Saddle up: how to avoid cycling injuries and stay fit

Finding the right bike is essential to preventing injuries, according to sports therapists.

Problems can stem from riding a bike that’s not the right size or fit, says Ian Houghton, the founder of Scandinavian Health and Performance Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
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Cycling is a fun, low-impact exercise, but enthusiasts who disregard proper posture and recovery time can be risking long-term health problems and injuries, say sports therapists.

Whether you are a professional athlete competing for years or a leisure cyclist, listen to your body and make adjustments to routines and include regular therapy to your recovery plan.

“Most problems are over-use injuries or discomfort,” says Ian Houghton, the founder of Scandinavian Health and Performance Dubai.

“They range from lower back, neck and upper back injuries, followed by knee pain, wrist and elbow pain from nerve compression.”

Many times the problem stems from using a bike that’s not the right size or fit. “The bike needs to be configured by an expert so that it is set up to their body alignment and length,” he says.

Tamara Ghazi, doctor and medical director at Diversified Integrated Sports Clinic (Disc) in Dubai, agrees that finding the right bike is essential to preventing injuries.

“The bike has to fit the activity. For example a bike to cycle around Jumeirah Lakes Towers will be very different from the one used on mountain trails,” she says. “Cyclists can also suffer from bad bioergonomics [a combination of ergonomics and biomechanics], upper back pain from leaning over the saddle wrong or knee injuries if the saddle bike isn’t fitted to their height.”

Experts say newcomers to the endurance sport need to make gradual increments in training volume.

“Cycling is a fantastic sport but it also mimics people who are sitting for long periods,” says Ghazi.

“So if you have a desk job and get a lot of hip and lower back pain, it’ll only get aggravated with cycling. You can’t jump into it.”

Ghazi says other injuries can be caused because cyclists ignore the warm-up phase and stretching exercises.

“We are about preventive medicine, so we teach people how to stretch, foam roll and do a lot of deep tissue myofascial release [an alternative medicine therapy] for areas that are tight. We also do strength work to overcome weaknesses or an imbalance.”

She says cyclists are also trained to build endurance. “We teach endurance and stamina in the muscles so that they can translate that into the bike.”

Houghton also introduces strength training into the routines of professional cyclists.

“We look at strengthening the core, back, glutes and hamstrings to prevent lower-back related pain and also the shoulder blade muscles,” he says, adding that cyclists must concentrate on adopting various motions when they aren’t riding.

“When you are on the bike it is very much a bend and extend at the hip, so we try to incorporate side and rotational work for the hips and core.”

Dr Ghazi say a lot of cyclists underrate recovery time.

“This includes sleeping enough, getting adequate nutrition, supplements and therapy. If you have high-volume training, you should seek professional assistance to help stretch and maintain joint alignment.

“Some people have a dominant side, which could lead to knee pain and hip tightness on that side. So they need therapy.” At the same time, nutrition is key to better pain-free performance. “When you are burning a lot, you crave sugar and want to eat anything. People have this concept of carb-loading, which we don’t agree with,” she explains.

“It’s about maintaining a proper diet and balance – eating natural, healthy and clean food so that they are not fatigued, and stress management.”

Houghton adds that cycling should be coupled with other forms of exercises for recovery.

“Running and cycling are very monotonous and repetitive in motion,” he says.

“Our bodies are not made to do that. We are made to move in multiple and different directions, so we should be training our joints and muscles in multiple different directions, as well.” He suggests adding swimming, saunas, regular massages, and hot and cold baths for better recovery.