Cycling is a great exercise. It is an amazing cardiovascular workout that also builds lower body strength. Many people enjoy cycling, which means they are more likely to stick with it as an exercise routine.
Many people with knee pain or injuries end up cycling because of its low-impact nature. Runners, for instance, who can no longer take the pounding on the joints, often go into cycling as an alternative.
But cycling isn’t perfect for joints. While it protects the knees, this activity can also trigger tightness and pain across the hips. Some simple stretches and strengthening exercises can fix this problem to get you or your client back on the bike.
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Cycling pumps up the heart rate and provides an excellent cardiovascular workout. You’ll also enjoy improved leg strength from regular cycling. Biking can be fun too, which means you may stick with it longer. Indoor classes are upbeat and full of camaraderie, while outdoor cycling provides the opportunity for adventure and a change of scenery.
Another reason many people turn to cycling is that it is generally easy on joints such as the knee. As compared to high-impact activities, like running, cycling is gentle. You are not pounding your joints on the ground, causing pain and injury.
On the other hand, when cycling you are using your hips a lot. Can this cause repetitive motion injuries? Can it be damaging to the hips over time? Will it exacerbate existing hip pain? These are important questions to ask before you dive into cycling.
Which is better? Indoor or outdoor cycling? The best is the type of cycling you will do regularly, but this ISSA post has some important fitness and safety factors for you to consider.
A lot of athletes or active people turn to cycling as they get older for this very reason. Compared to many other activities, cycling is easy on knees, ankles, and hips. If you can only do low-impact activities because of joint issues, cycling is an option.
In addition to being low-impact, cycling can also actively benefit the joints. This mostly impacts the knees, though. The motion you go through with each pedal stroke strengthens muscles that support the knees. It also promotes the production of lubrication in the knees, which can reduce pain.
No type of exercise is perfect for everyone. There are always some downsides and potential ways to get hurt or experience pain. Cycling is easy on your knees, but you may pay for it in your hips. Issues with the hips can also cause pain elsewhere.
You may experience a few hip problems with cycling:
One problem is the same issue many of us have from spending too many hours a day sitting: tight hip flexors. Because the motion of cycling doesn’t allow the hip to fully open and extend, those muscles tighten. The more you cycle, the tighter they get. This feels uncomfortable and also triggers pain in the glutes.
Then there is the piriformis muscle. This helps the leg move outward, and is another muscle that doesn’t get worked or stretched when cycling. Tightness here can cause significant pain and may even trigger sciatica.
Hip bursitis occurs when the bursa in the hip joint becomes inflamed. Hip pain that gets worse as you cycle may be bursitis.
If you cycle several times a week or for many miles at a time, you could end up with some overuse injuries. The ongoing, repetitive movement of the hip joint causes wear and tear, and ultimately some damage and pain.
If riding is causing you hip pain, don’t give up hope. Exercises and stretches can provide relief. You may need to strengthen specific muscles or do stretches that elongate tight muscles. Try these so you can keep riding.
Tight hips are likely the root of most hip issues with cycling. In fact, almost everyone can benefit from stretching out the hips more often. This is thanks to our sedentary lifestyle. Even fit people often sit for hours a day, and this tightens up the muscles of the hips. Try these stretches:
Lying on your back, bend the knees and bring the bottoms of your feet together. Let your knees fall out to the side until you feel the stretch.
In a lunge position, gently place the knee of your rear leg down on the floor. Lean forward, keeping the front knee bent at a 90-degree angle, and feel a stretch in the front of the hip.
Lying on a bed, couch, or table, let one leg hang off the edge. The weight of it hanging down will stretch out the hip.
Use a foam roller on the front of the hip to stretch out and open up that muscle.
The hip flexors are a source of pain and tightness for all kinds of athletes and fitness enthusiasts. This post gives you some ideas for corrective exercises to relieve these painful joints.
This is a small muscle deep behind the gluteus maximus. During cycling, you underuse the piriformis muscle and it can tighten and cause serious pain. To counteract this, do targeted stretching and strength training with this move:
On your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, cross the right leg over the left.
Your right ankle should be just over the left knee.
Lift your left foot off the ground, and keeping it bent, pull the left knee toward your chest.
Repeat on the other side.
Also add in some regular strengthening moves for the piriformis and glutes:
Glute bridges. On your back on the floor, feet flat and knees bent, thrust your hips up and squeeze the glutes. Hold for a few seconds, release, and repeat.
Clamshells. On your side, stack the legs one on top of the other with bent knees. Keeping the feet together, lift the top knee up and squeeze. Repeat on the other side.
Donkey kicks. On all fours, lift one leg up, keeping the knee bent. Squeeze and hold the glutes and repeat with the other leg. To better target the piriformis, do the same move but rotate the leg outwards as you lift and squeeze.
Banded hip abduction. Sitting on a bench, put a resistance band around your legs just below the knees. With legs about shoulder-width apart, move the knees out and squeeze.
Lateral steps. With the resistance band around your legs again, step to the side. You can include a squat in this one, but it is the outward stepping movement that targets the piriformis.
Targeted exercises and stretches will help you cycle with less or no pain but only if you have the right bike fit. As with any sport or activity, poor movement form can lead to injury and pain. If your bike fit causes problematic hip motion, pain will result.
So, what’s the solution? Get a good bike fit. You can get a bike professionally fit to your body, and it’s well worth doing it. A cycling professional can help, but a better idea is to work with a physical therapist. They can watch your pedal stroke as you ride and adjust things to ensure it is conducive to correct hip motion.
If you aren’t moving optimally when cycling, a new fit can make all the difference. A study of cyclists with hip pathologies found that a comprehensive fit eliminated or reduced pain and improved performance (1).
Finally, if you love cycling but have serious hip pain, make sure you are getting enough rest. No exercise should be done all the time or every day. Mix up the routine with some other types of cardio and at least two days of strength training. This combined with some targeted exercise and stretches should relieve hip pain and keep you on the bike.
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1. Wadsworth, D.J.S. and Weinrauch, P. (2019, June). The Role of a Bike Fit in Cyclists with Hip Pain. A Clinical Commentary. Int. J. Sports Phys. Ther. 14(3), 468-86. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6818133/
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