Bike legs.
August 11, 2010 7:53 PM   Subscribe

BikeCommuteFilter: Shifting up to riding five days a week. But my legs already hurt from my twice-a-week routine!

Here in Seattle, I ride my bike to work and halfway home about twice a week. It's 6 miles one way (4 on roads, 2 on the fast Burke-Gilman trail) and 3 miles back (2 miles of trail, 1 on flat roads, and a quick bus ride up hellacious Capitol Hill). I'm about to move so my commute becomes 5 miles round-trip, and I'm hoping to ride it every day, roughly doubling my weekly mileage.

The problem I have is that I usually ride on Mondays and my legs are so achy when I wake up in the morning that I usually don't have the willpower to ride again until Wednesday -- or even Friday! Just getting out of bed is mildly painful.

Any tips for how to get beat the aches? Other than 'wake up an hour earlier and take aspirin'. This will have to change if I want to stop driving. I eat a lot of bananas because I'm told potassium helps, but it hasn't so far, and the aches have been coming for at least a month.

(I ride a single-speed freewheel bike with a high gear ratio (17T:52T), so I can usually keep a fast clip on the flat trail. The 6.2 mile ride takes me 25 minutes with traffic and stoplights. I'm in OK shape endurance-wise, and occasionally will do a 30 mile weekend ride without taking any serious breaks, so I don't think I'm just out of shape.)
posted by zvs to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Pay attention to your body. Stretch before and after you ride and throughout the day. Work the tension out. Drink good amounts of water. Develop an appreciation for moderate physical discomfort. This last suggestion seems weird, but (for instance) I always sleep really well when I am physically tired and worn-out. The pleasant feeling of laying down when tired is only possible after enduring the mild discomfort of physical activity.
posted by kuatto at 8:02 PM on August 11, 2010

I used to commute by bike--10 km trip each way; uphill pretty much the entire way there. I started commuting from nothing, as in I was getting pretty much zero exercise (other than the the effort of lifting a drink to my mouth). The first week, I thought I'd die. My legs were bloody stumps. The second week I thought maybe I'd survive but it was doubtful. By week three it was all good. So I guess what I'm saying is if you have the mental fortitude to stick it out, you'll adjust very quickly as long as you stay hydrated and eat relatively well. Doing a commute every day kicks your ass into shape in a hurry.
posted by Go Banana at 8:06 PM on August 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You need to do some stretches when you get off the bike.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:07 PM on August 11, 2010

Best answer: To be perfectly honest, that's not an especially long bike ride. 15mph is not a bad average pace, though, so fitness isn't the problem. My guess would be that you have a poorly fitted bike. The seat being too low can definitely give you achy legs. When you're sitting on the seat, your heal resting on the pedal in the downwardmost position should have your leg basically fully extended.
posted by resiny at 8:11 PM on August 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

Normally, you only get aches (in the sense of actual tenderness & soreness) the first couple of times you subject muscles to exercise that haven't been used to it (at least, not in recent times). Then your body gets used to it & the pains go away.

I'm surprised that you've been getting this for a month. I'd suggest persevering for a little longer & the pains should go away. I ride those kinds of distances you talk about daily, and don't get sore. As others have suggested, stretching helps.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:15 PM on August 11, 2010

You don't describe the aches, I'm going to assume that you are talking about muscle soreness in the usual suspects (quads, hamstrings, or calves). The first question to ask yourself is how long has this been going on? I'm surprised your body hasn't adapted. As for fixing the aches, a couple of people mentioned stretching. After I work out, I roll out on a foam roller, then do some yoga stretches. Google "rolling out foam roller" and you'll see plenty of information about this technique. Not as good as a massage, but you can do it in a couple of minutes by yourself. The other possibility is tweaking the fit of your bike (maybe the saddle height?) and/or your gearing ratio. 52/17 is a pretty big gear to be pushing on a single speed, in my opinion.
posted by kovacs at 8:15 PM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

As long as you are talking about aching muscles, and not aching bones/joints/other stuff, it's all good. Feel the burn. All that macho stuff.

I find there are two different types of "fitness".

One is cardio fitness. This means you can ride at a significant speed, for a significant period of time. It sounds like you have a reasonable level of this.

Separate to this is muscle fitness. Your quads need to grow to the demands you are placing on them. The single-speed probably means you'll be pushing down on the pedals harder than you otherwise would. With gears you would shift gears to go uphill, and spin at a faster cadence.
posted by antiquark at 8:27 PM on August 11, 2010

I'd look at raising the seat and bringing down the gear ratio so you're spinning more. Or, what kovacs said.
posted by Opposite George at 8:38 PM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm going to suggest you consider three things as solutions:

As St. Alia suggested, stretching after your ride should help reduce aches.

As resiny suggested, your bike may not fit you properly. A poorly fitted bike is like a poorly fitted shoe... too much action or distance is gonna hurt, even when you're fit. Any decent bike shop can help you with bike fitting.

As kovacs and antiquark mentioned, single speed bikes are less than ideal for commuting. Ideally, for optimum efficiency and muscle health, you should be doing about 90-120 RPMs with your legs while riding. Any lower RPMs mean you are putting too much strain on your leg muscles, comparable to 15 minutes of constant weight lifting. The idea with gearing is that you adjust your gears so that you are using lower muscle strength to move the bicycle. I've been cycling for years, and wouldn't consider anything less than 12 speeds in Victoria, BC, where I live (which is likely as hilly as Seattle)... and even then I avoid the worst hills if I can... at least now that I'm getting ancient and feeble.
posted by Sustainable Chiles at 8:50 PM on August 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

Poorly fitted bike + single gear brutality is responsible for your pain here, I reckon. That kind of distance/pace should not be giving you that level of trouble.
posted by smoke at 8:53 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hmm. If you can't cycle two days in a row you have to admit to yourself that you actually don't have very good endurance.

My advice would be to lower that gear ratio a little - how about a 46t/48t, instead of a 52t?

And just make a promise to do 5 days in a row. Get up a half hour early and just go for it - soreness be damned. If you're going ape-shit fast one day, no wonder you're so sore the next.

Go slower.

Alleve is your friend.

Serious about the, "force yourself to do 5 days in a row" - it's amazing what you can do, once you don't have a choice.
posted by alex_skazat at 8:55 PM on August 11, 2010

I was never a great cyclist, but I used to ride a lot, so...

nthing poor bike fit as a possibility - I'm also wondering if the pace isn't overly ambitious. A 15 mph avs is moderate if you can pedal in a steady-state fashion, but depending on traffic, lights, etc. you might just be trying to burn it up too much on the commute.

You mentioned you're doing a 30 mile fun ride on the weekends with less ill effects, if I read you right, and that also suggests you're trying to do too much hard acceleration in your commute, which would also correlate with pushing tall gear ratios to avoid downshifting a lot? Just a guess...
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:55 PM on August 11, 2010

I second SC's (and everyone else's excellent advice.) I've just gotten into a decent biking routine in the last 6 weeks. I bike 13-15 a day at roughly 12-15mph. Some light hills, some flat straights and a few bumps over bridges. Nothing super crazy, but then I'm doing it for the exercise.

The first 3 weeks were hell. Sometimes, when I go on a 20 mile weekend ride, it's still hell. Having said that though, the daily rides are cake now. I'm not saying I'm not tired and that it doesn't hurt sometimes but at the end of each ride I feel ten times better and I always step off and 3 minutes later think "I could do that again, right now."

Keep at it. Get a decent geared bike (single speed will wreck your knees on distance riding) and have it properly fitted. Getting my 15 year old frame fitted instantly helped me add miles to my rides. I didn't feel like I was beating myself up with every stroke.
posted by damiano99 at 9:00 PM on August 11, 2010

If you can't cycle two days in a row you have to admit to yourself that you actually don't have very good endurance.

I think instead you should admit that gears are really, really useful when commuting.

Don't cover this up with drugs. They're fine to take away the pain you have, but if you need to take naproxen every week, then you need to change something else as surely as you would without it.
posted by grouse at 9:20 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

The solution is really to use gears so that you can downshift and spin. If you won't do that, at least drop your gear ratio. Grinding (as you surely are on your singlespeed if you run into any kind of hill) wears out your muscles many times faster than spinning. I promise you that if you switch to a geared drivetrain and keep your cadence up near 90rpm, you will be able to ride every day without aching. Before I bought a speedometer with cadence measurement (and started thinking about my cadence), I used to grind up hills at 50-70rpm and get sore legs. Now I spin much faster and my legs are never sore unless I've been in the saddle for 4+ hours.
posted by ssg at 9:28 PM on August 11, 2010

I got a bike in May and had sore legs for a while. One thing that made that stop was time. I guess my legs got used to it.

But another thing that helped a lot was The Stick. Oh boy does that thing work. You rub it on your sore muscles; they feel better.
posted by oreofuchi at 9:36 PM on August 11, 2010

Response by poster: A lot of advice. To be clear, I've been riding my bike on a frequent basis for a year or two, I didn't just jump on last month. I find that my performance has actually become significantly worse, ache-wise. (But I previously only rode 1-2 miles at a time on my commute.)

Aches: almost exclusively in my calves.

I realize Seattle, in the abstract, is hilly, but my commute is as close to flat as it gets. The Burke Gilman barely even has a gentle rise. I never hit a situation where I wish I could downshift (and indeed, I rode the same gearing configuration on the aforementioned 1-2 mile commute, which was hillier, without problems).

That's why I disagree with suggestions about the gearing -- I considered leaving it out of my question, in fact. I really will not be happy with a lower gear. I originally had a 42T chainring instead of 52 and I got so sick of spinning out on gentle downhills that I ditched it.

I'm willing to bet bike fit could be the problem. My previous singlespeed didn't have aches, but it also had to be replaced, and it's possible the new bike is misfit. May need a higher seat...
posted by zvs at 10:01 PM on August 11, 2010

Response by poster: And, having looked at a fitting guide, raised the seat 3" so my legs are fully extended and took a (pretty painless) lap around the neighborhood. Probably a good hunch. Will report back, as always.
posted by zvs at 10:26 PM on August 11, 2010

Best answer: raised the seat 3" so my legs are fully extended and took a (pretty painless) lap around the neighborhood.

Hmm, well the problem here is that that's not how high your seat should be - what fitting guide recommended that? There's certainly some room within the "rules" for comfort, but I've always been told (including by professional bike fitters) that you never want to fully extend your legs while riding. One fairly simple guide recommends that you leg should be straight if you have your heel on the pedal; the bend you should have in your knee is there since you pedal with the ball of your foot, not your heel. Having your saddle too high can cause pain in your knees and also force your hips to move excessively (which wrecks your ass, also may tweak your back). My saddle is positioned so that I extend about 90-95% on both my road bike and my commuter.

My commute is about the same as yours - flat and not super long. I was sore for a couple weeks when I started (I went right to 4 or 5 days a week), but that shouldn't last long. 5 days a week was no problem at all after a month or so... now I just go faster and faster. Your seat probably did need to be higher, that would account for some muscle soreness since a lower seat results in much lost efficiency, but please do avoid riding with your seat too high. 3 inches is a huge change to make all at once, so you'd be fine just doing 2 inches and seeing how you do for a couple weeks.

Another fairly simple guide.
posted by pkingdesign at 11:30 PM on August 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Do you ever cramp? If I get dehydrated, my calves sometimes cramp, and the pain persists for some time after. If you're not accustomed to drinking lots of water, start. And ditch the coffee.

Another possibility is that you're working too hard. 15mph isn't fast, but it might be for you. Are you breathing enough that talking would be difficult? Do you feel the burning while you're riding?

Finally, do you get the aches after your 30 mile weekend ride? If not, what's different about it?

If your saddle was three inches too low, your position must have been awful.
posted by klanawa at 11:34 PM on August 11, 2010

You had to raise your saddle an entire 3" before your legs reached full extension at the bottom of the stroke?????? Christ...your position on the bike wasn't just "misfit", it was seriously fucked up. My legs will start complaining if the saddle is too low by literally 0.5" (no, I'm not exaggerating). Quite obviously that's the problem.
posted by randomstriker at 11:38 PM on August 11, 2010

Response by poster: Well, it was maybe a 2" difference. And sorry, pkingdesign, I was oversimplifying -- I meant 'straight-legged with heel on the pedal', not 'knee-popping extension'.
posted by zvs at 11:55 PM on August 11, 2010

An average speed of 15 mph is actually pretty fast for Seattle. Everything is so hilly here. 10 mph is probably more realistic, depending on how hilly your route is, and considering most of your ride is on roads and not the Burke-Gilman.

Make sure you are fitted to your bike, and keep a steady cadence when biking. You'll get into the swing of things in no time.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:57 PM on August 11, 2010

Response by poster: At the risk of going into too much detail, 15 MPH isn't too crazy on this route, because it's mostly on near-empty backstreets, and mostly downhill (I skip the nasty uphill on the way home). Once I'm on the trail, it's all very quick. Honestly, 15 might be a little slower than accurate.

(And the new route will be 90% Burke-Gilman.)
posted by zvs at 12:02 AM on August 12, 2010

Semi-Amateur Tip: If you want really fast and low-exertion into U. District, like 30+ mph fast, pop up to 23rd and sail down 24th. Once it levels out in Montlake you can more or less cruise to the bridge at 20 mph or so. You don't have to use much power on this route and cars will leave you alone if you assert your space.

Burke-Gilman is pretty flat around the area you're describing, so 15 mph isn't out of the question.

The advice given to fit yourself better to your bike is pretty good. Make sure your tires are well-inflated. No sense in blowing out your knees on a set of near-flats.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:15 AM on August 12, 2010

Response by poster: Not a bad concept. Thankfully, I only have a few more runs of this (fairly annoying) ride before I move. Thanks for all the tips!
posted by zvs at 12:29 AM on August 12, 2010

Ok, I have to chime in again here. I understand your frustration with spinning out on a downslope... that sucks.

In fact, part of the joy of multi-speed bikes is the ability to shift into a lower gear on a downslope and really haul ass... There's nothing quite so satisfying as passing cars on a bike, hot diggity!

Just saying, if you try a decent multi-speed bike, you may never go back to single speed ;)
posted by Sustainable Chiles at 1:21 AM on August 12, 2010

I think instead you should admit that gears are really, really useful when commuting.

@grouse: Speaking from experience of doing Insanity with a single speed bike, it's not the lack of gears the holds you back, it's sincerely doing too much, on too big of a gear - you have to go with a smaller gear ratio, you have to forfeit going faster with a higher gear ratio and you have to compensate by learning how to spin well.

I've done (well over) 100+ mile rides, I've raced and I've done tours with a single speed, fixed gear bike. And never above a ratio of ~2:1. I'm not talking hooey.
posted by alex_skazat at 2:35 AM on August 12, 2010

Yeah, don't listen to the people telling you that you can't commute on a single speed (though you might think about changing the gear ratio). I did it 6 days a week for years, and still use it for getting around the city and hauling groceries/the kid. The best part is that it will get you in crazy good biking shape, such that you can just hop on and do 50+ mile rides without any trouble. I keep a geared bike for long trips and when I really want speed. Some people just have this crazy idea about how you need to be spinning against no real resistance all the time. It might be that you just started doing too far, too fast, and need to ease off the pace for a while until you build up some leg strength.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 4:36 AM on August 12, 2010

I didn't say that one couldn't do it, but it's a lot easier with the gears. There aren't any big hills on that section of the Burke-Gilman, but I'm pretty happy to be able to switch gears on the smaller ones. I'm not a hardcore cyclist, but I'm pretty sure I could cycle that route five days a week without getting sore.

Still, if your seat height was off by 2 in, that is surely a big part of the problem.
posted by grouse at 5:49 AM on August 12, 2010

If you've got persistent DOMS, you're not properly recovering from your exercise. The two biggest factors affecting recovery are diet and sleep. Eat more protein and sleep more. You could try taking fish oil supplements, too.
posted by JohnMarston at 7:48 AM on August 12, 2010

Response by poster: Just saying, if you try a decent multi-speed bike, you may never go back to single speed ;)

I rode multi-speed bikes for 17 years, so I'm not a total neophyte. In fact, it was an AskMe question that led me to switch for the single-speed, and I seriously doubt I will ever go back. Great performance, cheap, and 0 maintenance. That's important to me since I've never paid over $60 for a bike and derailleurs on a $60 bike are typically... less than functional.
posted by zvs at 9:10 AM on August 12, 2010

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