It's not uncommon for athletes to be drawn to cycling from another sport because of the perceived notion that it is a low-impact activity. Because of this, more and more people give up sports like running or tennis in favor of cycling to save their ailing joints.
While there is some validity to the belief that cycling does less damage to the cartilage in the knee because of the low level of impact involved, it doesn't mean that the sport doesn't present an opportunity for knee injuries.
Patellofemoral syndrome and patellar tendonitis are two common cycling-related injuries caused by overuse, weak muscles and improper bike fit. Both can make cycling nearly impossible.
Use these four tips to fix knee pain and make your cycling more enjoyable.
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome
The kneecap, or patella, is a floating bone that lies on the underside of the patella tendon. During movement, the patella tracks along a groove in the femur. When the undersurface of the kneecap tracks incorrectly, the cartilage on the patella and the femur can be worn away, causing pain.
The cause of incorrect tracking of the kneecap is likely due to one of two factors:
Weakness in the VMO
The VMO, or vastus medialis oblique, is the teardrop quadriceps muscle that runs along the inside of the thigh down towards the knee. In cycling, the vastus lateralis (quadriceps muscle on the outside of the thigh) often becomes overdeveloped, resulting in a muscular imbalance. The overpowering of the vastus lateralis can make the kneecap track too much towards the outside of the femur during pedaling, which in turn wears away the cartilage and causes pain.
The Fix: Stretch the lateral side of the leg with IT band and quadriceps stretches. Once you have gained flexibility, strengthen the VMO. Step-downs and short arc quadriceps exercises are two favorites.
Step Down: Stand sideways on a step. With one foot balancing on the step, lower your other leg toward the ground until your heel taps. Make sure to keep your hips level (concentrate on not dipping the hip on the lowering side, bending only at the knee) and your back straight. Start off with 10 repetitions on each leg and increase repetitions as your strength improves.
Short Arc Quad: Lying on your back, place a foam roller under your knee. Contract the quad so that your foot rises, making the leg straight. To isolate the VMO even more, rotate the foot slightly so that the toes point outward. Hold the contraction for 10 seconds and repeat 10 times. Once this exercise becomes easier, add ankle weights or hold the contraction for longer durations.