One of the most frustrating things to happen as Iím enjoying a nice long ride on my bike is to have my knees start aching. Sometimes itís as Iím climbing a hill. Other times it starts after many long, but enjoyable, miles. For me, itís usually the top of my left knee cap. Every once in a while it shifts to my right knee. Knock wood, itís never been both knees at the same time.
When I first started riding a lot six years ago I found that the pain only lasted a couple of weeks until I built up my cycling muscles. Now, older that I am, it takes longer to work the aches out at the start of each cycling season. I am not happy about that, but what can I do?
I can do quite a lot actually, and so can you if you also have knee issues when you ride. Common causes of knee pain include weak muscles, cranking too hard, seat position, and cleat position (if you use clipless pedals).
Many cycling-caused aches and pains can be alleviated by building up general muscle strength and flexibility, especially if you, like me, are unable to ride year round. For knee problems, the muscle groups to focus on are the outer glutes (hip muscles), quadriceps (fronts of thighs), and hamstrings (backs of thighs). There are many common exercises which focus on your quads and hamstrings, including forward lunges, seated leg raises and lying leg curls with ankle weights, squats, and many more. Many of these can be adapted to simple home exercises that may not require additional weights. Exercises for your outer glutes are a little harder to come by, but include side lunges and lateral leg lifts. Donít forget, too, to regularly stretch all of these muscle groups. Having tight, stiff muscles will only exacerbate knee pain. If youíre not familiar with how to properly work or stretch your leg muscles, do some research or ask a trainer for help. You donít want to damage your knees by improperly exercising, a real concern with squats and lunges, especially.
Another cause of aching knees is cranking too hard as you pedal. In part, this is related to leg muscle strength, but also to the gears you are riding in. If youíre pedaling along, especially if itís up a hill or into a head wind, and your knees start to ache, try shifting into a lower gear. It seems that many people think they need to really be mashing on the pedals to be getting a good workout or riding efficiently, but this is not the case. Itís more efficient, and easier on your knees, to shift to a lower gear and spin faster. In the end, youíll be able to ride longer if youíre pain free.
Another cause of aching knees is seat height and position. While it might feel initially awkwardly high, your seat should be high enough that when youíre pedaling the down-stroke leg is nearly, but not quite, straight. You always want to maintain a bit of a bend in your knees. A seat that is too high can cause pain in the back of your knee. A seat that is too low can stress the front of your knee. While you have someone else watching, ride your bike and have them look to see if your hips rock side-to-side while you pedal. If they do, your seat is too high and youíre to stretching to reach the pedals. Lower the seat a bit. Additionally, to help relieve strain on your knees and maximize efficiency, adjust your seatís forward-back position so that when you have both pedals horizontal to the ground your forward knee is directly over the pedal. It is much easier to have someone else look at your leg to assess this angle. Also, having a professional bike fitting done is worth the money.
One cause of knee pain that Iíve definitely had issues with is the position of my cleats on my shoes and pedals. If I donít have my cleats positioned so that my toes are turned out as far as the cleats will allow, I feel like Iím pedaling knock-kneed. Within a few pedal strokes my knees are in serious pain. Your optimum cleat position is likely to be different than mine, but itís an option to explore if youíre searching for the cause of your pain. Through trial and error, experiment with positions until you find the one most comfortable for you.
There is no reason that a healthy person should experience pain while cycling. If youíve ensured that your bike fits you well and that youíre building your strength, you should be able to cycle well into your old age. On one tour I completed, the only women to ride the full 100 mile day were the groupís youngest (28) and the oldest. The oldest celebrated her 80th birthday during the tour! Personally, Iím looking forward to decades more pain-free riding.