Tour de France... or de Portland: Biking and You

Author: Justine Cosman, PT, DPT : Doctor of Physical Therapy, Business Owner, Associate Professor, and Blog Contributor. Explores common client questions and helps find solutions for every day functional health concerns, and then some. Loves empowering others, seeking adventure, and learning every day. Learn more about Justine on Google+.

With the Tour de France occurring, it is hard to not get a little bit excited about biking this month.  Biking is a wonderful form of exercise - helping not only to build strong lower extremities, but also maintain healthy joints. With a little speed it aides us in building stronger a cardiovascular system (i.e. better ability to pump blood with your heart). With these benefits in mind, the lovely summer weather, and the Tour de France all helping to provide motivation, it spurs more of us to dust off our bikes to become more active (or at least this was the case for myself). If this sounds like you, then please take some time to read these recommendations or simply read to learn more about some of the preventable injuries associated with bike riding.

1. Make sure your bike is properly fitted to you.

Getting fit with a proper size bike is just as important as getting a properly fitting shoe. If the bike is too long or tall, or the pedals, seat height or handle bar height are not placed appropriately, this significantly changes the stresses placed throughout your entire body. One small adjustment to your bike can be the quick answer to getting rid of some recent pain experienced with biking.

2. Progress biking distances and speeds according to your fitness level.

We have all heard of the "weekend warrior" i.e. the person who has a desk job during the week with little activity and then takes it to the max on the weekends. This is NOT recommended - be it with a bike or any other activity. Your body will be adjusting to a new position and new activation of different muscles - it cannot do this the instant you get on a bike. Work into riding a bike gradually by beginning with speeds of 10 mph or below and distances that are below 5 miles on relatively flat terrain. Then choose a variable to increase each week: either the speed, distance or terrain. For instance, if I began riding at 8 mph for 3 miles on relatively flat terrain and felt as though this was no longer a challenge, I could progress by riding the same speed and same terrain for 5 miles. Now note, as you are changing a variable, the other variables may need to reduce/become easier to accommodate your progression to start - this is NORMAL. If you have questions regarding your particular needs, contact us or your local physical therapist to help you determine the particular dosing.

3. Listen to your body.

Often times we push aside different aches and pains as "normal" and try to move forward with activities such as biking regardless of what our bodies are trying to tell us. If you feel muscle fatigue, this should go away over the next 1-3 days with rest and proper stretching. If you feel pain (i.e. aching, throbbing, pulsing, sharp/stabbing discomfort) and it does not reduce with 2-3 rides or 1-2 weeks, then you make have a musculoskeletal injury that can be properly diagnosed and treated by your physical therapist.

  • Common diagnoses include:

    • Cervicalgia: neck pain, typically where it meets the upper back

    • Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome i.e. knee pain associated with knee flexion/bending

    • Hip Flexor "Strain": pain with drawing the hip upwards towards the body

    • Achilles Tendonitis: pain in the back of the ankle/heal area

4. Stretch to properly strengthen and prevent injury. 

As we build muscle with more activity it is important to stretch this muscle to help stimulate proper growth and elasticity of the tissue. Basically, with strengthening, you create little micro-tears in the muscular tissue, which then signals for a cascade of events to occur in your body to bring in the proper components for muscle cell growth and repair. Stretching helps this process by helping with the repair of the sites that have these micro-tears. If you do not reinforce stretching, often muscles become tight, as fibers are more "jumbled," and are more prone to muscle tear injuries. Light dynamic stretching is good to warm your muscles up for a bike ride and long duration stretching (at least 20-30 seconds) is better after the bike ride after the muscles have been worked.

5. Safety is key. 

The best treatment of all is preventative treatment. This may seem like common sense, but I still see several people out on the River Front not following these simple safety instructions.

  • Wear a helmet. Just like you wouldn't drive a car without a seat belt, you shouldn't ride a bike without a helmet. This item is key to reducing the likelihood of head trauma if you were to fall or experience a collision.

  • Be courteous. This may require you slowing down and not beating your personal best to a destination. It is extremely important for you to be aware of your surroundings, respect stop signs, signal to others (with hands, bells or voice), and give room to other commuters.

  • Make yourself seen from the front and back. Make sure you are visible to cars, other bike riders and pedestrians. This can be as simple as wearing bright clothing or using reflective gear. If riding at dusk or during the night, invest in some bright front and rear lights - getting fun, blinking options may seem obnoxious, but it helps to make you stand out to other commuters.

  • and the side. Furthermore, if you would like to make sure all sides are covered - get wheel lights or reflectors. Interestingly enough, most bike/vehicle collisions happen from the side as cars are pulling out to turn.

Long story short, don't go out and randomly get a Schwinn bike off craigslist that was fitted for a different person and ride it without a helmet because you want to join in on what is popular - this may set you up for injury. Contact your physical therapist if you are having questionable symptoms OR contact a reputable bike specialist in your area if you are symptom-free and are interested in being properly fitted and safe so that you can enjoy your time on the road. Happy riding!