As rewarding as it is, cycling can come with its fair share of aches and pains—especially for new riders who aren’t used to time in the saddle. Some soreness may be inevitable—this is a sport, after all—but a lot of discomfort can be remedied with a tweak of your bike setup or your riding style. Bike-fitting specialist Happy Freedman and exercise physiologist Polly deMille, both from the Hospital of Special Surgery’s Bike Fitting Service in New York City, offer their tips for a pleasant and pain-free ride.
If padded gloves don’t do the trick, try adjusting your handlebar position a touch. “The goal is to support your upper body without putting all your weight on it,” says Freedman. “You want to be able to put your weight forward when you need it and back off when you don’t, so your wrists get a break.” Off the bike, work your abdominal muscles with plank exercises, so you can support yourself while you ride. “If your core is weak, you have to lean on your handlebars much more,” says deMille.
Don’t lock your elbows or lean too hard on your handlebars, says Freedman. These habits stress the muscles in your upper back and send shockwaves straight up through your shoulders. Instead, keep a slight bend in your arms and adjust your seat height and angle so you’re not pitched too far forward.
Make sure your helmet fits properly and your glasses (Rx or sunnies) don’t slip down your nose. If you have to tilt your head back to keep them in place, you’ll strain your neck more than it already is. After your ride, do chin-to-chest and ear-to-shoulder stretches, along with chest-opening yoga poses like Cobra or Upward-Facing Dog. And when you practice planks, don’t drop your head—holding it up will strengthen the muscles that fatigue during long rides.
Sitting up too straight can be bad news for your back. “The energy of impact, if you hit a rough patch or a pothole, goes straight up through the seat tube into your lower back,” Freedman says. Even on a city or commuter bike, lean forward slightly and support yourself with your quads and core muscles to better absorb shock from the road.
Wear padded bike shorts (with nothing underneath) or, at the very least, avoid clothing with lots of seams. Your bike shop can recommend a saddle width and cushioning level best suited for your butt shape and riding style. To keep the nose from smashing into your nether-bits, make sure it’s not tilted too far forward or back. And shift positions as you pedal through turns and change speeds. “It increases circulation, uses different muscles and redistributes your weight,” Freedman says. “The more you move around on the saddle, the less likely you are to be sore.”
Check your seat height: If your feet can touch the ground while you’re still in the saddle, it’s too low. Riding this way puts too much stress on the knees—yes, even on commuter bikes—and can hurt your hips and back, too. “With your heel on the pedal and your butt in the saddle, you should have just a little flexion in your knee at the bottom of your pedal stroke,” Freedman says.
“Tight hips can mean your glutes aren’t firing,” deMille says, leaving the front of your legs to do all the work. Strengthen your butt muscles with squats and single-leg bridges, and foam roll your quads after riding to release tension and open up your hips.
Loosen up! Many people wear their cycling shoes too tight, Freedman says, which can collapse arches and make existing problems (like bone spurs or neuromas) worse. Secure your shoes only to the point your feet feel snug—there’s no need to ratchet them down as far as they’ll go.