Cycling Pain vs. Suffering: How to Ride Hard While Avoiding Injury

As cyclists, we wear our suffering as a badge of honor. In bad weather, we retreat to our basements, aka “pain caves” for weekly winter sufferfests and emerge in the spring ready to dig even deeper.

In a sport where we’re encouraged to leave it all on the road, how do we know where to draw the line between training for mental and physical strength and setting ourselves up for injury?

Endurance sports place a tremendous demand on our entire system, especially the fight or flight side of the nervous system. Our bodies are amazingly resilient and will try to adapt to whatever stress we throw at them.

gute pain cycling One of the challenges with cycling is that riding a bike isn’t a natural human movement like running or walking. The body must create sport-specific movement compensations to meet the movement demands of cycling. But this often happens at the expense developing other non-cycling related, yet fundamental human movements, like the ability to squat correctly or to stabilize your ankle before you twist it walking off a curb.

I’m certainly not suggesting you hang up the bike and take up running instead. Just as the body thrives on a varied diet, it also thrives on movement variety. Eat nothing except chicken and you’re bound to develop nutrient deficiencies. Doing a repetitive movement is the same concept.

Do nothing but cycling and your chance of injury greatly increases when you need to quickly utilize a new movement strategy like picking up something heavy or going for a spontaneous run.

In other words, your buffer for error gets smaller and smaller if all you do is pound the pedals. This is why it’s important to take your movement multi-vitamin, so to speak, and keep the body moving and functional in all planes of motion (not just that hunched over in flexion one).

Recognize the difference between fatigue and pain

After a certain point, the body will adapt by compensating or changing its way of moving to meet the increased demands. The body is constantly creating compensations to fulfill our everyday movement requirements. Movement compensations aren’t necessarily a bad thing, unless they cause pain or reduce performance.

It’s easy to blame daily aches and pains on “just getting old.” But the more you put your body through — the traumas, injuries, day-to-day stress and surgeries — the more you draw from this compensation bank account. Eventually, the balance runs out and the body is out of options. This is often when an injury occurs.

If every time you pedal for a couple of hours, your IT band tightens up and eventually evolves into hip or knee pain, this is your body telling you something is wrong. You can try backing down or taking a break from the bike, but chances are the pain will return. Why? Because your body hasn’t learned an alternative way of moving that doesn’t over involve the IT band. Your body needs to be taught a new strategy. 

Pain is a call to action. Ignore it or push through it and you’re just digging a deeper hole that will take longer to get out of or will lead to a more serious injury and a longer recovery time.

Most injuries are related

pain from cycling saddleMost of us have at least one riding buddy who’s chronically injured. You know the guy who shows up wearing calf sleeves one month because they become painfully tight every time he rides.

Eventually, that problem seems to improve, but now he has hamstring or hip pain. Someone told him it’s probably a strength issue, so he takes time off the bike over the winter to hit the gym and start working his core.

Maybe the hamstring improves, but now he has neck, shoulder or back pain.

Guess what? these injuries are probably all related. Why? Because everything in the body is connected. When we move, our entire body is involved. Imagine a pulled thread in a sweater. Tug on it from any angle and that pulled thread will move along with the opposite sides of the sweater. It’s like driving along with a flat tire: eventually you have to pull over. 

The body is no different. Until we identify and treat our weakest link, our check engine lights (pain) will continue to stay illuminated and we’ll be chasing the pain around our body indefinitely. This shifting pain is your body’s last-ditch effort to seek stability.

The body will seek stability at any cost. Be it a frozen shoulder, carpal tunnel, bone spurs, a compressed hip, decreased range of motion or creating arthritis, the body will go to extreme lengths to feel safe and stable.

This explains why taking a week or a month off generally doesn’t solve the problem. The underlying issue is still there, you just don’t feel it because the input (riding hard) isn’t present to produce the output (pain).

Stick to a plan, but also listen to your body

If cycling causes pain, I’d recommend getting your patterns evaluated by a skilled movement professional as soon as possible.

If you have trouble knowing the difference between training to create positive adaptations and overtraining, I’d suggest following a training plan. Training plans aren’t just for professionals. They’re also a great way to progressively ramp up your efforts and build fitness, while balancing the right amount of recovery.

Especially for those who tend to always go hard, a training plan is a smart way to keep the demands you’re placing on your body in check and be sure you’re not throwing too much stress at the body all at once. The body excels at ramping things up gradually and riding with a plan is a smart way to prepare for your goal rides.

cycling hip pain hip flexorFollow a plan, but stay flexible. If you’re good at monitoring your recovery by feel, go with that. If you need concrete numbers to keep you in check, look into a Heart Rate Variability app, which monitors your morning heart rate and suggests an intensity for that day. Monitoring HRV can also predict overtraining before it rears its ugly head.

Be on the lookout for other forms of stress in your life that might be pushing you toward feeling overtrained. To your body, the stress accumulated from lack of sleep or a fight with your spouse is similar to the stress of a hard bike ride. They both drain the body in similar ways. If you take all of this into account before embarking on the day’s workout and have a solid recovery protocol in place, you’ll be much less likely to get caught in the trap of overtraining.

Treat an injury ASAP

Consider pain your check engine light. It’s your body’s way of telling you there’s a breakdown in the system somewhere. The crazy thing is that where we feel the pain isn’t necessarily where the problem is. It usually isn’t and that’s what can make treating pain so frustrating and nearly impossible to do yourself.

This is why extended periods of rest, a foam roller, NSAIDS and all your best intentions rarely treat the root cause of the problem. These are all bandaids that might buy you time, but are really only reducing a symptom, while allowing a much bigger problem to develop.

To become stronger, more resilient and kick pain to the curb, we must first uncover and treat the deeper cause of the problem. Getting assessed and treated by a professional and working on your weakest links will allow you to finally go into the pain cave and emerge victorious, to train harder and become faster without trashing your body in the process.

Takeaway

There’s nothing wrong with riding hard or signing up for a sufferfest. But, just as you’d don your armor before going into battle, it’s important to create a resilient body that’s up for the task of some serious saddle time.

Suffering shouldn’t involve pain from injury. Pain is the body’s call for change. And here’s a little-known added bonus: Fix the breakdown in the system and you’re likely to return to the bike stronger than ever.

Want to uncover your weakest link? Find out more here.

Related: Activate Your Glutes: Why Your Butt Could Be Causing Your Pain

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