Knee savers for your bent lifestyle
By Jose A. Hernandez
Few things can bring your bent pedaling joy to a screaming halt as effectively as an injured knee. A healthy knee is a terrible thing to waste. Yet, many of us just take this wondrous hinge joint for granted. Unquestionably, cycling is a lot gentler on your knees than other sports but if you’re not careful you can still injure your knees in more ways than one. If you’re new to our bent world, the tips that follow this brief intro may help you avoid unnecessary pain and injury. If you’ve been pedaling for a while, you’re probably already familiar with these tips but who knows, there may be something here for you too. There’s no way I can go over every possible knee saving tip. So why not share your own knee saving tips in our message board and feel free to correct me if you think I happen to be wrong about any of this (Heck, it wouldn’t be the first time)
The Mother of All Tips
This is the one tip that gives meaning to all other tips. Ignore this and you’ll be acting on blind faith (not a good thing in my book). One of the very first things I think you should do is YOUR HOMEWORK. Take a couple of hours to go over the basic anatomy and physiology of the knee. Learn how the knee bones and its surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments all work together to stabilize the knee while it does its job with as little wear and tear as possible. Figure out silly things like why the knee joint can’t do its job right without its kneecap or with a misaligned or dislocated kneecap. Learn about the shock absorbing qualities of cartilage. Don’t be surprised to learn that proper knee function is often dependent on other seemingly unrelated, sometimes “distant” parts of our anatomy. If you’re reading this, you already have the means to get all of this information. Just do a simple web search under knee anatomy and physiology, sit back, relax and read.
Pain is YOUR Friend
Acknowledge pain and embrace pain. But not in the “no pain, no gain” sort of way we sometimes hear about. Understand that pain is one of the ways your body communicates with you and lets you know that something is not up to spec.
Do not ignore pain. Try to understand and analyze its cause. Sometimes the cause of pain is obvious. Sometimes the cause is elusive. But try to understand it anyway. Ask yourself if you’re doing something different. Have you suddenly increased the duration or intensity of your ride? Does the pain go away when you stop pedaling or does it get better? A little pain that lasts a day or two is probably OK and is something most of us experience from time to time. But when the pain is severe and lasts more than a couple of days, it is time to employ the help of a health professional. This is especially true if the pain you’re experiencing is accompanied by inflammation as it could indicate a serious injury like a stretched out ligament, a torn tendon or even a bone fracture.
Patience is a Virtue
Please don’t be in a hurry to get in shape. Your decision to get in shape is a noble one but you just can’t expect to undo years of inactivity in a few days. It takes time to condition your muscles. It takes even MORE TIME to strengthen your tendons and ligaments. Pushing too hard too soon is likely going to result in a sore knee joint at best OR a serious injury at worse. In fact, a number of studies support the theory that muscles get stronger FASTER than your tendons and ligaments. Other studies show that folks who take the time to condition their knees through a slow but progressive strengthening routine, enjoy significantly less injuries. A two to three month period of easy pedaling can go a long way towards preventing a knee injury in your cycling future. A rule of thumb is to avoid increasing the speed or distance by more than 10% per week.
Be a spinner not a masher
Pushing a big gear, especially if you’ve been off the bike for a while, puts a lot of stress on your knees and can result in pain or a more serious injury. So, stay away from the big chainring. Choose a relatively low gear (say 50-60 gear inches) and learn to spin a little faster. Experienced cyclists feel that the ideal RPM is somewhere between 80 and 100. Whatever the ideal is, spinning in this range is quite likely a good thing. When you spin your pedals it should almost feel like you’re going downhill. Forget pushing the big chainring till you have at least 1000 miles of fast spinning under your belt. Inexperienced cyclists often feel that they get a better workout by spinning a “hard” gear. Remember that a higher gear does work your lower leg muscles a bit “better” (actually differently) but spinning can enhance your aerobic capacity, keep your legs feeling fresher and prevent unnecessary wear and tear on 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.
Check your leg extension
The leg extension or bent angle of your knees may NOT be optimal for you. The seat is either too far back or too close resulting in your legs being 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 leg extension you’re going to have to experiment. Here’s a place to start. 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.
Alignment, Alignment, Alignment
A door hinge can’t do its job if the door frame is misaligned. Your knees are “slightly” more complex than that but the same principle applies. A misaligned knee joint is just trouble waiting to happen. Start by consciously keeping your knees “aligned” with your feet as you pedal.
If you use a foot retention system like clipless pedals, make sure that they don’t force your feet in an angle that is not quite “normal” for you. Shoe cleat alignment may well be a factor especially if your pedals have little or no float. A Rotational Adjustment Device (R.A.D.), which is part of the Fit Kit System that is available in many bike shops, may be of use to help determine the optimal cleat angle. Not every bike shop is qualified to use this device and not every shop is willing to spend the time necessary to find the ideal positioning of your cleats but it may be of help to look into this.
If the front of your feet have a slight tilt, your pedals may force your feet into an abnormally flat position. This can result in too much side-to-side motion of your knees as you pedal and, over time, increase wear and tear or the chance for injury. There is a product called “LeWedge” which promises to correct this problem. It consists of plastic shims, which are placed under your cleat to tilt your foot to its natural position. Your local bike shop may know this product as “Big Meat”. This very simple device can also be used to correct leg length discrepancies.
Oh yeah. That too!!! Your knees will THANK YOU!
And the Jury is still out on knee braces and nutritional supplements:
Whether you think a knee brace is helpful or not, you are probably right. The makers of knee braces don’t hesitate to claim how well their products work and some people actually think they work. The trouble is that there are also a whole bunch of folks out there who really think they don’t work! I haven’t seen any convincing studies one-way or the other and so it seems that the evidence is still in the “anecdotal” stage.
Similarly, some studies suggest that glucosamine sulfate products may actually help in the rebuilding of cartilage while other studies negate the claimed benefits.
So there you have it for now. I do hope you find some of these knee saving tips helpful but I beg you not to accept ANY of this on blind faith. Please do your own research and come up with your own conclusions. If any of this made you read a bit more on the subject, this article then met its goal.