With the start of summer we try and get outside to become more active. Cycling is a great sport for people looking for low impact activity to improve endurance and cardiovascular health. In Ajax we have a lot of trails throughout the town and the waterfront across Durham Region attracts cyclists from all across the GTA. However, if your bicycle isn’t set up optimally, like any repetitive task, can lead to overuse and repetitive strain injuries, ankle, knee, shoulder or neck pain.
A good cycling position is one that allows you to bike as long as you’d like and generate decent power on hills without pain or injuries. We want to optimize comfort, aerobic efficiency and power, and prevent injuries.1 The ideal position will vary depending on age, flexibility, previous injuries, and goals. A seat that is too low can result in knee pain, or hip pain. Handle bars that are too low can cause neck, shoulder and wrist injuries. Asymmetry or malalignment can also result in injuries.
When it comes to fitting your bike, while there are a few good guidelines, this is not an exact science. It’s more about finding balance, and what works for the individual.
For maximum power one should position the first metatarsal head (base of the first toe) over the axel of the pedal. This may need to be adjusted however if there is a history of achilles problems or metatarsalgia. Pedal position may need to be widened if hips are wider than average and wedges are occasionally inserted between cleats and pedals to accommodate variation in hip width or flexibility.
Aligning your knee directly over the pedal spindle when the leg is at the 3 o’clock position works for most people, but people vary in terms of body proportions and weight. If, when you assume this position, with feet at 3 and 9 o’clock, you feel significant weight through your hands you may eventually suffer from neck, shoulder and arm pain. Moving the seat rearward will remove some weight from the arms if you suffer from feeling such strain.
Saddle height should be such that the leg is not quite fully extended when the foot is in the lowest position. This is about a 30 degree angle so that the pelvis doesn’t need to shift to the side when on the down stroke. 2
The seat should be positioned for comfort – level or tilted slightly down. A seat tilted too far forward will result in more weight being taken through the arms; too far back and it will put more strain on the lower back and may cause groin injury.
Poor flexibility can result in unhelpful compensatory changes which can be addressed with stretching, yoga, or manual therapy. If your lack of mobility is due to arthritis you should see your physiotherapist to see if changes can be made either to improve that mobility or to find alternative ways of accommodating that lack of mobility.
Handle Bar Position
Handlebars should be shoulder width apart so that the wrists are in a neutral position.
There is a wide variety of positioning that people find acceptable. The further forward and lower the bars are, the more ability the rider has to generate power and pull harder on the bars while accelerating. This far forward position also becomes more aerodynamic. With this position, however, comes greater demand on your core musculature and can result in neck and back pain.
Generally, the more rearward and higher handlebar positions keep your trunk upright making it easier to see forward, puts less load on the neck, shoulder and arms; however, makes it more difficult to generate power and creates more wind resistance.
The correct height of the handle bars relative to the seat position depends upon what the rider wants to do and how much load s/he is comfortable taking through the neck and arms. The ideal position would be the the lowest position that the rider can assume that feels the most powerful while still being comfortable.
When to ask an expert
Many of us can manage a DIY approach but if you are particularly tall, or short, or have mobility issues, you may benefit from the opinion of a professional. If you are experiencing neck or shoulder pain, upper back pain, tingling or numbness in your hands or groin, or ankle or knee pain when cycling, it may be a simple fix through some positioning changes and of course any changes should be made gradually.
Physiotherapists are primary health care providers you can consult with the knowledge to improve mobility and strength, and help you deal with pain to get you back in the saddle.
- Silberman, M., Webner, D, Collina, S., Shiple, B. Road Bicycle Fit. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 2006. Volume 15, Issue 4, Pg 271-276
- Bini, R., Hume, P. A., & Croft, J. L. (2011). Effects of bicycle saddle height on knee injury risk and cycling performance. Sports medicine, 41(6), 463-476.