Continuing our series from Return to Fitness. Previous parts here:
Return To Fitness: Saddle (The Butt)
Old-fashioned bike purists will swear by their well-broken-in leather saddles. But these seats can take several thousand miles of riding before they conform to one’s buttocks. Bike seats are now made with spongy, space-age materials and flaunt other-worldly designs whose primary purpose is to make it anatomically easier on your posterior and privates.
Contrary to popular belief, a wide, thickly cushioned, gel-filled seat won’t guarantee a comfortable ride. This is due to your “sit bones” (ischial tuberosities), sinking into the padding, thereby compressing nerves and restricting blood flow. “You want your sit bones to be on the wide part of the seat, so they’re supported,” Dr. Roger Minkow, MD, an ergonomics consultant and the inventor of Specialized’s Body Geometry saddle, told Bicycling. Unused muscles in your butt cause soreness. “When you ride and get in shape, your muscle tissue gets firmer,” says Minkow. “This gives you more muscle mass between your sit bones and your seat.”
There really is no cure for “beginner’s butt.” Padded bike shorts will slightly lessen the discomfort generated by an aching tailbone. But once you get past the initial get-to-know-you riding phase, your butt should be fine.
As for the saddle, it should stay level with the ground. Tilting the nose downward will force your butt to continually edge forward, whereas tilting the nose upward will jam your private parts backward, compressing nerves and the genitals.
Another limitation with wider saddles is that they force your legs to pedal in an ineffective, splayed-out manner. You don’t want to pedal bowlegged. And that’s a main reason why you want to find the narrowest, firmest saddle that is suited to your type of riding. You might have to experiment and shop around, but prepare yourself for sticker shock; top saddles now cost over $200.
Long-time bike journalist Jim Langley states on his website that “the faster you ride, the more likely it is you’ll want a narrow, racing-style seat. This is because a fast-riding position on a bike shifts you forward, placing more weight on the hands and feet and reducing a lot of the weight on the seat. Also, as you pedal more vigorously, you spin faster and you can’t tolerate interference from the sides of the seat.”
Return To Fitness: Knees & Feet
Cycling attracts a fresh, unending multitude of injured runners with blown out knees. Unlike running, the low-impact, repetitive motion of pedaling typically won’t wear down the joints and cartilage. But you still can experience knee pain on the bike. Because the knee is a complex hinge-and-pulley mechanism, it is vulnerable to stress, abuse, and overuse. For cyclists, knee pain usually result from tendonitis—the straining of hardened fibers that attach the quadriceps to the patella or kneecap and the hamstrings to the tibia or shinbone. When the tendons become stretched or irritated they can swell up, and the increased friction can cause a burning pain in the front of the knee or right below the kneecap. Too often, putting in a lot of miles on undertrained tendons causes tendonitis. Fortunately, tendonitis responds well to rest and an easy ten-minute warm-up at the start of each ride. It also helps to wear tights in colder weather.
The other most common cycling-related knee injury is chondromalacia— the irritation of the cartilage that provides joint lubrication. Chondromalacia is most often caused by lateral or unnatural movement of the knee joint, and is usually related to a seat that is too high, too low, too far forward, or pushed back too far. Unlike tendonitis, “chondro” can develop into a permanent debilitating condition once the cartilage is worn away. Sufferers can actually hear a crunching noise—bone on bone—with each pedal stroke.
Knee pain can also result from pushing too high a gear, especially on hills. You want to use a gear that allows you to pedal or spin at a rapid tempo, ranging from seventy to a hundred strokes per minute on level or rolling terrain. Don’t feel like you have to be macho by trying to crank along in a big gear. Most new bikes come equipped with triple-chain rings and rear-cogs with up to eight or nine sprocket clusters. The Schwinn ten-speed of your youth is a misnomer. Many contemporary bikes are twenty-seven-speed. For those taking up biking for the first time in their forties and fifties, having a wide gear selection will save your knees from undue wear and tear.
Improper foot position on the pedal can contribute to knee pain. Because most feet have a natural angle that prefers to point either outward or inward, your foot assumes this angle in bike shoes designed for clipless pedals. Don’t try to straighten out your feet in the pedal. Instead, adjust the shoe’s bottom cleat to permit your foot to be at its natural angle. If your cleats are misaligned, the constant twisting or torqueing of your lower legs will create unnecessary stress on both knee joints.
Look for clipless pedals with rotational freedom, or “!oat,” so your knees won’t be locked into the same riding position. Speedplay’s lollipop-looking pedals are a popular brand and provide generous !oat.
Ill-fitting bike shoes might lead to foot pain and numbness. Orthotics usually rectify the problem by evenly distributing the weight of the footbed. You might have to experiment with different brands and models.
Of course, you can just ride in running shoes and toe clips with straps (they provide additional power with the pedal upstroke), and though you will sacrifice some power and pedaling efficiency, your knees will be free to move about. Plus, when you are off the bike, it’s easier to walk around in running shoes than in a pair of stiff-soled cycling shoes. Running shoes and toe clips make a good team for off-road riding, because you can quickly yank your foot out of the toe clips if you have to stop suddenly and are about to fall. Unlike clipless pedals, you don’t have to pivot your foot for rapid egress.
Investing in a pair of clipless pedals and cycling shoes can be pricey, and some top combos will exceed $300. There’s nothing wrong with using running shoes and $15 toe clips and straps. I biked 2,800 miles in running shoes and toe clips during my transcontinental ride. They worked #ne. It’s also what I decided to use when I started riding again, despite owning three sets of clipless pedals. If you’ve never used clipless pedals before, here’s one very important cautionary note: Practice getting in and out of them in the parking lot or driveway. You don’t want to find yourself nearing a stoplight, furiously struggling to shake a foot loose—or when the light turns green, being unable to swiftly get the foot back in.