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Common Bike Fitting Mistakes That Could Be Causing You Pain

cycling
(Image credit: Unknown)

After a long hard day in the saddle you’d expect sore muscles, but if those aches and pains extend beyond the muscles used for cycling – like the neck, knees or anywhere else – it could be because your bike isn’t set up to fit you correctly.

Physiotherapist Bryan McCullough runs Pure Sports Medicine’s bike fitting service (opens in new tab), which can sort out any issues to help ensure you ride pain-free. Coach spoke to McCullough for advice on the most common issues that can crop up.

What are the most common things people get wrong when setting up their bike?

It would have to be the height of the saddle. This is largely down to the fact that it is the most obvious, user-adjustable variable.

Some people have the saddle too low because of a desire to be able to reach the ground with your feet while still on the saddle. People often do this to feel more safe on the bike or to make reaching the handlebars easier.

When the saddle is too high the rider will tend to move around excessively to reach the pedals at the bottom position and find that their arms and legs stretch too much.

What are the first steps someone should take to set up their bike correctly?

The first step is bike-sizing – if you are buying from a shop they should certainly be able to ensure that the frame you purchase is in the right ballpark for your height and intended use.

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A good start point for saddle height is to see if you can sit on the saddle and reach the pedal with your heel at the bottom of the pedal stroke. If there is still a notable bend in your knee, raise the saddle until you leg is almost straight. If your heel does not reach the pedal then you need to lower the saddle slightly. This way, when you place the middle or front of the foot on the pedal when cycling, you should have a comfortable and efficient knee bend. The same rule can be used if you are using cycling shoes with cleats.

However, this is a very basic way of adjusting only one of the contact points – you may find having done this that the handlebars or your control of the bike has changed. If you are still experiencing problems, it is worth having a session with a qualified bike fitter.

What issues can develop from setting your bike up wrong?

The most common complaints we deal with are pain at the front or sides of the knee, pain in the lower back and neck, and pain or even tingling and numbness in the hands.

Most issues from incorrect set-up will come about gradually as the body struggles to adapt to the position the more you ride. Problems can be exacerbated by sudden increases in ride duration or frequency, but most of the time pain occurs because of a continuing position or load that the body is not coping with.

All these problems can be addressed with a correct bike set-up and by monitoring activity levels. If the problems have persisted for some time, it is often helpful to have a period of time off the bike and to follow a rehabilitation program to strengthen areas that have become weak or stretch tight areas.

How regularly does someone have to cycle for an incorrect set-up to cause problems?

Unfortunately a bad bike set-up can affect anyone who rides a bike. I do fitting sessions for everyone from commuters cycling short distances all the way up to avid cyclists covering eye-watering distances each week.

While the greater intensity of training, mileage and time spent on the bike for a competitive cyclist will often present problems more quickly, we often see the same issues with more casual cyclists.

When you look at yourself on the bike, are there any clear signs that you’re riding in the wrong position to look out for?

I normally ask riders to think about their contact points on the bike first – the saddle, the pedals, the handlebars – and whether they feel their weight is distributed evenly or if they feel excess pressure at any one point. This can be a useful starting point. I then try to get an idea of what that rider feels like when they are cycling. Do they feel in control of their bike? Do they feel hunched over or stretched out? What is the first area that starts to feel tired or sore?

Riding a bike should be enjoyable and comfortable, and if this is not how the rider describes their experience of riding their bike then we know we need to make some changes – with the obvious proviso that riding hard is always going to hurt a bit, but hopefully just in the muscles!

Does the fitting service work with all types of bikes?

Yes, we do fitting sessions on commuter hybrid bike, road bikes, off-road bikes and even the occasional mountain bike. Each bike and style of riding presents its own demands and challenges, and thus requires a unique solution.

On top of that, each cyclist differs greatly from the next one in strength, flexibility and goals. As such, the process is individual rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Pure Sports Medicine’s bike fitting service (opens in new tab) is currently available at its Canary Wharf, Chancery Lane (opens in new tab), Raynes Park and Threadneedle Street clinics, with more sites to follow in 2018. A bike fitting session with a physiotherapist and a chiropractor starts at £150.

Nick Harris-Fry
Nick Harris-Fry

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.