Knee problems, back pain or numb fingers are unfortunately common companions for many athletes when cycling. Our bike fitting experts conduct regular research into the causes and "translate" an athlete's body perception into biomechanically measurable parameters. In most cases, the problems can be traced back to incorrect loading caused by an incorrect bike setting or seat position. In addition, insufficient basic physical requirements (e.g. lack of mobility or insufficient muscular stabilization) can also trigger or intensify such negative effects.
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The knee joint is the most stressed joint when cycling. It transmits the force from the thighs directly to the pedal and is therefore subject to a large, continuous load. A brief classification: with a pedaling frequency of 90 revolutions per minute (RPM), there are 5,400 pedaling movements per hour. Extrapolated over a three-hour ride, that's more than 15,000 load cycles that the knees have to compensate for. So it's no wonder that permanent incorrect stress on the joint can lead to problems.
How well the knee is loaded with each rotation is primarily determined by the quality of the seating position: Seat height and horizontal alignment over the pedal axis are the most important parameters here. Our bike fitting specialists were able to assign the most common cause of knee problems to a sitting position that is too low and/or too far back. Especially in the pressure phase, the knees are stressed non-functionally, individual elements of the complex joint (cartilage, ligaments, tendon attachments) are not properly loaded or overloaded.
Other factors can further aggravate the problem:
- gears that are too thick (greater muscular pressure load with every pedal revolution)
- strong muscular tension / shortening in the thigh extensor can lead to irritation of the patellar tendon insertion
- Symptoms of overload due to increased training volume or pedaling performance (possibly also in connection with symptoms of stress from running)
- Unstable leg axis due to incorrect cleat adjustment
Weineck, Sportanatomie (14th edition), p. 149
Weineck, Sportanatomie (14th edition), p.149
The contact point "saddle - buttocks" is the most sensitive area for many athletes, as this is where the greatest weight load is exerted on pressure-sensitive tissue. This contact point is influenced by four factors: the individual buttocks anatomy, the cycling shorts, the saddle and the sitting position.
First we look at the anatomy of the pelvis (Fig. 2), since the different parts of the pelvis are often sensitive to different pressures and can be overloaded by incorrect weight distribution on the saddle. The sit bones are the lowest part of the pelvis and are anatomically designed to support body weight when seated.
Fig. 2: Pelvis anatomy
The periosteum of the ischial tuberosity, which can still cause pain in road bike beginners during the first longer bike rides, gets used to the seat load fairly quickly. The pubic rami are the bony extensions of the protuberances and converge in the middle of the pubic arch (Fig. 2). The pubic rami are significantly more sensitive to pressure and should only be weight-loaded in doses.
Between the branches of the pubic bone is the so-called perineal area , a soft tissue structure that is traversed by many blood and nerve tracts. The branches of the pubic bone converge in the so-called pubic arch, which consists of cartilage and connective tissue. The soft tissue of the pubic arch and perineal area should ideally not be stressed at all, but that is exactly where most sitting problems come from. A feeling of numbness usually comes from stress in the perineum area, as the nerve tracts running there are squeezed. The anatomical difference between man and woman is the distance between the ischial tuberosity and the pubic bone height . Women should choose a slightly wider saddle with a central cut-out, as the seat bone distance is larger and the pubic arch is not as high. However, it must be mentioned that the distances vary greatly from person to person.
Saddle and seating position: There is no wrong saddle per se, there are only unsuitable saddles for your seating position and pelvic anatomy . Saddle and sitting position go hand in hand, because the load on the different parts of the pelvis varies depending on the sitting position . The more upright the sitting position, the more the overall load is on the stable buttocks, mostly without symptoms of pain or numbness. However, the more the sitting posture is bent forward (Fig. 3), the more the pelvis tilts forward and the pressure area shifts from the ischial tuberosity to the pubic rami and the perineal area.
Fig. 3 Racing bike seating position
Fig. 4 Aerodynamic seating position
This effect is normal for sporty seating positions on the racing bike or in the aggressive aero position (Fig. 4), since a lower posture improves the aerodynamics. This is where the saddle comes into play: if the saddle is not designed for this sitting position, the pressure points are exactly on the soft fabric structure. Permanent pressure on the perineal area can now cause pain and numbness . These can not only be painful, but also reduce performance. A suitable saddle should therefore reflect the anatomical conditions and the weight distribution of the specific sitting position. Many models have a cut-out in the middle so that the perineal area is not stressed and are shaped at the end so that most of the weight is on the sit bones.
The cycling shorts: The padding of the cycling shorts serves to reduce friction on the saddle and thus avoid injuries (chafing, inflammation) at the contact points. The most important factors here are the shape, type and thickness of the padding. High-quality inserts prevent heat build-up, are made of antibacterial material, have padding of different thicknesses (between two and ten millimeters) and are mostly seamless. Furthermore, the padding of women-specific cycling shorts is usually a bit wider and takes into account the anatomical differences in the buttocks area. As a rule, only different cycling shorts will help here if you do not feel comfortable in your cycling shorts.
But only in very few cases are pain or numbness associated with incorrect or incorrectly fitting cycling shorts. Rather, the main cause is related to the load distribution on the saddle.
Since the perfect sitting position with a suitable saddle depends on many factors and the anatomical requirements are different for every person, the ideal sitting position and the most suitable saddle for it cannot be determined without professional help. That's why we recommend a bike fitting so that you can start the new triathlon season with the perfect conditions. With our bike fitting, we even offer you different saddles to test, so that you too can find the perfect saddle for your seating position.
Back pain is very common nowadays because many people, both children and teenagers at school and adults in the office, spend a lot of time sitting. This is not a problem in the first place, you should always pay attention to the correct sitting position, but this is often not the case. That's why it's incredibly important to pay attention to the correct posture of the spine in sports, since the extent of the load/intensity is much greater . And that's why we present you today the causes of back pain during and after cycling.
Anatomy of the Spine
The spine is divided into four sections, namely the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine and at the lower end of the spine are the fused sacrum and coccygeal vertebrae (Fig. 2). In total there are 24 vertebral bodies and these form a canal through which the spinal cord and the nerve roots of the spinal cord lie. The intervertebral discs lie between the individual vertebral bodies and ensure the mobility and shock absorption of the spine.
Fig. 2: Human spine; HWS (red), thoracic spine (blue), lumbar spine (yellow) and sacrum and coccygeal vertebrae (green)
The mobility from the cervical to the lumbar vertebrae decreases, but the size of the vertebral body increases because there is a higher weight load on the lower vertebrae. The spine is stabilized by a front and rear longitudinal ligament. On the one hand, the spine has the protective function of the spinal cord and nerve tracts, on the other hand it has the support and cushioning function of the body and the forces that act on it.
But where does the back pain come from while cycling?
In the area of the cervical spine (cervical spine), so-called hyperlordosis (hollow back formation) occurs and this causes tension in the muscles in the neck area. (see problem area neck). The opposite happens with the LWS (lumbar spine), incorrect posture eliminates the physiological curvature of the spine (lordosis) and muscles and ligaments are overstretched. There are three main reasons for this incorrect loading:
1. the sitting posture is too stretched and/or excessively elevated. Figure 3 clearly shows excessive seat length, which leads to excessive upper body extension, causing extreme stretching of muscles and ligaments, especially in the lower back. 2. the cyclist's core muscles are too weak. Or 3. the pressure loads in the perineal area (wrong saddle) are too great, so that the pelvis tilts backwards and the muscles and ligaments in the lumbar spine area are severely tense. Being in the position for a longer period of time when cycling irritates the muscles and causes pain. To improve posture in sports, but also in everyday life, it is recommended to train the trunk muscles . However, if muscles are present and only pain occurs when cycling, then this can be due to the sitting position or the saddle.
Fig. 3: too stretched sitting position
Conclusion: A well-trained trunk musculature stabilizes the spine and significantly improves the quality of the driving position. However, the correct setting of the saddle and handlebars is important in order to avoid excessive overstretching as the main cause of back problems.
Numb fingers, aching palms - many cyclists have had this experience before. Tingling in the hands can last for several hours after cycling and can even be very uncomfortable. We explain to you why.
A large part of the weight of the upper body rests on the hands and wrists. However, an incorrect grip position or excessive weight lifting can lead to peak loads, which not only cause pain in the short term but can also damage nerves, joints or tendons in the long term. We now explain the most common causes of pain in the hands:
1. Bending the wrists: The wrong grip on the handlebars can bend the wrists. This is usually due to an incorrect sitting position. The so-called carpal tunnel is squeezed (carpal tunnel syndrome) and this puts strong pressure on nerves, tendons and blood vessels. If the median nerve, which also runs through the carpal tunnel, is constantly under stress over a long period of time, muscle atrophy can occur in the balls of the hands. Numbness and tingling sensations can also occur. Therefore, always make sure that the hand is a straight extension of the forearm , because this will not squeeze any nerves and cause no pain.
2. Clamping off the ulnar nerve: The ulnar nerve runs from the elbow base through the forearm to the little finger. A wrong grip position or simply too much weight on the arms usually leads to contusions of the ulnar nerve in the area of the ball of the little finger. The consequences are: tingling and numbness in the ball of the little finger and/or in the little finger. On a racing bike, changing grip after a certain time helps to relieve nerve tracts, tendons and blood vessels. Also, gloves with gel pads can help because they distribute stress more across the hand.
3. Lack of upper body musculature: Stretching out the arms is also a problem, as this cannot compensate for shocks and vibrations in a way that is easy on the joints. This is often due to a lack of upper body muscles.
Fig. 2: wrong posture; Severe bend in the wrist
Fig 3: correct posture; no bend in the wrist
Conclusion: In order to avoid permanent damage to the wrist in the long term, it is essential to ensure that the grip is correctly positioned (Fig. 3). If the pain in the wrists has been going on for a long time, it should first be taken care of and the local irritation compensated for with certain stretching and strength exercises.
In the area of the feet, numbness is also one of the most common problems. The main reason for this (apart from cold temperatures) is circulatory disorders. These can usually be traced back to two causes:
- unsuitable shoes or insoles
- incorrect saddle adjustment
1. Road shoe and cleat adjustment
When it comes to choosing the right road bike shoe, you should pay particular attention to the position of the big toe joint in the shoe and the foot length/width. If the sole used in the shoe is not convincing, it is advisable to invest in good insoles. The aim is to guarantee the best possible support for the arch of the foot - both longitudinally and transversely. The reason for this is that the force that the leg produces when kicking is passed on to the big toe joint via this area of the foot. So if both the arch and the joint are sufficiently stabilized and supported, you can prevent numbness in the toes and guarantee the best power development.
But even if the road bike shoe fits, there can still be problems with blood circulation, which are often due to poorly adjusted pedals and cleats (pedal plates). Inflexible cleats often force the shoe and thus the foot into uncomfortable positions, which is why you should pay attention to a larger contact surface and sufficient rotation radius. Standard systems worth mentioning are Shimano's SPD and SPD-SL and also the Look-Keo system. The right choice and position of the cleats guarantee the best leverage ratio and prevent balancing movements and contact between the heel and the pedal crank.
Fig. 2: Adjustment options for the cleats
2. The saddle adjustment
If other causes are ruled out, numbness in the feet can often be traced back to an incorrectly adjusted saddle position. If the seat height or saddle angle is incorrect, smaller blood vessels or nerve tracts can be "pinched off". Furthermore, a saddle position that is too far back and a hip angle that is too small can also prevent optimal muscular chaining - and thus also the motor activation of the foot. The saddle itself (shape/alignment) can also contribute to the negative effect mentioned.
As you can see, it is hardly possible to name a simple cause in this case. The complex interrelationships of an incorrectly adjusted seating position are too complex. Our recommendation: professional root cause analysis by Bike Fitting.
neck and shoulders
When cycling, neck pain is "normal" for many athletes. But where does the tension in the neck and shoulder area come from? In the following article we will provide you with the answers.
neck and neck
We have already described to you the great effect of the sitting position on the strain on the spine in the "back problem area". Of course, this continues in the throat and neck area. Hyperlordosis of the cervical spine (cervical spine) usually occurs on a bike, ie it bends more backwards due to the head position.
Due to this static posture, the muscles in the neck/shoulder area are permanently contracted in order to stabilize the cervical spine and thus the posture of the head. This permanent tension is then perceived as painful in the long run - especially if the neck and shoulder muscles are not used to it. In the racing bike position, such a basic tension is indeed "normal" due to the upper body bending forward - beginners in particular have to get used to this first. But here, too, the entirety of the sitting position plays a major role in order to avoid additional incorrect loads.
Another aspect: shocks from the cervical spine are only very poorly compensated in this position and therefore there can be very high loads on individual vertebral bodies.
In this case, the front-oriented weight load is particularly decisive and depends heavily on the degree of elevation - i.e. the height difference between the saddle and the handlebars. It decides how much upper body weight is on the handlebars - and how much weight has to be absorbed by the arms and shoulders. The greater the difference in altitude, the more holding work has to be done here. A low, aerodynamic sitting position places great demands on the driver's specific postural muscles, and the shoulders also have to get used to the constant strain. However, there are two ways to relieve the shoulders as much as possible. 1. A well-developed core musculature means that the upper body can hold itself much better in a bent-over position and thus less weight load is exerted forwards overall. 2. The overall seating position naturally also determines the load distribution between saddle and handlebars, the degree of elevation and the overall quality of the riding position. Therefore, the cant should always be considered in connection with the other settings and always be individually adapted to the basic physical requirements of the athlete.
Bike fitting: setting the optimal seating position
Bike fitting is about optimally matching “man and machine” to one another – whether you’re a beginner on your first racing bike or an ambitious triathlete looking for the optimal seating position on your time trial machine. The added value is expressed directly in propulsive performance, speed or driving comfort. Our experts attach great importance to an individual and holistic view of the athlete:
- Muscular activation
- Power Transmission & Leverage
- Load & weight distribution
- Back & joint strain
- leg axis stability
- pain prevention
- Saddle advice & test possibility