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Elbow Pain and Cycling:  Why and What to Do if it Happens to You.


Most people aren’t quite as nutty about cycling I am – and I am a freaking nut.  I spent the end of the 2013 cycling season on the perfect bike.  Meticulously set up, perfectly comfortable and exceptionally fast.  It was awesome.

Heading into the winter it was back to my Trek 5200 and the trainer.  I bought the Trek used just a few days into 2012 and its setup was off just a bit.  Not enough that I could see if I didn’t know what I was looking for, but enough that when I went from the perfect setup of the Venge to the Trek, bad things happened.   It started out as a slight twinge in my right elbow and shoulder, and rapidly grew into full-blown tendinitis in my elbow.

Now, I did fix the problem, my right hood was just a couple of millimeters higher than my left which meant I put more pressure on my right arm than my left.  The trick was that I figured all of this out just before the 2013 cycling season started, we’re talking just days into March.  For most people who get tendinitis of some sort, this means a couple of weeks off with regular icing treatments, elevation and so forth.  I’m not most normal people.  I didn’t miss a day and rode the whole season with the pain and began the healing process after the snow started falling.  It took a month before I was able to shake people’s hand without flinching.  Through this whole mess I only missed maybe a week of trainer time on the bike but I wouldn’t exactly recommend doing what I did either.  I’m not a doctor, I just figured they’d be able to fix whatever damage I did if it got too bad – after all, it’s just tendinitis of the elbow.  I took a chance and it turned out okay.

In any event, the main point is this:  Cycling, other than the odd saddle sore from an abundant jump in saddle time, should not hurt.  As soon as I realized there was trouble, I started looking for causes.  In this case, it was that my right brake hood was a little too high on the Trek and they had to be leveled a little better – riding the Venge, in its perfection, exacerbated the problem – up until I brought the Venge home, my body simply got used to what I’d trained on from day one.

Other than the hoods, another place to look is reach, how high or low the hoods are on the bars, the angle of the handlebar relative to the ground…  Whatever is causing your arm or shoulder to flare up, always go back to the rule that cycling doesn’t favor one side of the body or the other and it doesn’t hurt, barring leaps in mileage or average speed.  If your neck, back, either leg, butt (or the nether regions – especially one side or the other), shoulder, or arm hurts, either try to look logically at what could be causing the problem or take it to the shop and have your setup looked after.  Just be prepared to give a full accounting of what’s going on so they can figure out what’s wrong and correct it.

So, in my case, this is specifically what I do if I run into pain trouble:  

1.  Try to source the pain back to the bike.  If I find something off, address it, fix it, change it.

2.  If I can’t figure it out, I go to the shop and talk it through with the most knowledgable staff member available or the owner of the shop.

3.  My answer for everything pain related is “ride through it” until or unless I can’t ride through it.  I know the difference between being a wuss and being injured and I am honest with myself about which is which.  

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6 Comments

  1. Dan In Iowa says:

    Yeah, almost ANY pain on the bike is from adjustments. Almost always, it’s a minor adjustment of a centimeter or less.

  2. My problem has always been back ache on long rides. How much of that do you think is from set up or from not being strong enough in my core?

    • bgddyjim says:

      It’s not your core, I don’t do anything for mine – I’d bet setup for sure. I’ve never run into back aches though, in fact, cycling fixed mine entirely.

  3. bonnev659 says:

    great tips… i know when i got my bike a few years ago. i got a pro fit to go with it. to avoid any pains.. i need to refit my bike in a little while as i lost some weight and my position has change slightly from this.

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