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Tour de Champs
The ergonomics of bicycling
& stationary cycling

exerbike


Bicycles are used by a variety of people for recreation, fitness, physical rehabilitation, transportation and competition. Stationary cycling is used primarily for fitness and rehabilitation following surgery or injury, or for indoor exercise. Cycling is a very popular activity, but it can cause injury if people do not prepare their bike or body. Adjusting the bike to fit you is paramount in avoiding repetitive strain injuries and other cumulative trauma injuries. Adequate warm-up, stretching, strength training, progression of training and shoe selection are extremely important for injury prevention, as is staying hydrated.1

Traditional and stationary cycles

Traditional bicycles come in four basic flavors: sport/touring, racing, mountain, and hybrid2. Variations on these exist, but basically this is it. The main differences are the angle of the frame. Very adamant claims are made for and against the various styles depending upon which enthusiast you refer to. Each style poses some strain to various parts of the body, especially if the bicycle is not properly adjusted. Most bicycle sales consultants either do not know how to make all of the adjustments to custom fit your bicycle to you…or they don't bother3. Learn to adjust your own bike and you will be able to fine-tune it to fit your needs and also reduce the likelihood of injury. If you have existing problems with a specific part of your body, you should evaluate the type of bicycle you ride to determine if it's the best choice. For instance, if you have wrist and elbow problems, you should not participate in mountain biking due to the extreme stress it places on hands and arms. If you have neck or back problems, you should not ride sport/touring or racing bicycles, but choose a hybrid bike that will seat you upright and relieve the strain on your neck and back. If you have physical limitations, you should acknowledge them before you are so severely injured that you have to stop riding completely…and possibly harm your ability to perform your job as well.

strada recumbent bike

Recumbent bicycles and recumbent stationary bikes

Recumbent bicycles and stationary bicycles, or "bents" for short, place the rider in a semi-reclining position. They virtually eliminate all of the orthopedic and neurological problems associated with the traditional bicycle design. They are expensive, typically about twice the cost of a traditional bicycle4, but they are built of high-quality parts and made to last, so you should have many years of trouble-free use5.

There are several different types of bents, so we suggest that you learn about the options, try lots of models, and have patience in learning to ride one. Most people can learn to ride one in about 15 minutes, but these bicycles handle differently from traditional bicycles. The latest development is the use of 16"" (650c) wheels, which allow the use of state-of-the-art forks and wheels.6 Previously, the front wheel was smaller which meant that forks and wheels did not use current technology. Use larger tires on a recumbent bicycle to increase the comfort of your ride. Larger tires do create more drag, but since recumbent bicycles reduce drag by about 30% because of their more streamlined profile, perhaps using larger tires for added comfort and stability is a good compromise. In addition, bents hold all of the speed records, so even though they are comfortable, they are not slow!4

Recumbent stationary cycles are recommended as the number one exercise tool for people with back or knee problems7. They are extremely comfortable, place very little stress on the back and knees, and provide an excellent cardiovascular workout for anyone.

Bicycle overuse injuries

This article does not address traumatic injuries such as falling, auto collisions, etc. Though these can be disabling and sometimes fatal, our focus is on repetitive motion and cumulative trauma injuries. For safety sake, please always use protective equipment to avoid the consequences of traumatic injuries: helmet, gloves, eye protection, reflective and bright clothing, lights and strobes.1

Repetitive motion and cumulative trauma injuries are the most frequent type of injury associated with almost all sports, and bicycling is no exception. The sports field terms these types of injuries "overuse" injuries, and the body parts subject to overuse injuries on a bicycle are:

Neck
Shoulders
Back
Hand and wrist
Groin, pubic area and buttocks
Hip
Knee
Foot/ankle

Whew! And you thought bicycling was supposed to be easy on the body! In terms of statistics, bicycling is far down the scale in overuse injuries from running, so don't give up. With the proper adjustments, most people can bicycle safely and comfortably. But if your bike is not adjusted properly, you will probably suffer some pain sooner or later.

Bike adjustments

Adjustments start with the saddle height, tilt, and fore/aft positioning. Then adjust the handlebar position, crank arm length, and foot position should be adjusted. A guide to making each of these adjustments is given in Attachment 1. Arguments are made in all directions about the best saddle to buy. The only consistent advice seems to be that, for women, the saddles with the cutout centers may be more comfortable, but not all models are effective. There are still proponents of hard, narrow saddles (though we don't understand why), and proponents of wider, more cushioned saddles, so our recommendation is to ride them all and see what works best for you. Supporting your body on a larger, cushioned area should reduce the possibility of injury to the bones and nerves in that area of the body that are supporting most of your weight and taking most of the beating from rough rides.

There is a very large selection of handlebar types based on your bicycle type, riding requirements, and body type. Please read Attachment 1 and select handlebars that will fit your body and your needs. In general, handlebars that are shoulder-width allow a more open chest position which not only enables deeper breathing, but reduces problems associated with neural compression when the chest is closed. Handlebars that are padded will reduce the potential for vibration injuries of the hands, wrists, and elbows. Having both horizontal and vertical handlebars allow you to change your hand position and upper body throughout the ride.

Injury prevention

Once you have adjusted your bicycle, it's time to hop on and ride. But in order to reduce the possibility of damage to soft tissues and to prepare your heart for the workout ahead, it's important to warm up and stretch, develop a program of strengthening specific muscle groups, plan a progressive training schedule, wear appropriate garments, and focus on perfecting your riding technique.

Warm up

Warm up your body prior to going for a ride or working out on an exercise cycle by riding on level ground for 5-10 minutes or pedaling with no tension.

Stretching.2,8

Stretching that incorporates the entire spine, shoulders, back and all of the lower body muscles should be done after warm up, before beginning the workload section of the ride, and after cooling down at the end of the ride. Two types of stretches are good. Passive stretching -- holding a posture for 15 to 30 seconds until the muscle starts to relax -- should be repeated two to five times for each posture. Active stretching that works more on the dynamic flexibility of muscle and joint forces can be held momentarily at the end of the contraction and should be performed five to ten times. For example, to actively stretch the hamstring muscle in a seated position, extend the knee using the quadriceps muscle to enhance relaxation of the hamstring muscle (the opposing muscle).

Please refer to http://www.velogirls.com/stretching_photos.html for great stretches for bicyclists. Learn them and do them to keep your muscles from getting tight and painful and to open up your chest area, which can become compressed from cycling.

Forearm, chest and neck stretches throughout the ride are extremely important for relieving and preventing the numbness and pain that many avid cyclists experience in their hands. This is due to nerve compression at the neck and thoracic outlet (where ribs and collarbone meet).

Strengthening.2

Strengthening muscles that support the body during cycling contribute to balance and control of the bicycle, and keep the unused opposing muscle groups strong. Spinal stabilization exercises are important to strengthen the back and abdominal muscles that are needed to maintain a prolonged flexed posture and to balance the bicycle. Upper extremity muscles are involved in both pulling and pushing motions on the handlebars during hill climbing and sprinting, support of the upper body, shock absorption, control of the bicycle, and balance. The quadriceps typically become extremely strong with cycling, so it's important to strengthen the other supporting muscle groups of the lower body to avoid straining them.

Please refer to http://www.velogirls.com/rrtmag_core.pdf for excellent photos illustrating body strengthening exercises for cycling.

Attire.

Padded shorts, padded gloves, goggles, helmet and stiff-soled shoes are recommended for cycling. If the weather is cold, it's important to wear knee warmers to improve circulation to the knees. Padded shorts increase the comfort of the saddle. Padded gloves cushion the impact of the handlebars. They are also critical in minimizing injury to the hands if you fall. Goggles prevent smog, dirt, and bugs from getting into your eyes. In addition UV filtering is very helpful to avoid eyestrain and headaches. Helmets have proven to reduce head injuries by 74% to 85% and injuries to the nose and upper face by 65%, so don't leave home without one!1. Stiff shoes are always recommended to reduce stresses from pressure on the foot. Shoes should fit properly and, ideally, support the foot in a system using cleats adjusted to keep your foot in a stable, neutral position. Casual, occasional riders and stationary cyclists do not need to worry about using cleats. Many overuse injuries to the leg actually arise from improper positioning of the foot causing stress in the leg from twisting.

Riding technique.

Progressive training.

You are more likely to get injured from cycling if you ride too hard, too soon. Start by keeping cadence rates high while you are getting in shape and do not put in too many miles. Even competitive mountain bikers should train primarily on a road bike on more level surfaces. Riding on steep terrain is very stressful on the body, even with lower gears, and focusing on this type of riding alone greatly increases your chances of injury. Spin, spin, spin!!3

Troubleshooting pain and rehabilitation.

We provide a table with symptoms and potential sources of the problem in Attachment 2. If you are experiencing problems, please refer to our previous article, "No Pain, No Gain" to take care of your injury. To get back into cycling following injury, start with easy spinning at 80-90 RPM. Do not exceed an amount of time that can be done without the return of symptoms. This may be 5-10 minutes at first. To safely increase time on the bicycle, establish an endurance/aerobic training base first, stressing frequency of activity. Then add fast interval training and increase duration. Finally, slow interval/anaerobic training with increasing intensity can be added. The recommended program is 5 weeks for Phase 1, 4 weeks for Phase 2, and 3 weeks for Phase 3. Please refer to Reference 2 for specific rehabilitation program guidance.2

REFERENCES:

  1. "Bicycle-Related Injuries", American Academy of Family Physicians, My 15, 2001, Volume 63, No. 10. www.aafp.org/afp/20010515/2007.html.
  2. Sports Injury Prevention & Rehabilitation, by Eric Shamus and Jennifer Shamus, ©2001, McGraw-Hill, Medical Publishing Division, N.Y.
  3. "Common Cycling Knee Problems", by Roger Marquis, marquis@roble.com, http://www.directleap.com/bicyclesource/body/pain/
  4. "About Recumbents", Recumbent Cyclist News, July 8, 2003, http://www.recumbentcyclistnews.com/faq.html
  5. "A New 'Bent' on Bicycling", Dynamic Chiropractic Online, http://www.chiroweb.com/archives/17/06/08.html
  6. "Recumbents Revisited", by Rolf Garthus, June 2002, Hostel Shoppe, http://www.hostelshoppe.com/articles_recumbents_revisited.html
  7. Hold It! You're Exercising Wrong, by Edward J. Jackowski, © 1995, A Fireside Book, New York, N.Y.
  8. http://www.velogirls.com
  9. "Tech and Technique for Injury-Free Pedaling", by Dr. Ehrenberg, footdoc@slip.net, http://www.directleap.com/bicyclesource/bocy/pain/pedalling.html
  10. "How to Fit a Mountain Bike", by Robert L. Kronisch, MD., The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Vol 26, No. 3, March 1998. http://www.physsportsmed.com/issues/1998/03mar/kronpa.html
  11. "Mountain Biking Injuries: Fitting Treatment to the Causes", by Robert L. Kronisch. MD., The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Vol 26, No. 3, March 1998. http://www.physsportsmed.com/issues/1998/03mar/kronisch.html
  12. "Cycling Injuries: Recognition, Treatment, Prevention", by Steven M. Horwitz, D.C., ©1999, You Can Be Fit, Inc., http://wwwyoucanbefit.com/bike.html
  13. "Preventing Overuse Injuries from Cycling", http://www.directleap.com/bicyclesource/body/pain/

What's Next?

In the next article, we will discuss how to prevent ergonomics injuries while weight training.





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