While cycling offers an incredible alternative to high-compression exercises such as running, an improper bike fit can lead cyclists down a path toward a whole host of different muscular and joint issues, says Bend physical therapist Rob Hollander.
“Bike fitting is about more than just making sure the frame fits your size,” said Hollander, co-owner of Alpine Physical Therapy in Bend. “What we mean by ‘bike fitting’ is making sure the placement of the seat, handlebars, pedals and cleats are properly adjusted to accommodate the size, flexibility, strength, and movement deficiencies of the bodies.”
In other words, a proper bike fit isn’t just about the bike.
“A good bike fit takes into consideration the bike as well as the body, then works to adjust each in order to maximize comfort, performance and prevent injury,” Hollander said. “If you’re experiencing pain, discomfort or numbing when you ride an hour or less, you may need a little tweak in your bike … or yourself.”
From carpal tunnel, elbow, and Achilles issues to pain in the shoulders, knees and lower back, Hollander warns that an improperly fitted bike will commonly reveal a person’s musculoskeletal deficiencies through pain, numbness, low endurance and a general reduction in performance.
Hollander says that when riding a bicycle, a person experiences three main points of pressure: on the seat, on the feet, and on the hands. One of the goals of bike fitting is to achieve a comfortable equilibrium between the three.
As a specialist in movement and athletic performance, Hollander suggests cyclists seek a professional bike fitting evaluation in the following cases:
A New Bike: New or just new to you, it’s a no-brainer that anyone hopping on the saddle of an “unfamiliar” bike should have it properly fitted to his or her body.
Feeling Pain or Discomfort: Sure, if you ride for four hours, there’s bound to be some discomfort. But Hollander says if you feel pain or numbness on a ride that’s an hour long or less, it’s likely time for a bike fitting.
You’re an Active Rider: If you ride every day – even several times per month – your body’s bound the change in strength, flexibility and cadence. So if you’re an avid rider, Hollander suggests having your bike fitted seasonally. “Just because you were fitted three years ago doesn’t mean your body and your bike fit well together today,” Hollander added.
A proper bike-fitting assessment should consider injury history and involve flexibility testing and a cycling motion analysis. Hollander points out that while several reputable bike shops are great at fitting a bike to a generalized body type, physical therapists are trained to determine the optimal mechanical balance between a cyclist and his/her bike.