Bike Fitting Basics For Common Problems

20 September, 2017

Whether you are riding to the corner store or across the country, you should be comfortable on your bike. There are common issues I often hear other cyclists, including myself, suffering from like neck, back, or knee pain, saddle sores, or hand or foot numbness. Knowing these issues rise from improper bike fit, I met up with my bike shop for a bike fitting session to discuss these issues along with their causes. I was told that if I am experiencing any of these afflictions "Your bicycle probably doesn't fit you right." From there I spiraled down into a rabbit hole of how to properly adjust a bike to ride comfortably. 
While a good bike fit can help prevent cycling afflictions, it also helps improves pedaling efficiency and aerodynamics that actually make you faster. I thought since I was getting all this knowledge that I might share these insights to help you know basic bike-fitting principles to help you get performance and comfort right on your bike with just a few adjustments.
Adjusting the Bike Saddle
Your bike seat should be level to support your full body weight and allow you to move around on the seat when necessary. Too much upward tilt can result in pressure points. Too much downward tilt can make you slide forward while riding and put extra pressure on your arms, hands and knees, which can lead to injury.
To adjust the seat height, wear your biking shoes and riding shorts and place your heels on the pedals. As you pedal backward, your knees should fully extend in the down position. If your hips rock side to side the seat is too high. Now when you move your foot into the proper pedaling position, with the balls of your feet over the pedal, you'll have a slight bend in your knees.
You can also adjust the seat forward and backward (fore and aft position). With your feet on the pedals so the crank arms are parallel with the ground, the proper position will put your forward knee directly over the pedal axle. Dropping a plumb line from the patellar tendon makes this adjustment a bit easier to see.
Handlebar Adjustment
If the handlebars are too high, too low, too close, or too far away, you may have neck, shoulder, back, and hand pain. A proper reach allows you to comfortably use all the positions on the handlebars and to comfortably bend your elbows while riding. There are other, more advanced adjustments you can make, such as changing the handlebar width or height.

Bicycle Adjustments for Common Pain Problems
Because your body is asymmetric (one leg or arm may be slightly longer or shorter than the other) an ideal bike fit is often a matter of trial and error. The slightest imbalance can lead to pain. Here are some common complaints and possible solutions.
Knee Pain
Knee pain is usually associated with a seat position that is too high or low or far forward or back. Improper bike shoe or cleat position can also cause knee pain.
A seat that is too high will cause pain in the back of the knee.
A seat that is too high will also cause your hips to rock side to side, which may cause discomfort.
A seat that is too low or too far forward may cause pain in the front of the knee.
Improper foot position on the pedal (or improper cleat alignment) can cause pain on the inside or outside of your knees.
Individual anatomy may also result in knee pain. Cyclists with slight differences in leg length may have knee pain because the seat height is only adjusted for one side. Shoe inserts or orthotics can help correct this problem. Another cause of knee pain is using too high a gear. Try to use a gear that allows you to pedal quickly, from 70 to 100 strokes per minute.
Neck Pain
Neck pain is another common cycling complaint and is usually the result of riding a bike that is too long or having handlebars that are too low. Tight hamstring and hip flexor muscles can also cause neck pain by forcing your spine to round or arch, and your neck to hyperextend.
Foot Pain or Foot Numbness
Foot pain or numbness is often the result of wearing soft-soled shoes. Special shoes designed for cycling have stiff soles that distribute pressure evenly over the pedal. This also helps you pedal more efficiently. Foot pain can also be caused by using too high a gear, which results in more pressure where the foot meets the pedal.
Hand Pain or Hand Numbness
Hand pain or numbness can be prevented by wearing padded cycling gloves that provide cushioning. You should ride with your elbows slightly bent, not straight or locked. Bent elbows will act as shock absorbers and help absorb the bumps in the road. Changing hand positions on the handlebars can also reduce pressure and pain.
Saddle Sores
Finding a bike seat that fits you well is imperative. There are dozens of bike saddles designed for every rider and riding style. Saddles come in a variety of materials from gel to leather. There are women-specific saddles that are shorter and wider to accommodate a woman's wider pelvis. Others have a center cutout to relieve pressure on soft tissues. You should try several to find one that fits you well.
Your cycling clothing can also cause saddle sores. Cyclists typically wear shorts made without seams — and no underwear — to eliminate sources of chafing and pressure points. Cycling shorts also have padded liners that provide more comfort than street clothes. Be sure to always remove shorts, clean and dry yourself right away after a ride to prevent bacteria buildup and infection.
Read more about common Female Saddle Issues here.
I can properly say that I've experienced most of these issues (minus saddle sore) before getting my bike fitted. I'm a tiny woman so finding a bike my size was half the challenge before my bike shop took my comfort into their hands. I'm extremely grateful for this experience and highly recommend that if you're having these issues, please call or visit a bike shop that does a bike fit. Price ranges run between $150-$300 and take less than 2hrs to asses. It's an investment but if you're spending a lot of time on your bike, your comfort matters as it may help prevent injury down the line.
Image Courtesy @AdaptiveHP

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