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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.
My Thursday evenings have been thoroughly packed for years to the point I can only afford a short ride after work. After having found my lumbar support digging into my back for better than a couple of months, with a four-hour-a-day commute, and correcting the issue, I feel so much better it’s hard to put into words. I went from fully healthy, bounding up dozens of flights of stairs every day at work to having a tough time walking two flights. I fought in my head for more than a month, trying to figure out what went wrong.
In fact, I was in so much pain when on my feet at work (a large part of my job), that when I discovered the lumbar support in my vehicle’s seat pushing into my back, I worried it couldn’t be that simple…
I rode last night, just my second day (first full day) removed from discovering the problem. I turned in an easy 14 miles in 43 minutes. That’s almost 19.5-mph, for a fun, semi-easy spin. It’s hard to describe the relief I’m feeling – not only the physical, but the mental. It’s not easy to go from fully fantastic to struggling to stay on your feet for more than a couple of hours. All I could think was, “what the hell?!”
I rolled out with the wind in my face, and was content to keep the pace mild, at 17-18-mph. Originally I’d planned on an easy day. On turning left, into a cross-headwind, I changed my mind on the easy part as I passed 20-mph on the computer. I wanted to see if I could break 19-mph with the stiff, late summer breeze.
Without ever really pushing too hard, just keeping it steady, I rolled into the driveway at 19.5-mph average. Good enough to be relieved that my back is back. I think I can turn the page on this ugly episode, thank God.
Happier days are ahead!
I’ve written extensively over the last several years of my bad back. Before running it was really bad. While I ran it was manageable. Since I started cycling, fantastic has been the best word for it.
A couple of months ago I started having problems at work. I could do my job, but too many hours on my feet hurt. Bad.
I started stretching a few times a day. That helped a lot but it flummoxed me that I was having so much trouble. I figured it’d work itself out over time.
Yesterday morning, on the way to the office, my back started bugging me. I took an ibuprofen and that dented the pain, but the reason eluded me… and not knowing was like a giant splinter in my melon. I kept picking at it.
After work, back in my car and the pain came roaring back. It drove me nuts. I mile down the road and I was trying to play with my seat angle and I bumped the lumbar support button. The bar in the seat moved back. It should have been all the way back already. I pushed the button again. The lumbar support moved back another two inches. I’d been commuting four hours a day with that stupid thing wrecking my back for the better part of two months. No wonder I’d been sluggish!
And, just like that, my pain went away. I managed almost 20-mph (19.7) with Chuck over 19.7 of my 24 miles last night. I haven’t had a desire to be that fast in months. I’m sure it’ll take a week to fully recover, but I feel a mountain better this morning. I feel like me again. What a relief! Here I thought I was riding too much, or maybe I had done something unspeakably wrong to the Trek’s setup! Whew!
So, you may wonder how this could have happened… my daughter started driving and she has to adjust the seat to reach the pedals. She simply hit the wrong button.
I read a post the other day from a fellow recovering drunk who was lamenting, I think it was, a new craft beer that had been released. I quit long enough ago craft beer was made by my buddy’s dad in the garage and tasted like… well, really not good. The craft beer of today wasn’t even a glimmer in someone’s eye yet. Hell, I quit before Zima and slightly after ICE beer.
It’s been a long time since I felt I missed out on a new drink. Hard lemonade, hard cider, hard seltzer water… and there is a very simple explanation for this; I don’t like prison more than I wish I could have a Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy. Well, let’s put this into proper context; I don’t like prison more than I wish I could have 24 Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandies. You know what I’m getting at?
I default straight to the misery, and that’s why I don’t miss out. The trouble for newly recovered alcoholics is the new misery of quitting can tend to be only slightly less miserable than drinking. Especially if one is trying to white knuckle it. Blur the lines too much and drinking can win out. For someone like me, who continually works a recovery program and keeps a vivid memory of what my drinking misery was really like, it’s easy to pass because my life, with all its fleas, is awesome.
And awesome is good. Prison? Not so much.
Specialized does it through shop employees with measurements, angles and videos too numerous and complex to get into, they call it their Body Geometry fit (I had one, when I bought my Venge, and it was awesome). Long before that wonderful day and after a few months on my new (to me) 1999 Trek 5200, I went to the local shop complaining of immense pain due to my saddle after a steady increase of miles. Walter quickly measured my sit bones on a handy-dandy board with memory foam on it and handed me a Specialized Romin (143mm) saddle. The old, original saddle was a 155 – no wonder it hurt. The 143mm Romin, with its marvelous contours, just happened to be the exact saddle for me. I even put a second Romin I own on our tandem.
Fi’zi:k does it with an app. Hold your smartphone at your chest and bend over as far as you can… they match you to the proper saddle of their three different types. Not bad, but I’m in between saddles according to the app (or at least I was last I checked). Doesn’t that just figure? I can measure twice in a row and get two different saddles. Fortunately, luck got me where I needed to be previously, anyway.
Bontrager seems to have simplified everything and explained it so anyone from a leisure cyclist to a road racing cyclist can easily see what will likely be the best saddle fit for their riding style. It’s not, after all, rocket science. It’s close, though, once they really start looking into the science and how a saddle will affect a cyclist. Behold, simplicity and the Performance Postures (or as they like to call it in technical terms, “InForm BioDynamic Designs”):
To keep things moving, I’m a Posture 2. I ride an aggressively set up road bike (both of them):
Then they got into the contour of the saddle:
And followed that with the profile:
Without question, especially looking at my Venge up above and how much I love the Romin saddle, I’m a Posture 2 guy, and it makes sense now that this is all laid out above:
Now, will this way of looking at saddles tick everyone’s boxes and make them comfortable on a Bontrager saddle? I would land somewhere between “doubtful” and “not a freaking chance” – saddle choice is too personal and complex. That said, for me, it works and it makes sense.
Where this gets a little sticky is that saddle on my Trek, a Selle Italia. It’s basically a flat saddle with a minute curve to it. It’s a full carbon fiber saddle that weighs in at a miniscule 110 grams (Bontrager makes a 64 gram saddle, basically the weight of two plastic bottle cages, if you’re interested):
Contrast that with the saddle on my Venge (or one like it) on the Right and a Bontrager Montrose on the Left:
My friends, I may ride low but I am not flexible. I can barely touch my toes (though barely does count!). That little bit of contour in the saddle helps me rotate my hips forward so I can ride comfortably in the drops and on the hoods. I do have to make sure to bend my arms sufficiently when I ride with my hands on the bar top, though. Sitting upright isn’t comfortable on a contoured saddle like the two above – at least not the way I set mine up, with a 3° drop from back to front (measured the full length of the saddle).
People can get sucked into the wrong saddle pretty easy. Whether they’re in it for the weight, or just trying to get a cool-looking saddle… Folks, some saddles just fit some butts better than others. The more information you’re armed with, though, the better equipped you’ll be to help a knowledgeable person at a shop help you into the proper saddle… or try luck. It did work for me.
On one hand, this summer, if you could call it that until two weeks ago, should have been a YUGE letdown. My miles are down, my weight is slightly up, and the weather has just plain sucked. I haven’t even topped 4,000 miles for the year yet, and I’m liking food way more than I should.
On the other hand, I’m on the job of my career and I’m freaking digging it and the pay has been quite nice.
I don’t know what the rest of this year will hold, but beyond the sacrifices, I’m having fun and I’m happy. And that’s what really matters.
Then, out of nowhere, the best cycling weekend yet this year. It was supposed to rain every day, but the worst we got was a popcorn storm for ten minutes, and never while we were on the bikes. I could have put in so many more miles, though… 75 on Thursday, 40 Friday, another 56 for Saturday, and we’ve got a 100k on tap for today. If memory serves, I’d have sprinkled in an 80-100 miler in there and at least one of the 40 or 56 mile rides would have been a 100k. I’m not that guy this year, though. For the longest time, I feared I would like cycling less if I let off the gas, if I didn’t try to cram absolutely every last mile in. I was so wrong; I like it more.
Because I’m not always trying to push max miles out of every ride, my enjoyment of the sport increased and I enjoy each mile much more. In the end, there’s still no place I’d rather be than on my bike, and the search still continues for the sucker who’ll pay me to ride it. I’ll let you know when my luck changes.
In the meantime, it’s just another day in paradise on two wheels.
There once was a time when all I could do was think about how I could escape being miserable. Every day I’d try to figure out how to game the system so I could have just one more day drunk before the house of cards crumbled under the weight of my poor choices. Today, 26 years without a drink or a drug, and I’m working on making content and happy, happier. Talk about a difference that’ll put a smile on your face!
My friends, once I embraced that the hardest thing I would ever do in my life occurred 26 years ago, in quitting drinking (and eventually, smoking), once I realized I’d already been through hell and as long as I keep on the right path, I don’t ever have to go back, life became less about survival and more about enjoyment.
Just for today. Keep quit, no matter what. Even if your ass falls off… and in the event it does, put it in a paper bag and take it to a meeting. They’ll show you how they put theirs back on. There’s only misery at the bottom of that bottle. It won’t get better this time. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Shit, there’s no rainbow. Because there’s no sunshine. Just keep quitting.
Cycling sacrilege is right! But let me go back a bit, to bring this home correctly. You know me, I don’t do much half-assed…
Five months ago, a friend gave me a Selle Italia carbon saddle. It’s ridiculously, outrageously light. It also required a special saddle collar to fit on my Venge so I tried it on my Trek first, just to see what I thought until the proper collar I ordered for the Venge came in. The saddle was magic on the Trek. It was so perfect, I almost cancelled the collar and left the saddle on the Trek. But I had to try it on the Venge. I had to. After all, an ultra-light saddle would perfectly round out that spectacular bike (it also took the bike from the high 15 pound range to the mid-15’s).
Well, a month(ish) into that experiment and I didn’t like the result. Most of my problems are likely due to fit, but I’ve adjusted the saddles and I just can’t quite get to the bottom of the issue… if you know what I mean. The saddle on my 5200 was spectacular. On the Venge, it was a little closer to “meh”.
Over the last month, as I’ve started ramping up the miles, I just couldn’t get the Selle Italia saddle to a position I liked as much as I had on the Trek. I hemmed and hawed for at least two weeks about switching them back. Then, with my second big tour of the year looming, I decided to switch them back – against every weight weenie fiber in my body. Unfortunately, a flared up hip made the decision a little easier. After changes are made, sometimes it takes a good bit of miles to really evaluate the change. I really started feeling the pain last week, maybe two weeks ago, butt in hindsight only. With two hundred mile days in a row looming, I had to change something before that sore hip became an actual injury.
And just like that…
My first ride after having swapped saddles was a big one – go big or go home (or both in this case). Typically, it’s
a little stupid not adviseable to swap out a saddle and head out for a big mile ride, but if you’ve read this blog for very long, you know me; overconfident in my mechanical abilities, and often lucky enough to be right (or at least close enough for government work).
Last week, my Garmin died toward the end of a 65 mile ride so I had my buddy, Chuck add me in to his for Strava. He finished that ride with 71 miles, though, so I had some penance miles to make up. Well, I got four of those done on Tuesday night but I still had two left, so I decided to make them up checking my saddle position yesterday morning before our ride. It felt great so I rolled with it.
Fourteen miles into the real ride and I knew I’d missed the mark, but just barely. At our first stop, because I was smart enough to bring an Allen wrench with me, I lowered the saddle by a millimeter. And there it stayed for the remaining 64 miles. Amazingly, the saddle felt like butter – much better than it did on the Venge. I have no idea what gives, but I really don’t care at this point. My hip soreness even let up after 20 miles.
My 1999 Trek 5200 is now down to the low 18 pound range and My Venge is still technically a 15 pound bike – and both bikes are now wildly comfortable. I made the light bike heavier and the heavier bike lighter…
Sometimes you have to go to any length for things to work out right in the universe – or buttiverse as it is in this case. My heinie is happier… and I’ll stop there, before going over the line – or down the crack. In this case, even though that badass (there I go again) Selle Italia saddle belongs on the race bike, it just doesn’t work. No sense in trying to stick with it till I was injured.
And incidentally, with the Specialized Romin saddle back on the Venge, the good bike is vastly more comfortable as well. I did two more penance miles on the Venge to make sure I’d gotten that one right as well. I can live with an extra 110 grams (a quarter-pound) for a peppier posterior.