Sorting Out the Difference In Pain Related to Cycling; How I Tell the Difference Between Fit or Fitness
My wife had been experiencing some pain related to cycling. She’d switched from her normal road/triathlon bike to her gravel bike – she’s technically riding both, probably a little more on the road bike, but not by much.
Now, normally we’d have the gravel bike set up fairly close to the road bike*, but in my wife’s case, she’s got a mix-use road and triathlon bike, so the geometry is very different between the two. In my case, the road bikes are really close and the gravel bike is pretty close. Anyway, immediately my wife thinks she needs to start tinkering with her bikes’ setups. This saddle needs to be moved back, the other one forward and down… Folks, that’s a tough spot for me to be in right there, because I tinker with my bikes a lot, and she knows this. This is different from tinkering, though, and took me a day to kick it around and figure out how to respond, because I didn’t think the issue was her setup. See, just the week before, she’d been raving about how comfortable the road/tri bike was, how she liked the new wheels, and how “right” everything was. You just don’t go from being content to having to change the saddle height and location in a week. I had to gently let her onto the idea that it’d be better to ride through this one.
And I knew this because I do it all the time.
It took tens of thousands of miles and experience to understand what I can ride through and when something’s wrong with a bike’s setup. The pains are different and in very specific and recurring places if the setup is wrong – and in the case of the saddle’s fore/aft location on the seat post, if the saddle’s too far forward all of a sudden (because you made a mistake putting it back, ahem), it’ll sap your power enough you’ll be crushed and dropped off the back on a long ride. Yes, that did happen to me on a hundred miler a few years back. It did suck – and it was quite humbling when I discovered what I’d done.
So, fit vs. fitness…
Fit problems that cause pain are recurring and localized. In other words, if I’ve got a fit problem, the pain related will be a nagging, stationary pain. Say my saddle is too high. This will cause a few posterior problems, but typically on the sides, where my hip bones hit the saddle while I’m pedaling, from the pelvis rocking back and forth so the feet can reach the pedals. It’s not the sit bones, either, which would be further back. Too high will also, likely, cause back pain if left alone too long. How about a saddle that’s too low? Pain in the back of the knee is generally the first thing you’ll notice that’s wrong… And there are dozens of other pains and causes, that range from a sore neck (handlebar too low), to numb hands (handlebar too high or possibly too close). Too much reach, if you’re constantly sitting on the horn of the saddle, or you ride on the bar tops more than the hoods and drops. The point is, it’s been my experience that we’ll have the same pain and problems every time we ride the bike.
My favorite example is the saddle that came with my 5200. The original saddle was big, bulky, heavy and 155mm wide. Unfortunately, my sit bones are about 142mm apart (I ride, comfortably on a 143mm Specialized Romin and a phenomenally comfortable 138mm Bontrager Montrose Pro), so as soon as I started riding the bike, I found myself with severe hamstring issues. I thought it was due to running, but after some time of cycling and running, the issues came back immediately during my first ride back after some couch time. I had a new saddle within 24 hours.
Now, that first ride back, I could feel the pressure on the sides of my groin, but nothing in the sit bones (because the saddle was so wide, I wasn’t sitting on the sit bones). That first ride back, the sides flared up something nasty, and I could feel the pain radiate to my hamstrings, and that’s how I knew what was up. Localized and recurring.
More elusive are the random pains. These are the pains I ride through. I will get the odd sore neck or shoulder… maybe a sore knee or ankle. That I know of, you can’t ride the amount of miles I put in, at the speed I do, and not have a few pains flare up now and again. It just comes with the exercise. For these, I take a Tylenol in the morning and a bike ride in the afternoon. That usually does the trick. For those elusive, mobile pains, I ride through them until they become a bigger issue. I don’t change anything on the bike’s setup for these. They’ve always gone away with time – usually a matter of hours, no more than a day or two.
I’ve built a vast set of experiences in regard to cycling in running from which to pull if I experience something that just doesn’t feel quite right. Over 60,000 miles and the only time I’ve taken time off the bike for an injury was the wide saddle issue. Still, I’m not (near) always right. If I run into a pain that I haven’t experienced or already ridden through, that I just can’t put my finger on, I head to the bike shop to consult with the owner and a couple of the mechanics I trust. I do this before I change anything on the bike, because I’ve been known to make the wrong correction a time or two. And I know enough, if the pain doesn’t subside after all of that, to go see a doctor.
*I wrote “fairly” close when referring to the setups of the gravel and road bike because quite often the two aren’t exact. For instance, I purposely have my gravel bike set up to promote a more relaxed, upright posture. I do this so I can better see bumps and potholes coming because anyone who knows anything about dirt road riding in Michigan, knows to hold on, ’cause it’s gonna get bumpy. My road bikes, on the other hand, are mainly about speed and aerodynamics.