We perform a lot of bike fits, and we have the opportunity to see a lot of cyclists at events and camps. Bike fit is more than a collection of angles and distances, and before we start measuring or moving anything it’s important to talk with the athlete and examine the bike they brought in. Here are three common problems we’re looking for, and that you should consider for yourself.
Good Pain vs. Bad Pain
Pushing through the pain is an attitude cyclists are all-too-familiar with. Toughness is at the root of cycling culture, and you don’t have to look hard to find images of cyclists gritting it out in incredibly adverse conditions. Generally, that toughness is a good thing. It’s what pushes athletes to train hard and get the most out of their potential.
When you are physically at your limit, it’s normal to experience physical pain and the urge to quit (or at least slow down). However, not all pain experienced on the bike is good or normal, and it’s important to know how to differentiate between good pain and bad pain. A good rule of thumb is that you generally suffer with good pain, while you suffer from bad pain.
Further defined, good pain generally has a consistent sensation across an entire muscle group or groups of muscles; primarily the main movers, like your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves. While suffering with good pain, if I asked you where it hurt, you would tell me everywhere. You can almost always stop good pain by going easier.
Bad pain is acute; it can be a stabbing pain in a joint, at a direct point in a muscle, or at a point of contact to the bike. When suffering from bad pain, if I asked you where it hurt, you could likely put a finger on it. You usually can’t stop bad pain by going easier. You usually have to get off the bike, stretch, rest, ice, or take medication.
If you keep riding with good pain, prescribed appropriately and balanced with rest, you’ll get faster. If you keep riding with bad pain, a few things might happen. First, the quality of your training sessions will diminish. Perceived effort at a given intensity will increase. If you go harder and exacerbate bad pain, you will likely cut your workout short.
Next, the riding frequency will suffer. If every pedal stroke hurts, you’ll reach a point where you choose not get on your bike. It’s a major red flag when you don’t want to ride because it’s going to hurt.
Lastly, bad pain won’t go away with determination and a tough guy (girl) attitude. It will likely get worse, or it’ll start to cause a cascade of other issues. When you compensate for pain in one area, you’ll start to overuse a different muscle or movement pattern, and then that will become a problem area.
Style over function
The next thing we see too much of is being more concerned about an image of what you should look like on a bike than what is actually right for you. I get it, looking the part is a part of the sport of cycling. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look like your favorite pro. But buy the team kit; don’t use their bike setups as inspiration for your own.
While some people choose bikes that are ideal for them, a lot of people are still making the major mistake of picking parts, accessories, and even fit based on a preconceived notion of what they want to look like. I see slammed stems on bikes with riders who have neck pain because they can’t reach the bars, and sore shoulders on riders whose bars are too wide because a friend said it would be better for their sprint. I see super cool custom saddles that color match the whole bike, and a rider who complains about their sex life. [Side note: pick a saddle that fits your anatomy, and your significant other will thank you.]
Worn-out and damaged gear
A lot of you out there are riding gear that should have been updated a long time ago. Saddles break in, and then they break down. Personally, I’ve found there is a sweet spot for my favorite saddle model that starts a few months in and lasts 3-4 years. It starts a tad stiff, then we have a few good years together, but eventually it needs to be replaced.
As often as I see worn out saddles, I see straight-up damaged ones. I’ve done fits on people whose saddles have been bent from a crash a year earlier. Trust me, your pelvis does not like sitting with one side 5 mm lower than the other. My general advice would be to keep an eye on your equipment and take care of it. Periodically check saddles, cleats, shoe insoles and outsoles, handlebars, bar tape and even hoods. Things that aren’t supposed to move sometimes do, and if it happens slowly you may not notice. When something doesn’t feel or look like it should, examine it, take it to a bike shop, and get it fixed or replaced.
Overall, if you have a poorly calibrated pain scale, let’s fix that first. Figure out what should hurt, and what shouldn’t hurt. If it turns out that you have been dealing with bad pain, then get a professional bike fit. If you need some help with the good pain side of things, go do some PowerIntervals or schedule a free consultation with a coach! Then, when you do go in for a bike fit, have a meaningful conversation with a professional fitter and trust that he or she is going to fit you based on your riding goals, not an image of what you want to look like. And before and after your bike fit, keep an eye on your equipment.
By Reid Beloni
CTS Senior Coach
Retül Level 1 Fit Technician