While getting dressed after a workout last week, I overheard a conversation a woman was having with another member in the locker room. She had recently started taking indoor cycling classes and her knees were bothering her. “My knees have hurt so much, I’m really thinking I need to stop riding.”
That raised my antennae immediately! Clearly, I thought, something’s not right here. Riding a bike—any bike—should NOT hurt your knees. And, of course, I wasn’t about to NOT say something!
Here’s how the conversation went down.
Me (shamelessly butting in): Excuse me, I might be able to help. I’m a cycle instructor here. My name is Sara. Where do your knees hurt? Front? Back? Side? Because if they hurt in front, your saddle is probably too low. If they hurt in back, your saddle is too high. If you have pain on the outside of the knee, I’d recommend looking at your fore/aft saddle position. Did your instructor help you set up your bike?
Member: No. (I did my best not to roll my eyes at this point. Ensuring that our riders are properly fitted on the bike may be the single most important thing we do as instructors.)
Me: If you’re available to come to my class next week and wouldn’t mind coming a few minutes early, we can take the time we need to get your setup dialed in perfectly. Also, you should be really cognizant of your cadence. [Member now gives me a puzzled look.] Cadence is how fast you’re turning the pedals. I’m assuming you’re not being coached to ride at very high cadences. (I already knew the answer to this.)
Member: Well, we do a lot of 130 rpm stuff with no “tension” on the bike. (Side note: I truly hate the term tension. Don’t we have enough of it in our lives without bringing it into the studio with us? Plus it’s not an accurate description of how indoor bikes work!)
Me: Without resistance you’re not accomplishing much and you’re putting a lot of stress on your knee joints and tendons. (Lateral knee pain is often associated with this type of activity as well as with poor foot alignment.) By the way, did you ask your instructor to explain the benefit of riding in that fashion?
Member: No, I didn’t ask, but did wonder about that—it didn’t really feel like I was doing anything. (Smart lady.)
Me: Right, so remember that indoor cycling is intended to be a cardio workout. Really, if your heart rate is elevated without any corresponding work, you’re pretty much wasting your time and, in this case, risking an injury as you are now experiencing. Ideally you should keep your cadence at 110 rpm or lower, and always make sure there’s meaningful effort behind your pedal stroke.
Member: That’s so helpful, thanks. I was also wondering about upper-body stuff on the bike, like push-ups. I look around the room and some people aren’t doing them, some people are…I don’t know, it just feels strange and awkward to me.
Me: Well, I always say if it feels wrong, ask your instructor what the movement is intended to accomplish. In the case of upper-body “work” (yes, I used my fingers to make air quotes) on the bike, it sort of intuitively makes sense that those things would be a lot more effective done in a dedicated way, off the bike, and not thrown into a class profile as a way to keep people from thinking they are bored in class.
Member: Yes, well, I am sometimes bored in class.
Me: Oh, I understand, I really do. That is actually something that seems more common when people first start riding, as they learn to really be “in the moment” and become “one with the bike.” Hopefully, with some amazing music it becomes an entirely different experience. And a well-structured class with great music shouldn’t need gimmicks to keep riders engaged. Does that make sense?
Member: Yes, wow, thanks. When do you teach? I really want to come to your class.
Me: I’d love to have you! Come a few minutes early and we’ll get your bike fit nailed. You’ll be so much more comfortable!
It’s not often I get to have a long conversation like that with someone who’s clearly interested in cycle class, open to learning, and really wanting to succeed! It was a great opportunity and I’m glad I butted into their conversation.
The happy ending is she did come to class. It took just a few minutes to fit her bike perfectly…and she didn’t miss the push-ups at all. At one point, I looked over and her eyes were closed. One with the bike. In the moment.
I’m putting this one in the win column!