hydration is key. Lack of fluids will see you tire more rapidly, and leave you susceptible to injury. Take sufficient water with you to keep hydrated for your whole ride and your body will thank you.
A healthy body needs a healthy diet. Make sure that you are eating plenty of fruit and vegetables to combat muscle fatigue and consequently injury.
Getting your bike right
As cycling is a repetitive form of exercise that involves sitting for long periods, it is vital that you are riding on the right size frame and that your bike is set up in a way that suits your body. Incorrect set-up means that you are repeating the actions that can lead to injury with every turn of the pedal.
Because everyone is built differently, there is no golden rule for bike set-up. The three main parts of the bike to consider are the contact points – the handlebars, saddle and pedals. Check that your handlebars are the right distance apart for your body size. If the handlebars are too wide you can experience pain or numbness in your wrists. If your handlebars are too far forward, you’ll be reaching too far and find yourself in an uncomfortable position.
Saddle choice is important, you’ll be sitting on it for long periods of time. Try a few different types to find the right one for you. Once you’ve got the right saddle you need to consider the height and tilt of the saddle as well as its position in relation to the handlebars to avoid straining when you reach forward.
Pedal height can be affected by your saddle placement, the crank length and, of course, the dimensions of your body. Incorrect set-up will impact your comfort and performance, and can lead to knee injury.
Bike set-up is complex and so it is probably worth investing in an expert assessment and fitting at a bike shop to ensure you get it right from the start.
Before you head out on your bike, think about where you are going and make sure that you are prepared for the conditions.
If you are wanting to get from A to B, the quickest way might not always be the safest way. Check for routes with dedicated bike lanes or with options to ride through a park or on a bike trail to avoid traffic. When you are out on a training ride, make sure that you consider the fatigue factor on the way back and plan your route accordingly.
Think about the weather. Cycling can be tricky in wet conditions, leading to falls and injury. If temperatures are high, you’ll need to take on more fluids and perhaps schedule some stops. When you are riding in the winter, remember that it gets dark quickly and you don’t want to get caught out in poor visibility.
Wearing high-visibility clothing and accessories is always a good idea, whatever the weather. Have reflectors on your jacket and helmet and wear reflective ankle straps. Make sure that your lights are working, front and back.
Always check your bike before you leave to make sure that everything is in good working order. Fix problems when they come up instead of riding with faulty equipment. A regular schedule of maintenance will ensure that your bike performs better, keeps you safe and lasts longer.
Don’t be tempted to listen to music while you ride. Having those beats pumping might seem a good motivator but you need to be fully aware of your environment to avoid accidents when you cycle.
Just in case of problems, tell someone where you are going and when you expect to get back. Charge up your phone and take it with you and ensure that you have a well-stocked repair kit – it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially if you are out there alone.
Cycling is a great way to get fit and get out in fresh air. If you take care of your body and take care of your bike you’ll be well on your way to injury-free cycling.