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Bent Tips for Pain-Free Riding
By Jose A. Hernandez

Recumbent cycling was supposed to mean “never having to say you're sore”. And this form of biking was supposed to be "faster" and "safer". Right? But soon after you got your first set of bent wheels, you found that your knees were achy, your calves and hamstrings were sore you and your butt felt as if it had been tenderized with a sledgehammer. Worse, one lovely afternoon found you seriously considering a skin graft after your front tire blew up. To add insult to injury, your ego was instantly shattered when an ostensibly weak 90-year-old guy zoomed past you in a single speed beach bike.

So is it time to throw in the towel and give up on recumbency? No way ! It's time to pick up a few bent tips and tricks. This month, we'd like to share a few tips that are sure to help a few of the most common complaints from cyclists and bent riders in particular

No pain no gain? Maybe so… but take it easy at first!!!

Many of us pick up a bent after many years of physical inactivity. As we rediscover the pleasure of biking we often forget that our muscles are not used to the task that you suddenly expect them to perform. So, if you want to get bent after years of inactivity, the first thing you want to do is get a physical. Ask your physician if it is OK to start biking. Chances are your physician will beg you to start biking but see a doctor and ask him anyway. Once you have your physician's blessing, it is important that you TAKE IT EASY for the first six to eight weeks. Taking it easy for the first few weeks of recumbent cycling is a good idea even if you are a conditioned cyclist. Just go for nice slow rides and enjoy the scenery. Forget speed. Forget RPMs. Forget distance. Forget performance. Just do what feels comfortable.

The first two months are needed to slowly adjust to the new demands on your body. Do not use the big gears. Pedaling should feel easy - almost as if you were pedaling downhill. Your goal is to enjoy the sights, drink plenty of water and stop and smell the roses! Remember to gently stretch your legs after each ride, before your muscles cool down. As your physical condition improves, you might feel quite strong, and have the urge to push a harder. Resist this urge and you will prevent unnecessary pain. After a couple of months of easy spinning, you will probably be ready to increase your cycling intensity. A rule of thumb is to avoid increasing the speed or distance by more than 10% per week. Say that after two months of easy riding you determined that you are doing 40 miles per week. To increase your mileage without getting hurt, you'll want to avoid riding more than 44 miles (40 miles plus 10%) the following week. The same principle can be applied to speed. If you determine that your average speed is 13 miles per hour after a couple of months of easy riding, your next goal should be 14 MPH (13 MPH plus 10%). A 10% increase in speed is SIGNIFICANT and it will probably take a few weeks to achieve. If performance and speed are your goals, the first easy weeks will help you get there without getting hurt. Pain usually means you've done too much, too soon. It means you should slow it down or rest. Minor soreness that goes away in a day or two is probably OK but do not ignore a pain that refuses to go away.

My knees are achy!

First, let me get the standard advice out of the way. Consult a physician or health care professional about your aching knees. Chances are your knees are OK but get a professional opinion anyway. I think that most of the time we experience knee pain, the problem is related to two common errors:

  1. You may be pushing a gear that is to high for your current physical condition. The solution: gear down and learn to spin at a high RPM. Stay away from the big gears until you have logged at least 1000 miles on your bike. Select a middle gear and get used to spinning fast. Most experienced cyclists agree that the optimal cadence (RPM) is somewhere between 80 and 110. You'll need to experiment and find the cadence that is optimal for you. Remember a low cadence and a high gear may hurt your knees! Maintaining a high cadence will feel strange or unnatural at first but in a short time, spinning becomes a habit and you'll do it without thinking about it.
  2. The leg extension or bent angle of your knees may NOT optimal for you. The seat is either too far back or too close resulting in your legs being either over extended or under extended. The 95% extension rule is fine for conventional bikes but may not be OK for recumbent cycling. A lesser leg extension (75% - 90%) is often better. Over extending your legs may result in pain in front of your knees. Under extending your legs may result in pain behind the knee. As a bonus, the optimal leg extension will help you spin by giving you more control. To find your optimal you're going to have to experiment. Here's a place to start your experiment. Remember, this is just a start. You'll likely need to make minor adjustments. Sit with your back against the seat. Apply the brakes and place the heel of your foot on one of the pedals. Rotate the pedal to its most extended position. Then move the seat as needed until the leg is straight. Secure the seat in this position and go for a short ride to see how it feels. This technique should result in a pretty good knee angle (85%) and assumes you place the ball of your feet on the pedals as you spin.

My calves are sore!

How your foot rests on the pedals affects how hard you work your calves as you spin. The closer the center of the pedals is to your toes, the more you'll invoke the calves muscles. The opposite is also true. If your calves hurt, you should pay attention to how you place your feet on the pedals. The use of clipless pedals is helpful because once you find the optimal position, the clipless pedals make sure this position is maintained. Gently stretching and massaging your calves right after a ride will likely help reduce the soreness. And, of course, you can always try Gene Villaret's “Heretical Pedaling Technique”, a not so new but controversial spinning trick. Never heard of this technique? Oh well… I guess you'll just have to come back  to read all about this and other neat tips and tricks.


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