Your Fabric is Tight! Treating and Preventing Common Complaints with Cyclists

Health problems related to cycling either progress with time as a result of improper bike fit or develop due to repeat movement and overuse and frequently termed muscle imbalances. Understanding the role of fascia in healthy movement and ‘postural distortion’-a consequence of poor or unhealthy movement, is critically important to discussions about connective tissue and its relation to movement stability. By focusing primarily on the mechanical support that connective tissue offers the body we begin to see it as an “organ”, a unifying fabric within the body. Rather than segmenting it into separate parts, we can look at fascia as a “body wide complex” or in Myers’ terms, the “fascial net”.

What is fascinating about this ‘bodywide complex’ is that connective tissue cells are able to respond to various imposed demands which account for flexibility and stability as well as lack thereof. This same response explains how tightness in the feet and achilles tendon can “pull” or have implications for knees and hips.  Connective tissue also responds by generating a variety of fibres that vary in density within this fabric or “grid” ranging from very fluid to viscose to solid. What does this mean? Through movement we can ‘shape’ the tissue to respond over time to the stresses and demands placed upon it within the limits that nutrition, age and protein synthesis demand.

This is promising news for treating injuries but it is also useful in explaining how we often establish repeat pain cycles; Overuse or improper biomechanics can thwart an otherwise healthy passion for running, tennis or cycling. When body segments are pulled out of place and become “locked” they are considered to be “bonded” and the intercellular matrix (ECM) divests the muscles of their contracting and relaxing nature into a compensatory static strain for every hour that an individual is awake. Muscles that are overworked and undernourished due to reduced blood flow that fascial bonding, also termed adhesions, illicit, result in trigger point pain and reduced function and weakness. So how to fix pain cycles that result from adhesions?

  • The first step is to restore blood flow, fluids and connection
  • The second step is to lessen the pull that causes the stress or binding on the tissue in the first place by looking at opposing muscles that support and correct for the imbalance.

Most cyclists have experienced the following major complaints at some point:

FOOT PAIN  Many cyclists endure poor fitting cycling shoes in the name of aerodynamics or just plain poor judgement. Shoes that are clipped in are no different than regular shoes. Ensure that shoes are not too tight or it will affect circulation to the feet as well as pedal stroke efficiency and power. It goes without saying that in cycling,  proper positioning of cleats as well as saddle height and saddle distance from handle bars / bar set up are critical to proper muscle recruitment and alignment.

KNEE PAIN I  Stress on the patellar tendon could be from excessive flexion at the top of the pedal stroke. If your knees are hurting, check foot placement: Your knees should line up over the second toe and the cleat should be mounted under and medial to the mound of the big toe.  Due to the position of the foot (plantarflexion) during the push phase in pedalling, tight calves may be the culprit. Make sure you properly stretch and release your calves but also check your hamstrings. Often if your glutes or  hamstrings are weak, the calves will try to compensate. There is this prevalent idea that stretching alone will lengthen a muscle but too much stretching can lead to muscle strain and tear.  If your hamstrings are tight learning to activate them effectively is a safer and more effective way to promote blood flow and awareness of that muscle. Then, look to contracting the opposing muscle group to stabilize and support when you stretch. Focus your training on developing power in the upper hamstrings and not just the glutes. When cycling, power from the upper hamstrings and not from the lower leg.

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KNEE PAIN II  You are grinding out your gears.  This overuse injury can result in patellofemoral pain syndrome/tendinitis. Adopting a slightly higher cadence can reduce undue stress on the knee joint. If, however you prefer pedalling at a lower cadence, consider a strengthening program that focusses on vastus medialis and balancing quadricep strength.

LOW BACK PAIN:  The body’s blueprint on the bike can become problematic on and off the bike if there is no opposing stretch or counter tension to balance the necessary flexion of the spine when riding. With the front of the body in a perpetually contracted (short) position, it is extremely beneficial to focus on movement off the bike that targets extension. Releasing pec minor and biceps, opening shoulders and thoracic spine/chest and releasing psoas and quads will go a long way to balance the shortened superficial front line. Most importantly for cyclists releasing tight fascia in the hips (adductors and abductors), glutes, hamstrings and quads can significantly optimize power to weight ratio.

Wes psoas

It is central to healthy movement that all muscles must be in harmony with each other and that no one muscle group is emphasized over another. It is simply not enough to cue “navel to spine” to engage the transverse abdominals because that is just one image and not beneficial used in excess.  An array of cues and movement that nod to the complex group of muscles that act as a girdle around the spine to hold it in balance with diaphragm and psoas at the centre of this complex, point to understanding healthy anatomical function. The psoas major is aided by the rectus abdominis, obliques, transversus abdominis, latissimus dorsi (you swimmers out there),  erector spinae, quadratus lumborum and deep posterior muscles all stabilize the lower spine. With this in mind choosing movement that restores blood flow through proper breathing, fascial release / release ball techniques and strengthening the muscles that serve in opposition of your “tighter fabric” is the most important thing you can do to improve and develop your core stability, motion control and strength in cycling.

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