For many cyclists in pain or who feel that something is off, stopping at their local bike shop for a bike fit is often the first line of defense. But what’s going on if you’re still in pain following the fit or even after several fits?
I see this more often than not with clients and I think it’s important to explore a few considerations that a traditional bike fit doesn’t address that can contribute to pain or decreased performance.
A traditional bike fit assesses how your bike is set up and is adjusted to accommodate your unique body, riding style and to fit the bike around any movement or injury-related compensation patterns you have.
Traditional bike fits are an excellent starting point when you have a new bike you want to dial in or when you need help achieving a more comfortable position on the bike.
Many of the clients I see have had multiple bike fits, yet are still in pain or struggle to achieve the fitness they desire. While a traditional bike fit is a great first step, I believe it must be followed by a more in-depth neurological assessment to uncover and correct the underlying compensation patterns, as opposed to fitting the bike around them.
This is why I created a functional bike fit for my clients in an effort to uncover the root cause of their pain and discomfort and achieve more lasting results.
You are only as strong as your weakest link
During a traditional bike fit, issues like a leg length discrepancy (more on that below) or poor ankle mobility are often taken into account and the bike is adjusted to support these issues. There’s nothing wrong with that. But these issues are signs of a deeper problem, one that could no doubt affect comfort, power or how prone you are to overuse injuries over time.
If we mask the symptom by fitting around it, that “weak link” doesn’t go away. We’re temporarily turning down the volume on the symptom or the equivalent of placing a Bandaid over it.
A functional bike fit, however, uses a different lens to examine how the rider interacts with the bike. By using neuromuscular feedback, we can address how your body is responding to the physical exertion of riding, to the bike and equipment setup and to the environment you’re riding in.
Uncovering the root cause
When you sit on a bike, you can tell if it’s comfortable or not. Your body is sending you feedback about your position. But what it’s not consciously telling you is if the position you’re in and the activity you’re engaging in is putting additional stress on your body.
When the brain senses danger or feels unsafe, it can limit your movement capacity. This can happen after traumas or injuries or even as the result of staying in a repetitive, fixed position like cycling. Often this feedback occurs below your awareness at the subconscious level. You don’t perceive that you’re compensating or have power leaks in areas that aren’t engaged.
In an effort to keep you safe, your brain alerts your body to this danger. Unfortunately, this can put the brakes on your fitness or keep you in pain.
This trauma can be decades old, but it will hang around until you allow the body to fully process it. In the meantime, you may create a compensation pattern as the body tries to adapt. This could be something like limited ankle mobility, bracing through the hip or a shift in the way you breathe.
When a bike is fit to the rider, but is fit around specific injuries and physical issues, you’re not addressing the underlying problem that could have triggered the pain in the first place. In order to clear the issue, we must first address its root cause.
How a functional bike fit works
During a functional bike fit, we assess how your body is responding to each hand, hip and pedal position. We also assess how the nervous system responds to different exertion efforts. We use movement as a benchmark to uncover the underlying issues. Then we treat your body according to what we find and then re-assess. You’re often given homework to support the corrections we’ve made.
What we uncover is different for everyone. No two people have the exact same issue, which is why this is highly customized. We may uncover a structural issue, like an inability to correctly engage your core on the bike, a common issue which can lead to low back or neck pain and instability. Or we may discover that an ankle with limited mobility from a sprain in childhood is now affecting your ability to properly transfer energy through your pedal stroke.
If there’s an emotion that’s coming up every time you ride like a fear of crashing again or worry that an old injury will return, this can also affect how you feel and perform every time you’re in the saddle. The brain is trying to keep you safe, but we can use specific techniques to help you safely process the event and help remove this perceived threat. It’s important to remember that this is difficult to fix on your own because often it’s happening behind the scenes, below your consciousness.
Here’s an example of how a functional bike fit can dovetail off of a traditional fit.
I had a cycling client who came to me because of pain in her right hip that she described as sciatic pain. She had three shims under her right cycling cleat because she had been told she had one leg that’s longer than the other. She also had saddle sores and felt like she could never find a comfortable saddle.
On the table, her left leg appeared to be longer. She started to ride her bike and immediately the right ankle stood out. Off the bike, she had limited movement in that foot. When she removed her shoe, I noticed that she had a bunion. The hips were doing a good job of bracing for this foot instability.
We did some foot and hip mobility drills and integrated it into her cycling on the bike. When we remeasured, her legs were both the same length. This is actually fairly common. While there are true leg length discrepancies (anatomical ones), I find that many discrepancies are actually functional.
In this case, her hip was bracing to try to support the movements that her ankle was struggling with. This bracing caused the head of the femur to compress into the joint, the body’s wise strategy for trying to create more stability in the joint. The muscles often associated with sciatic pain were also bracing to try to stabilize the joint, causing pain.
She continued the foot and hip mobility drills, strengthening the hips as well. She slowly reduced the stack of shims and, over time, her sciatic pain didn’t return and she felt more stable and level on the saddle. Her saddle sore also went away, even after a week of riding 65 miles a day.
Regardless of the approach you take to achieving a great bike fit, it’s so important to utilize an assessment that will uncover and treat the root cause of the problem. So often we stop short and treat the symptom or provide a temporary crutch so we can continue riding as usual. Taking the time to investigate the larger issue and uncover the root of the problem can provide a long term solution and better performance on the bike in the long run.