During these challenging times, a lot of us are finding ways to stay fit (and sane) with the help of indoor workouts – treadmills, bikes, strength workouts, yoga… the list goes on. While all of these are great workouts, one stands out for the potential for injury – the indoor exercise bike. Whether it be an exercise bike, spin bike or an ergometer such as a Watt Bike, there are some inherent issues that should be aware of.
With few exceptions, most all spin bikes have a similar design: heavy flywheel, fixed gear (when the wheel turns, so does the crank – no coasting!), heavy duty frame and handlebars that accommodate a wide range of hand positions.
Let’s start by discussing the issue most people have with bikes: the seat (aka. saddle). Despite high-tech features of modern racing bikes such as carbon fiber frames, wireless electronic shifting and disc brakes, the one piece of ‘equipment’ that still causes cyclists the most trouble and pain is the saddle. This is primarily because saddles are not custom made and therefore, are made to fit the average pelvis width of men and women.
Therefore, if your pelvis is slightly wider or narrower than what is considered average, you will likely not be 100% comfortable. While seemingly counterintuitive, the less comfortable a saddle looks, generally the more comfortable it is. Many spin bike saddles are too wide which leads to chaffing on the inner thigh area.
Additionally, many saddles are also too soft which leads to the compression of the padding, which places a rider’s pelvic bones (‘sits’ bones) directly on the shell of the saddle. This leads to a spin class being a pain in the ass, both literally and figuratively.
Handlebars on spin bikes are often shaped like bullhorns. As noted above, this gives a rider many different hand positions to choose from. The ‘horn’ part of the handlebars are typically designed to be quite far in front of a rider and often causes them to lean forward substantially when riding in the saddle. This position can cause low back pain, especially if a rider is pushing hard on the pedals.
This is often the most overlooked area, as there is not much that can be done about this issue. The part of the bike that the crank attaches to is located inside the frame and is called the ‘bottom bracket.’ The width (length) of the bottom bracket affects how far apart the feet are on the pedals. Spin bikes typically have a wider bottom bracket than regular bikes and therefore causes a rider’s feet to be further apart from each other. Why is this an issue?
There is a natural, vertical alignment of the legs that if tampered with, can create muscle imbalances, discomfort and the potential for injury.
The three points of vertical leg alignment are:
- An area on the front of the pelvis termed the ‘Anterior Superior Iliac Spine,’ or ASIS for short (noted as ‘b’ in the above image)
- The middle of the patella (kneecap)
- The second toe (next to the big toe).
When looking at the front of the body, the two vertical lines are parallel to each other, as noted in the image above. Therefore, if the pedals are too far apart, the feet are wider than the pelvis and often causes the knees to collapse inward when pedaling. Conversely, if the pedal position is narrower than the pelvis, the knees often bow outwards at the top of the pedal stroke.
Revolutions Per Minute (RPM’s for short), denote how fast you’re pedaling. Due to the heavy flywheel and the ability to take off any amount of pedaling tension via the resistance knob on spin bikes, a lot of spin bike users pedal at much higher RPM’s than their body can actually handle.
From a visual standpoint, riders whose butts hop up and down in the saddle is often indicative of too high RPM’s. Overly high RPM’s can stress the muscles and connective tissue of the hips and legs to the point of injury.
The combination of a heavy flywheel with little to no resistance most often equates to the bike being in control of the rider vs. the other way around. Remember, just because you can get your legs to go around at high RPM’s on a spin bike does not necessarily mean that you have good form or that you naturally have the ability to pedal that fast without the assistance of a 45 lb flywheel!
IT DOESN’T MOVE
When riding a bike outdoors, the bike moves some from left to right – even when riding in a straight line. However, an indoor bike does not move at all. Therefore, the small movements that the bike makes when riding outdoors to keep you steady on the bike are often transferred to your body when riding indoors.
As such, it’s not uncommon to feel ‘different’ when riding indoors vs. outdoors – even if you’re riding the same bike on a stationary trainer. So don’t be surprised if you’re a bit more sore or feel tightness in areas that you don’t typically feel tightness in when riding outdoors.
Getting properly set up with the right cleat position takes time. This is one reason why a proper bike fitting takes several hours and costs quite a bit of money. However, most people that just take indoor cycling classes or purchase a spin bike to use at home set up the cleat in a neutral position and start pedaling.
As the cleat is a mostly immovable interface between you and bike, any set up that isn’t close to spot on will likely result in knee/hip/low back pain. A cleat set up should NEVER be based on what looks right. It must be based on the individual.
I would advise that if you don’t have the time to get your cleats set up properly, you’d be better served riding in sneakers with toe clips (vs. clipless pedals), as your feet will naturally move into a position which is most biomechanically correct.
While riding an indoor bike is a great way to stay in shape and get a killer workout, by paying attention to the above areas, you’ll not only get a great workout, but also reduce your chance for injury!
Rick Prince is the founder/director of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science-based endurance sports education company. UESCA educates and certifies running and triathlon coaches (cycling and ultrarunning coming soon!) worldwide on a 100% online platform.
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