Does Your Bike Fit You?
If you’re getting aches and pains from cycling that are preventing you from going further, it may be time to look at the fit of your bike. A poorly fitting bike can be uncomfortable at best, and cause long term effects at worse. When I take x-rays of regular road or mountain bikers, I often see that their mid-back is rounded forward quite a bit. This can cause pain in the neck, mid-back and low back, and also create some negative health effects where the organs and spine simply don’t have enough room. While some of this is inevitable while riding, there are things you can do to fix the fit of your bike to mitigate the effects of poor posture on the bike.
Thankfully, some of the sources of pain can be easily identified by looking at which parts of the bike are not fitting well. Frame size, seat height, handlebar reach, and foot position all need to be taken into account when fitting your bike. If the fit is not appropriate, your body will try to make up for it in other ways and can cause you discomfort in the long-term.
To some degree, your position on the bike and the setup of the “cockpit” (the height and reach of the handlebars and placement of the brakes and shifters) is determined by your preference and biking discipline. Road bikers and cross country mountain bikers tend to lean forward more with lower handlebar positions and a longer reach to put them in a power position for climbing. Where as downhill or more aggressive mountain bikers will sit more upright with a shorter reach to keep their weight centered over the bike. Despite the differences in discipline, here are some basic guidelines to help you perform at your best and remain pain free.
Seat height is critical for comfort and performance. If your seat is too high, you may be “ankling” too much. Ankling is the rotation of the foot with the toes slightly upward at the top of the down stroke and slight downward at the bottom through the up stroke. If you are ankling too much, it will cause pain in the Achilles tendon and in the lower back from rocking the pelvis back and forth while pedaling. If your seat is too low, the force will be more on the fronts of your knees and on your ankles. Here are some rules of thumb to help you check for the proper seat height:
- Standing on the ground and next to your bike, adjust the seat so that the top of your seat meets the height of your hip bone. This should be your starting point. You’ll make micro adjustments from this position until it’s comfortable.
- Ideally your leg will still have a slight bend at bottom of the pedal stroke -- never going completely straight. If your leg is straight at the bottom of the stoke lower your seat ½ inch at a time and try again.
- Additionally your knees should rise to a height less than that of your hips at the top of your pedal stroke. If your knees rise to, or exceed the height of your hips, raise your seat ½ inch at a time and try again.
If your frame size is too big, your handlebar reach is too far (the distance you have to stretch to get your hands on the bars) and your pedal stroke length (the distance you need to rotate your pedal in a full circle) is too long. These combined factors throw off the weight distribution, causing you to have less control over the bike. It also puts too much pressure on the low back, neck and back of the knees when pedaling on the down stroke, causing low back pain, neck pain, and knee pain.
If your frame size is too small, your reach is compressed, causing you to be in more of a flexed position and decreasing the length of your pedal stroke, causing similar problems as when your seat is too low. If you are unsure as to what your fit should be, check out this handy bike frame size calculator online and refer to it for proper fit.
Too short of a reach can make you sit too upright, causing seat pain and decreased power. The ideal reach is where your elbows are bending just slightly without your spine rounding and bending (you’d have to bend some to be able to reach, otherwise you’d be upright) to reach the bars. When your handlebars are too high, you are distributing more of your weight back, which may cause rear-end pain. When your handlebars are too low, you distribute your weight to the front causing hand and wrist pain. The ideal height is one which allows you to evenly distribute your weight between the front and back of the bike. Your final position may bias in one direction or the other depending on your biking discipline.
Cleat Position and Shoe Fit
If your feet hurt, it’s an indicator that either you’re wearing the wrong shoes, that your feet are in the wrong spot on the pedals, or, if you ride clipped in, that your cleat (the bit that attaches your shoe to the pedal) position is incorrect. Regardless of whether your ride regular flat pedals or ride clipped in, if you’re regularly riding longer than a mile or two, you want to wear stiff soled, or purpose built cycling shoes that provide a stable pedalling platform and provide a lot of arch support. When placing your foot on a flat pedal, the ball of your foot should be just in front of the pedal spindle. Basically the spindle of the pedal should support the back section of the meaty part of the ball of your foot. You want to encourage your heels to be lower than your toes throughout the stroke, rather than in a tiptoe position. Getting this right is critical for clipped in riders, whose feet are in a fixed position. These riders can experience pain in the forefoot, arch, or achilles tendon, and undo strain and fatigue in their calves when their feet are in the wrong position. Pain can be eliminated by setting the cleat position further back which will encourage those heels to drop. Cleat position can typically be adjusted front to back and side to side using a hex wrench or allen key. Start with your cleats as far back, and moved in as far toward the instep (to keep your feet away from the cranks) as possible as a starting points. Then go ride your bike and make adjustments of a millimeter or two each time until you get the position just right.
Riding a bike feels great and is great for the environment. Making sure your bike fits you and that you have it adjusted correctly is imperative to making sure you avoid pain. It is inevitable though that you will have to bend forward some while riding. This puts pressure on the spine and eventually results in a more rounded posture. To avoid permanently rounded posture, come see me for a postural consultation. Call our office at 510-922-1579, text us at 510-692-4428, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule.
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