Is Cycling Bad For Your Knees?

Bad Knees?

What causes knee pain, and how can you fix it? It’s a common question, and you’re right to be concerned, but if you follow our advice and apply a bit of common sense, there’s no reason why you should suffer from bad knees.

The main causes of knee pain are:

  • Doing too much cycling if you’re new to the sport
  • A weak core
  • Poor cleat setup
  • Incorrect saddle height
  • Saddle fore and aft issues
  • The saddle you’re using
  • Spinning low gears at a low cadence

Cycling is, in fact, one of the best sports precisely because it limits damage to the knees compared to most other sports.

It’s not uncommon to experience knee pain at some point during your cycling life, even the best riders in the world suffer from it sometimes. The knee is the most overused joint when cycling, and it’s a complicated joint, and sometimes pain in the keen can actually be a sign of an issue elsewhere in the body.

With such a complex part of the body, it’s best to speak to a qualified professional who is used to regularly treating cyclists and can diagnose the problem and put you on the road to recovery. There might be some steps you can take yourself through.

What causes knee pain when you’re cycling?

Knee pain can be caused by several factors and can manifest itself in numerous ways. The key is to identify the pain early and cure the problem before it manifests into a bigger problem. Left unchecked, knee pain can be enough to prevent you from cycling. You’ll know when you have a sore knee.

The pain can be located on the front of the knee cap, the back of the knee and on either side. Identify the cause of the pain is tricky but there are a few common steps to focus on. The first is the bike fit and the second is flexibility.

Don’t overdo it

Sometimes though knee pain can simply be the result of doing too much cycling too soon. If you’re new to cycling and keenly getting the big rides in, it can be a shock to the body and knee pain can sometimes strike. It takes time for the knee to strengthen and get conditioned to the pedalling action so consider building up your mileage gradually, increasing your mileage by 10% on each ride.

Pain on the front of the knee can be a symptom of tightness in the quads or IT bands for example. These muscles can get very tight, especially if you don’t regularly stretch. A first step would be to start doing a proper stretching programme and also use a foam roller.

Used together, this is a good way to target sore and tight muscles. Start gently though, working on all the main muscles around the thigh, IT band and buttocks. Icing can also be a common remedy, using a bag of peas or ice packs, to reduce swelling and inflammation in the sore knee.

Care for your core

All your muscles are important as they are all connected and work together. If there’s one weakness it can be felt elsewhere, often in the knee as it’s the most complex joint. So don’t forget your core. It’s really important to have a strong core, so your lower back, glutes and all the big muscles at the top of the leg are used constantly when pedalling. A problem in your glute can often be manifested in knee pain as other muscles have to overcompensate for a weak muscle.

Get a proper bike fit

Pain on either side of the knee can be caused by tight IT bands and quads. It can also be caused by poor cleat setup.  It could be the cleats are poorly set up so ensuring your cleats are correctly lined up on both shoes. If they’re angled left or right it could be forcing your heel in or outwards which will place strain on your knee.

So pay proper attention to cleat angle. It’s a good time to check the condition of your cleats too. If they’re worn, replace them. Some pedals offer more float – free movement – than others so consider choosing a clipless pedal that offers more float as this can make setting them up much easier than pedals with very little float.

Knee pain can be a sign of a poor bike fit. There are multiple possible causes:

  • Saddle height is a  key area. Some people say if the pain is at the font of the knee, the saddle is too low, and if the pain is at the back then the saddle is too high. Follow a saddle height guide to ensure you get your saddle at the optimum height – you’re aiming for a little bend in the knee when the pedal is at the bottom of the crank.
  • Saddle fore and aft, how forward or backwards it is on the seat post, is something else to check too. If the saddle is too far back could be the cause of pain in the back of the knee. Aim for the front of your knee cap to be in line with the ball of your foot.
  • Even the saddle can cause knee pain. If you’re not sitting comfortably and you’re constantly moving about, sit at an angle or too far forwards or backwards, your knee could start hurting as a result.

Choose the right gear

Gearing choice is a factor too. Some people push too big a gear and this can put a lot of strain on your knees. So take a leaf out of the pro rider handbook and learn to spin a smaller gear. Aim for about 90-95rpm and if you need to, invest in a cadence sensor so you can check you’re spinning smaller gears that will put less stress on your body.

Follow these tips and you should be able to avoid, or remedy, any knee pain issues that might otherwise prevent you from enjoying cycling.

Tom Adams

Tom is a bike enthusiast! Originally a mountain biker, Tom enjoys going fast on two wheels, whether it's on the road or on the gravel, mountain bike or commuting! Tom has been riding bikes for almost 18 years and loves nothing more than getting out on the roads or trails and testing out the newest and most innovative things on the Chain Reaction website!

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