How to Cope with Post-ride Pain

Cyclist on his bike with a knee injury.

healThe five most common cycling complains, what causes them and how to keep them cornered…

Knee Pain

On average, a cyclist will pedal 4,000 strokes an hour. Over the course of a year, if you put in 250 hours of saddle time, that works out to a million strokes per knee. To ease the stress on your joints, first make sure your bike is a good fit. The best way to do this is by taking it to a bike fitter for a one-on-one session. It’ll set you back £150-2200, but is the best way to dispel or ward off most of the aches and pains you’ll ever experience on a bike.

If your budget won’t stretch to this, however, there are still things you can do for yourself, such as ensuring your saddle is at the correct height. To do this without any specialist equipment, you can use the method dreamt up by three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond.

First, remove your shoes, place a book between your legs-spine-side up-and line yourself up against a wall. With a pencil, mark on the wall where the top of the book’s spine comes to. Measure the distance from the floor to the mark. This is your inseam – multiply this figure by 0.883 to find your correct saddle height, which should be measured from the middle of the bottom bracket to the middle of the top of the saddle.

Adjusting your cleat float can also help to solve achey knee issues. Float is simply how much your cleats allow your feet to rotate while remaining clipped in. Many pros favor zero float because it makes for more power-efficient pedalling, but this doesn’t allow your knee to track in its natural line, which can cause problems for many riders.

Float is measured in degrees, designating how far you have to rotate your foot before the cleat disengages from the pedal. The amount of float depends on the design of the cleat, with the most common Shimano and Look road pedal systems offering cleats in different color-coded varieties, ranging from zero float (Shimano blue cleats/Look black cleats) up to 9° (Look red cleats). If that’s still not enough float for you, try the Speedplay system, which is adjustable to allow up to 15° of float.

Don’t forget to do the basics either if you want to prevent long-term knee problems. Always warm up properly before a ride, particularly when cycling in lower temperatures, by riding at an easy pace in a low gear on the flat for around 15 minutes to prepare tendons and joints for the onslaught to come. And avoid using big gears on climbs if your knees are acting up. Instead, drop to a lower gear, stay in your seat and increase your cadence.

Headaches

If you even experience a dull throb, or sharp shooting pains in your cranium shortly after getting out of the saddle, then the most likely explanation is dehydration, which can then manifest itself in a number of unpleasant ways ranging from dizziness to constipation. Early warning signs include a dry mouth, and unexpected lethargy or tiredness. If you have become dehydrated, you need to restore your body’s water balance as soon as possible but that doesn’t just mean knocking back a lot of water. The perspiration process will have robbed your body of vital vitamins and minerals so you will need to rehydrate with an electrolyte-rich drink. If you don’t you may end in a state called hyponatremia, or water intoxication, which can be a cause of headaches in itself, as well as muscle cramps, stomach upset, and in extreme cases, death. Aim to drink one to two bottles of water an hour-so that’s between 475-825ml – depending on your effort and the conditions making sure that one of the two bottles contains electrolytes. Adding an effervescent tab to your bidon, such as High 5 Zero is an easy way to make sure you get the right mix.

If dehydration isn’t causing your headaches, your riding position could be to blame. A bike fit will again resolve this, otherwise, aim to spend less time in the drops and more time sitting upright. Finally, make sure you wear a good pair of photochromic eye protectors. Eye-strain is another potential cause of headaches on the bike, which is usually caused by riding in bright sunshine. As for pain relief, over-the-counter painkillers will help but if symptoms persist obviously see your doctor.

Cramps

Many riders suffer leg cramps during or after a session. What causes them is still something of a mystery, but experts suggest it may be linked to dehydration. Or more specifically, a lack of electrolytes, which are essential to maintaining your fluid balance. Remembering to employ the drinking strategy suggested previously will help, but don’t underestimate the importance of your warm-down. Even if your ride is only an hour long, make sure you ride slow and easy for 10 minutes at the end of it. It’ll allow your heart rate to return to its resting state as well as reduce the build-up of lactic acid. As with your warm up, keep the gears low and spin gently on the fiats.

Another possible contributing cause to leg cramps could be your bike set-up and cleat position. For example, if your saddle height is too low, blood flow to the quads can become restricted. A bike fit would again resolve this. Finally, an old or underlying injury may be the culprit. Ankle injuries, for example, can limit the range of movement at the joint putting excessive pressure on parts of the calf. If you suspect this might be the cause, consult your doctor or see a physiotherapist to get properly assessed.

Muscle Soreness

A degree of muscle soreness after a ride is unavoidable, a simple consequence of over-exertion known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). It is generally caused by either small tears and other tissue damage or a build-up of lactic acid. But if it gets to the point where it begins to stifie your fun, it needs addressing. One simple solution is don’t overdo it. Build up your fitness (and therefore how much strain you’re putting muscles under) slowly. It doesn’t help that as we get older, our muscles lose their elasticity.

To combat soreness, never neglect your warm up. This increases the flow of oxygen through the body and helps prepare the muscles. Of equal importance is the warm down, which should also include basic stretches. Don’t forget to shake it out, and take a hot bath afterwards. Salt baths can help some people, while some swear by ice baths, although there’s little scientific evidence to support the idea that you need to put yourself through that particular misery. Otherwise invest in a good foam roller such as The Pro Fitness 3-in-1 foam roller, to massage away muscle pain.

Nausea

Many cyclists experience some stomach discomfort after a ride. This is usually caused by your gut’s in ability to properly digest any food consumed in the saddle. When you ride, blood is diverted from your intestines to your legs, making it harder for your digestive system to break food down. Consequently, food stays in your colon longer, and that can result in wind, acid reflux and stomach ache.

As you’ll need to consume between 30-60g of carbs per hour on any ride longer than 90 minutes, it’s important that you find a food your body gets on with and train it to work with that food particularly in the run-up to a big event. If stomach upsets are a recurring problem, keep a record of everything you eat and drink before, during and after a ride for a couple of weeks and look for a pattern.

You may find some particular food or drink doesn’t agree with you, or that you are simply consuming too many calories. A short-term solution, especially useful when experiencing bloating whilst in the saddle, is simply to shift your riding position as much as circumstances allow. Sit more upright, drop down your gears and spin slower if possible-all will improve blood flow to your intestines and allow them to do their job.

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