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Why do my knees hurt when cycling? And then suddenly not hurt...?
March 15, 2012 4:54 AM   Subscribe

Why do my knees hurt when cycling? And then suddenly not hurt...?

First up...
* I'm hideously overweight.
* I've virtually no experience cycling.
* I've got virtually no experience of any kind of exercise.

A typical bike ride for me is 3 miles - out of my village, up the bypass road to the other end of the village and then back home again. The main drag of the bypass is about a mile long and steadily rises 100ft along its length.

Regardless of what gear I'm in I can only get about 2/3 of the way up that "hill" before my knees just scream for me to stop.

A minute or so at the side of the road and I'm ready to go again.

So... novice exercising questions...
* Why are my knees hurting?
* Should I be keeping going, or should I just keep trying to see if I can get further each time?

As an aside (if I can) why does my hybrid bike have gears so low that I can't use them without feeling I'll fall off and yet be so limited on the high gears that at 25mph (downhill rocks!) I can't pedal faster than the ratchet? Did I buy a shitty bike or am I doing something stupid?
posted by sodium lights the horizon to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not a doctor, but the good news is, it sounds like it's not a permanent, debilitating injury--yet. Most runners and cyclists are affected by knee problems, and the best remedy (for me) is to act before they occur, by building muscle in the legs at the gym. Work on machines or weights that strengthen the hams, quads, and calfs, and also attend a yoga or pilates class, or devote yourself to stretching. Try to do this for sixth months or so, and only then get back to biking up hills.

The mantra is, weights, then the aerobic sport.
posted by Gordion Knott at 4:59 AM on March 15, 2012


No idea about the knees, but your gearset may have been intended for use with larger wheels. Or for people that like going really slowly.
posted by clorox at 5:01 AM on March 15, 2012


I don't know either, but I wouldn't necessarily blame the knee problems on your weight. I'm not overweight, but every time I ride a bike, my knees are all oh dear god no.

I walk a lot (at least a mile every day, most days more) and I've never experienced any knee issues. (For unrelated medical reasons, though, I can't run, so no experience there.) So far only biking angers the knees.

If cycling were something I had any interest in doing, I would definitely see a doctor.
posted by phunniemee at 5:30 AM on March 15, 2012


Oh, and I meant to add: just like you, as soon as I stop pedaling, my knees are fine again. Same problems, evidently.
posted by phunniemee at 5:31 AM on March 15, 2012


Obligatory Sheldon Brown. Bicycling and Pain
posted by run"monty at 5:35 AM on March 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm no expert but bad joint alignment can cause knee problems as well as hip, back, and a bunch of other problems. My advice would be to see someone who can tell you about good posture such as a physiotherapist. It may also be due to the seat hight
posted by chelegonian at 5:37 AM on March 15, 2012


Try and spin at a high cadence, and don't put a lot of pressure on the knees. Aim for around 90rpm regardless of what gear you happen to be in. If you turn the cranks at much less than that, you're putting a lot of strain on your knees.

When you climb the hill, try to maintain the same cadence, but drop gears as and when you feel your cadence start to drop.
posted by daveje at 5:42 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll second the reference to Sheldon Brown's page on pain. It's a must read. Often, beginning cyclists have their saddle far too low, which can cause knee problems. But it might be something else. Daveje's suggestion about cadence (pedaling speed) is also good. Beginning cyclists often end up "mashing," i.e., pedaling too slowly with too much force on each pedal stroke. That tires out the knees fast. You want to pedal fast, in a smooth, circular motion. For recreational cycling, aiming for a cadence of 70-90 rpm is best. Racing cyclists will usually train in the 90-120 range.

As for the gearing: eventually you'll be thankful for the very low gear. When you can pedal comfortably at a fast cadence, you can tackle almost any hill if your gearing is low enough. Over 25 mph, most cyclists will go just as fast, if not faster, if they stop pedaling and lean forward for a more aerodynamic position. Unless you're racing, there's no reason to pedal your bike faster than 25 mph.

What gears do you have on your bike? A typical hybrid these days, such as an entry-level Dawes, will have 28, 38, and 48-tooth chainrings in front, and a 13-28 cassette in back (i.e. the biggest sprocket in back is 28 teeth, and the smallest is 13). With typical hybrid wheels (whose diameter is roughly 27" including the tires), that gives you a low gear of about 27 inches, and a high gear of about 100 inches. That's a very good range unless you're touring with a load. It's the gearing I have on the bike I use for long day rides. While I'm overseas I'm using a folding touring bike with lower gearing, about 20-90 inches, and I really don't miss the top gear.

To add some perspective, a low gear of 27.2 inches equals 4.8 mph if you are pedaling at 60 rpm, 6.5 mph at 80 rpm, and 7.3 mph at 90 rpm. A top gear of 100.3 inches is 17.9 mph at 60 rpm, 23.9 mph at 80 rpm, and 26.9 mph at 90 rpm.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:10 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


What daveje said is good, but goes only if you know what the likes of cadence is :)

I'll take a punt and say that you're riding a mountain bike, with knobby tyres; that will automatically make it harder to pedal, and going up a hill when you're not fit on a mountain bike is going to be hard. When I first started riding bicycles many years ago, I had to walk up hills and have children on BMXs zoom past me--let me tell you, I died a bit inside every time that happened, but I slowly gained the fitness to do those hills.

And then! I realised that bicycles really do make the difference, chose a different bicycle which made things that much easier, and won't ever buy a mountain bike for commuting ever again :)

You won't know what your gearing is, but it could be that your gearing is "high", which means that it's made for flat areas, and for speed in flat areas, and not all that good for climbing hills. That's when the much-maligned "granny" gearing comes in, and it's there for a reason: for the optimal cadence. Cadence is the spin of your legs, "revolutions per minute"--and 90 is a perfectly good one to be at, when you've gained some fitness, but everyone's different. There's a range of 75-105 or something like that. If you go too slow, it puts strain on your knee. If you do /that/ too long, you'll get softening of the cartilege and then the horrible knee pain that I get sometimes when I overdo it.

Now, the thing that's probably doing your knees in is that your saddle (seat) is too low. If you have it set so that you can put your feet on the ground while hovering in the saddle, then this is probably the case. Standover height is when you're off the saddle, with the frame between your thighs, and feet on the ground--that's where you should be able to stand, not with the saddle under your butt. If it's at that height it probably means that your knees are at too far an acute angle for optimum power, and the thrust is putting pressure on the joint of your knee rather than the muscle of your leg, where the power actually is, and you're not doing your body any favours.

Random link on getting your saddle height--there are plenty of places to find the info; google "optimum saddle height" or something like that, have a look at the best website that suits you, and go from there.

Also, pump up your tyres to optimum pressure. Every bit of PSI counts!

... on reflection, what brianoglivie said :)
posted by owlrigh at 6:12 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Could be as simple as your seat height is incorrect. Play around with your seat height and get back to us.
posted by TinWhistle at 6:19 AM on March 15, 2012


i would bet your seat is too low. your leg should be almost fully straight at the bottom of each stroke.
posted by facetious at 6:31 AM on March 15, 2012


Nthing seat height and a quicker cadence.

Your knees shouldn't be hurting uphill at all. Are you standing up? If yes, don't do that. It may look cool, and there are pro riders who do that, but it's not efficient or good on the knees. There's a "sweet spot" position to riding up hills that depends on how steep they are, once you get your seat height set properly.

Basically, you want to shift back on your seat (this is what depends on the hill's slope, you'll finagle it to where you won't go as far back on easy hills, and really far back on the steepest ones) so that your hip bones are near/almost on the back edge. Your arms will naturally straighten out a bit, so you want to lean forward until your elbows bend, hands almost pulling on the handlebars, and you feel a comfortable stretch across your back and thighs. At first it's a little odd, but as soon as you've pedalled a few strokes (at the right, quick cadence), you'll notice a huge difference in smoothness and power.

As far as efficiency and stamina, I can only give my anecdata experience: I'm a woman, and may look like a dork bent over with bum stuck out back, compared to dudes standing up and huffing, but I also pass them and still have energy to do a lot more :) Also, I have pretty sensitive knees and never have a problem on my bike. The only time I do is when I stand up for too long.

As far as cadence goes, you should aim for having a smooth, almost effortless stroke whose rate doesn't change much, if at all. If you feel yourself having to start pushing, shift down until it's no longer the case. With time and practice you'll notice that you can hold the same cadence at higher gears, so don't feel bad if/when you find yourself using the lowest one at first to keep a smooth pedalling motion.
posted by fraula at 6:45 AM on March 15, 2012


Thanks for the comments...

* My seat is significantly higher than it was following another AskMeFi. I can't recall if my legs end up straight, but the saddle is now high enough that I can't touch the ground with my arse on the saddle and the bike upright. That made it a hell of a lot easier on my back.

* I honestly don't recall if my bike is a Mountain or Hybrid but my wife swears she bullied me into buying a hybrid. But...

* It's always had what I would call road tyres on it - wide and smooth with tread cut into it instead of knobbly. SUV tyres, not Land Rover ones. :)

* 70-90 RPM sounds bloody high, and I'm definitely nowhere near that rate. I'm not actually sure I'd be able to manage that sort of speed.

* I know my structure is buggered up, so it's quite possible my knees go out rather than up and down.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 7:00 AM on March 15, 2012


If 70-90prm sounds 'bloody high', then you're pedalling too slowly at too high a gear, which is one of the best ways I know of to give you knee pain.

Your seat can probably still go up a few inches. The deal with the seat is that when you're pedalling, your leg is almost but not quite straight at the bottom of the stroke, ie, your knee is still a little bit bent, but not too much. If the seat's too low, it's inefficient. If it's too high, it strains muscles and joints, and can make you rock from side to side on the saddle. When you're trying to work out the correct height, make sure that your feet are vertical at the full extent of the stroke.

If the seat is too low, and you're pedalling slowly at a high gear, then this will cause you knee pain, and can also push your knees out to the side because you're putting too much effort into it. This is probably what's going on.

So, raise the seat, and train yourself to pedal faster with less effort. The correct gear at all times is the highest one where you can maintain a high cadence while putting very little strain on your knees. If you feel strain on the knees or your cadence is dropping, just change to a lower gear. If you feel you're spinning too fast, go up a gear.
posted by daveje at 7:22 AM on March 15, 2012


Seconding getting your saddle height correct. In your situation it would be best to have a bike guy (a friend or a bike shop guy for instance) but in a pinch you can do this...

Adjust your saddle up until when you pedal, your pelvis rocks from side to side. THIS IS OFFICIALLY TOO HIGH. Lower your saddle until your pelvis no longer rocks and there is a slight bent at the knee when the ball of your foot is on the lower pedal axle with the cranks pointed straight up and down.

Secondly try isolating your quads while pedaling, especially when climbing. As you pedal, bring your knees closer and closer together until they are almost touching the top tube as you stroke. This should maximize use of your quads and align your knees for comfort and efficiency.

Bicycling is for everybody, no doubt about it, but there is more to it that just getting on a bike and riding. Everybody can benefit from proper positioning while riding, for comfort and efficiency. If you observe most riders, they ride pretty bow legged with the saddle too low.
posted by No Shmoobles at 7:34 AM on March 15, 2012


Yup. Lower gear, faster cadence (spinning) should be your mantra.

You might also have some patella alignment issues, which pushing hard in a low gear will aggravate bigtime: If fixing your bike position & cadence doesn't help, then get yourself to a physio.

When my knees flared up (and I'm a regular commuting cyclist) it was because a needed to exercise the supporting muscles on either side of the leg more: I was ordered to do low weight (or no weight) squats and single leg squats to exhaustion, which cleared things up in no time. You might have a different problem however, so get some professional advice first!
posted by pharm at 8:52 AM on March 15, 2012


Also, if you're just starting out cycling then there's no shame whatsoever in stopping on the way up a hill when you run out of puff! Your body needs a bit of time to adjust to the new demands you're putting on it. If you keep track over time you should find that the distance you can go without stopping increases. How quickly depends on the individual...
posted by pharm at 8:56 AM on March 15, 2012


Have you gone into a bike shop for a proper fitting? I was a pretty regular bike commuter and after awhile decided to try a hybrid. I ended up not liking it for a number of reasons but I also felt pretty good on it with minor adjustments but halfway through my regular commute, my knees would be screaming. I took it back in and asked for a fitting (my bike shop has two kinds, a basic fitting and a more intense one where they swap out seats, handlebars, etc., and dial everything in). But the basic fitting was enough to stop the knee pain. I ended up returning the bike because, it turns out, I like to commute on a road bike, not a hybrid.

Secondly, when you're at the bike shop, talk to them about your gearing and the trouble you are having. They may have some tips for you for using your gearing optimally or they may look at your setup and recommend bigger or smaller chain rings.

Also, don't worry about having to stop halfway up a hill. Eventually, you'll make it!
posted by amanda at 9:27 AM on March 15, 2012


Take your bike to a good shop and get fitted properly. Simply adjusting the seat isn't enough.

I had all manners of achy this and hurting that until I finally got a proper fitment. It's even a possibility that the entire bike itself is sized wrong for you (it sounds like it might be slightly too big). This is exactly why you should stay away from WalMart bikes and go to a reputable shop that'll get you fitted the way you need to be.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 9:33 AM on March 15, 2012


You need to adjust your saddle height.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:26 AM on March 15, 2012


Those higher RPMs quoted should be easier for you, because you should be in an easier gear to compensate. Struggling up hills in too high of a gear might seem like a better workout, but if you drop to a much easier gear you'll feel much better and burn the same amount of energy in the end. Low and slow is how I take my hills.
posted by kaspen at 10:56 AM on March 15, 2012


Fellow overweight cyclist here! The general advice about seat height and adjusting your cadence is great. However! While I know from personal experience that spinning at a good, knee-friendly cadence can feel really silly and wrong ("Shouldn't there be more resistance from the pedals? Shouldn't I be working harder? And I'll bet I look ridiculous pedaling so fast and furiously!") and takes some time to get used to, that doesn't mean you have to push yourself to get to 90 RPM. 90 RPM may be the ideal cadence for a fit cyclist, but it's not what those of us who aren't in that category need to aim for. Just start out with a higher cadence than you're currently using--if that means going from 40 RPM to 50 RPM, so be it. Then as you start getting used to that, try adjusting it some more until you find a good balance.

And it is all about balance for us. The same techniques and metrics that work for racers and other lighter, leaner riders don't necessarily work for us. The way I understand it, high gear/low cadence puts stress on the knees, and low gear/high cadence puts stress on the cardiovascular system. Racers often choose to put the bulk of the stress on their cardiovascular system because their bodies can handle it. My 260 lb ass? Not so much. My heartrate monitor would go nuts, and my doctor would be most cranky. So I try to find the balance between keeping my knees happy and not having a heart attack.

You might also want to look at whether your knees are moving too much laterally--do they point outward or inward when you pedal? If so, that's putting more stress on your knees than proper straight-up-and-down form does, so try to maintain that form. If you find it too difficult to do so, you may need Knee Savers (or a similar product) to adjust your pedal position slightly. A good fit from a good bike shop can help a lot, too.

You might also want to check out the Clydesdales/Athenas forum at BikeForums.net. That's what male & female riders over a certain weight class are called, and there are a lot of us! I've found it helpful to be able to talk to others about the stuff the leaner and lighter riders don't necessarily have to deal with.

Take care of yourself, but do keep going! I went from sheer terror of getting on the bike to short, flat, 3-mile rides like you're doing to 20- 30-mile weekend rides, some with hills I would have previously considered literally impossible to ride up. There is a joke in the cycling world that "it never gets easier, you only go faster," but it really does get easier, more quickly than you'd imagine if you keep at it.
posted by rhiannonstone at 1:27 PM on March 15, 2012


sodium lights the horizon: I can't recall if my legs end up straight, but the saddle is now high enough that I can't touch the ground with my arse on the saddle and the bike upright.

That's too high. (I'm also an overweight cyclist) Lower it a bit. The other comments about cadence are solid though. It took me a while to get used to the idea, but it really is all about cadence. When you change gears, find the gear combination that lets you keep a steady pace.
posted by Decimask at 6:11 PM on March 15, 2012


Decimask: That depends on how high the bottom bracket is on the bike. Whether you can touch the ground from the saddle is a function of bike design, not whether you've got the saddle too high or not.
posted by pharm at 9:40 AM on March 17, 2012


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