Or do I just need to knead my knee?
September 28, 2010 9:50 AM   Subscribe

I just got into road cycling this year. I bought a bike in February, and have been ramping up in miles and pace since then. I just did a metric century (actually ~67 miles) a few weeks ago, my longest ride yet, and it killed my left knee. With this in mind, how do I keep up my progress in the off-season and return harder better faster stronger? What else can I do to move up a division for next year? (Also-- your thoughts on trainer versus stationary exercise bike: give me them.)

I just got into cycling this year. I've commuted on a fixie for a few years now, but that's only about 2.5 miles each way. This February I bought an inexpensive steel bike and started making groupset upgrades. (It's now mostly Ultegra.) I made a little progress by myself in late Spring/early Summer, but I realized I hate navigating, so I joined the local bike club and have been going on their weekly rides ever since.

I started out with a C group and kept pace with them easily. I switched to the C+ group (longer, slightly faster) and kept pace, though not as easily. Still, no problems with either group. I did the "metric century" (67 mile) option of the group's annual century event, and got through it, but my knee was in a pretty bad way by mile 45 or 50. (That was by far the limiting factor-- no other soreness.)

Since then, I went on one Saturday C+ ride, but my knee started to hurt by mile 5 (of 45). I toughed it out, but paid for it the next day. I tried to do the same thing yesterday, but when my knee started complaining around mile 3, and I realized I didn't have an "off" day to recuperate, I turned back.

So what can I do? Is this a problem better taken to my local bike shop for a bike fitting*, or to my doctor (or a chiropractor or sports medicine doc)? Related: Is there a kind of knee brace that will help? Have you successfully gotten over cycling-related knee problems? I can describe it in more detail if that would help.

* My local, really excellent, LBS does saddle positioning fits for $75. For $100 they'll also look at and adjust handlebars, stem, and cleat positions.

I'm only 25, in decent shape, but I'm not the most physically-active person in the world. Before this, I never really "did" any sport at all (including walking, running, etc). I enjoy cycling much more than I ever did anything else, and I want to keep it up and get better.

I want to keep improving over the winter too, so I'm thinking of getting a trainer or stationary bike. Price is a definite factor, so which will give me a bigger bang-for-buck? My hesitancy with a trainer is that I only have one road bike, so I feel like I'd be putting real miles on it, wearing out the drivetrain. At the same time, though, it's the most accurate on-road experience.

From the outset: I have no desire to race. I suck at jockeying for position, even on a friendly ride, and I'm not that competitive (at sports, anyway). I just want to keep up with ever-faster and more serious groups of riders. If I go up to B rides, the possibility of being "dropped" becomes a factor-- at least psychologically. I at least need to get good enough so I'm not cripplingly scared of that eventuality.

And yes, I'm purposely avoiding the "Will a better bike help?" question. Sadly, it's well out of range of my finances. I'm sure I'll eventually post a "Why is BikesDirect so cheap? Is it worth the savings?" or "Best bike bang for the buck?" or "Aluminum, titanium, or carbon?" question, but please ignore that for now.

TL;DR: help me get from cycling noob to B-rider, despite my currently-gimpy knee, and the fast-approaching winter.
posted by supercres to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's always worthwhile with something like that to stop by the good local bikeshop to see if they have a fitting solution for your knee. My road-cyclist friends prefer their trainers for the fact that it helps keep them in good shape for their own bike. I'd also recommend strengthening, and add that if you have a way to get to some spinning classes they can be a great way to train for Spring.
posted by ldthomps at 10:06 AM on September 28, 2010

Best answer: I'm actually about the same age and also have a cycling related knee issue I'm not sure what to do with.

Here's what Sheldon Brown has to say about knee issues. Not sure if that will be helpful or not.

Regarding fitting vs medical help, do you have health insurance? Theoretically if you could be sorted out by a sports medicine physician and physical therapy that might be cheaper if you have good insurance. However, getting a good bike fit would probably help your overall riding comfort so it might be worth pursuing also.

I have a Kurt Kinetic Road Machine trainer, which is kind of expensive but a very nice fluid trainer. Personally I feel like the trainer is a much better simulation of bike riding than a stationary bike...because you're actually on the bike. Looks like you're in Philadelphia, maybe look for a used one on craigslist?

I wouldn't worry so much about the drive train wearing out, I personally hardly shift once I'm going on the trainer and replacing chains is pretty cheap if you make sure you do it before it gets too worn and starts damaging chainrings and cogs. What you need to worry about is your rear tire, trainers eat them. If you're pretty much just going to be on the trainer all winter I would either buy some cheapo $10 tire or a trainer-specific tire, if you go that route.
posted by ghharr at 10:08 AM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I paid 120 dollars or so for a pro bike fitting here in Portland and the improvement my body felt in the first hour was worth it. The put in a new stem for my handlebars, adjusted the height of my brake levers and many other things. Riding my bike went from being a crippling chore to an out and out pleasure.
posted by Asbestos McPinto at 10:14 AM on September 28, 2010

+1 to a bike fitting. I used to have a knee issue that would crop up when I went on long distance (ie century plus) rides. I tried strengthening exercises and gradual ramp-up schedules for a couple of years and didn't get much joy from them, and finally went to a shop to get a fitting done. The tech looked at me as I spun my bike on a trainer and noted that my knee was doing a figure-8 thing because I had a tendency to pronate my foot as part of my natural stride. He inserted a couple of orthotics into my shoe that straightened out my pedal stroke and the knee issues went away.
posted by bl1nk at 10:53 AM on September 28, 2010

Best answer: bike fit is exceedingly important, and I've posted here about it numerous times before. There's really not enough info in your post to pin this down because the causes of knee pain in cycling are pretty close to infinite and very difficult to diagnose through a text based interface like MeFi. Also, the less you know about cycling, the harder it is to figure out what's actually causing it.

It could be as simple as you're doing too much, too soon. A frequent cause of knee pain in cycling is increasing volume and intensity too rapidly for base fitness; this is actually so common across the board that the Europro racers have a term for it; they call it "spring knee"; usually to indicate a cyclist coming in from low (winter) form who gets all gung ho about peaking for an early season event and winds up with patellar tendonitis. I know you've set yourself an aggressive goal, but you do have to take a day or 2 off from time to time to recover; trying to do too much, too soon, is a pretty common recipe for overuse injury.

somewhat counterintuitively, the less experienced / fit you are coming into the sport, the EASIER it is to "over train". Trust me on this.

If you are using clipless pedals, I would also investigate your shoe/cleat interface vs. your knee tracking. If your cleats don't provide enough float or aren't properly positioned, then you may be twisting your knee counter to what it naturally wants to do by conformation. Many/most people have slight angular deformities in their leg bones and/or minor leg length discrepancies. This stuff can easily be addressed by an experienced bike fitter, but you can also do a simple check to make sure both cleats are in similar / neutral positions on your shoe first, and that the cleat system you are using has at least some degree of "float" (slop) to account for any minor tracking discrepancies. Also, have someone ride behind you and note if you have one knee that significantly deviates from a straight "track". Shoe inserts can help with tracking problems if they're severe enough that your knee hits the top tube or your heel is contacting the cranks, etc...

Last but not least, ITB (iliotibial band) tightness / soreness is probably THE most common single source of knee pain I've encountered in cycling, both my own and those I coach. Google it. When the ITB pulls on the patella, it causes it to misalign itself in the joint and creates all sorts of painful drama, with a very simple solution: loosen it up. You may simply want to get yourself a massage stick and/or foam roller and bang the knots out of your quads.

Good luck!
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:07 AM on September 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Without actually seeing you ride in person, I would not be able to offer any sort of advice. But Sheldon Brown's site is a good place to start.

You may need to incorporate stretching and other recovery protocols (ice, increased protein intake) into your post ride routine (note that I said "post," not "pre"). You may need to strengthen your quads and hamstrings. You may need to adjust your saddle height. You may be putting way too much emphasis on one leg, and need to do some one-legged pedalling drills. You may need to use easier gears, instead of "mashing" the pedals.

Don't worry about purchasing another bike just yet.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 11:17 AM on September 28, 2010

Best answer: Another suggestion for a good bike fitting session with the local bike shop. Not only can it potentially eliminate the knee pain, you will enjoy riding more.

I incline toward the stationary trainer instead of a stationary bike unit. Even an ill-fitted bike will be more comfortable than bike'ish devices. Don't worry about wearing out components, but you will wear down the rear tire faster than normal. That is just the way it goes.

Keep motivated and you will ride with the B group for sure. Cycling is a weird sport (been doing it for a while) and there are some peculiar attitudes that people bring to it. It is easy to get mentally bruised when you are maxed out and somebody passes you up or you get dropped by the group. Just use it as an opportunity to stretch your limits a little and over time you will get there. Ideally the B group goes the same route so you can fall back the C group if it doesn't work out the first few times.
posted by dgran at 11:23 AM on September 28, 2010

Best answer: I have recurring knee issues myself, and there are two things I came into this thread to recommend. Both have already been touched on.

First, get a fit. A full fit. Saddle, bars, cleats. Proper positioning will help, because if you're pushing down your leg 27,000 times on a ride (90 rpm x 60 min/hr x 5 hrs), something is bound to get mussed up if it's misaligned. What kind of pedals/shoes are you riding? I have friends whose knee issues went completely away switching from, for example, Speedplay to Shimano pedals. Something to consider.

Second, ride more. Not right away—stay the hell off that knee until it feels much, much better—but the more you develop the muscles in the leg, the less impact taken by the tendons and joint. When I had pain just after I started riding, my physio saw an imbalance between my lateral and medial quadriceps, neither of which was particularly strong at the time, and had me work them out. Riding more developed both muscles and now I generally ride pain-free.

As for the trainer, you can get a good one for less than $200, less on eBay or Craigslist. Don't bother with a stationary bike; you want to be on your own well-fitting bike. It does negligible damage to the drivetrain, far less than riding on the road because there's no crud being flung up into the chain and cassette. Just keep it oiled and you'll be fine. I rode my trainer for 7-10 hours a week last winter and my bike is happily riding along.

Bonus answers:
And yes, I'm purposely avoiding the "Will a better bike help?" question. Sadly, it's well out of range of my finances.

No, it won't, actually.

I'm sure I'll eventually post a "Why is BikesDirect so cheap? Is it worth the savings?"

Cheap mass-produced frames from open molds without LBS overhead. But they cut a lot of corners with parts and quality, and they're not worth the savings.

or "Best bike bang for the buck?" or "Aluminum, titanium, or carbon?" question

Well, the bike that fits you. At the low end—$3,000— there truly isn't much to differentiate bikes except geometry and branding. At a given price point, bikes will be similarly appointed, and the difference between a 105 and FSA crankset isn't going to mean that much when you're on the bike. And carbon is definitely the way to go.

posted by The Michael The at 11:34 AM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

By "$3,000", I meant "$3,000 and below"
posted by The Michael The at 11:36 AM on September 28, 2010

Oh, seeing as you're in Philly: if you ever have questions about routes or Philly clubs, MeMail me.
posted by The Michael The at 11:48 AM on September 28, 2010

$3000 and below is the "low end"?


Don't write off steel. It's all I ride. Yeah, I could be faster on something lighter, perhaps, but I don't think that's what's holding you back. Fit is probably the biggest issue (as others have said).

I was having knee problems late last year. So much so that when my wife got me the single speed I'd been eyeing as my Christmas gift, I was afraid she'd wasted her money. The single speed, though, was the single best thing for my knee. I think part of my issue was that I tended to keep the same cadence and position over long rides. With the single speed, my cadence varied all over the map, and my riding position changed as well when I had to stand up to climb even moderate hills. I think that variation broke my knee muscles out of some bad habits that were resulting in spasms.

So... on a totally off-the-wall recommendation, I would say in addition to (or perhaps instead of) a professional fitting, think about picking up a low-end single speed for $300-400. If nothing else it will give you some variety when you burn out on the road bike. Maybe you can even get a bike with a flip-flop hub and try that fixed gear thing.

Something to think about.
posted by Doohickie at 11:59 AM on September 28, 2010

No exercise will strengthen all of the muscles which support the knee joint more effectively than a correctly-performed barbell squat.
posted by JohnMarston at 12:08 PM on September 28, 2010

Response by poster: Wow. Thanks all, for the answers so far. A few things:

I'm going to get that fit. The $100 one. If nothing else, it'll make me more comfortable.

I do have insurance. If the knee problems don't go away after the fitting, I'll check in with the doc and maybe get a PT consult.

Thanks for the Sheldon Brown links. I can't believe I didn't think to check his site. I'm guessing my seat is too low, but of course, there could be other problems.

I ride with Shimano SPD (MTB-style) pedals and lower-end LG road shoes. I've been thinking of switching to Look/SPD-SL-style pedals, but these have a nice amount of float, and I like that they're not up-down specific (i.e., I can clip into both sides). They're ugly and heavy, but that's not my biggest concern.

Sounds like the trainer is the way to go. I actually have an old wheel, tire, and cassette (the one that came with my bike), so I just have to swap that out in the winter. And hopefully I still have some decent weather before then.

I do worry that some of the issues are from grinding too much, but I've been working on that. I usually stay in my small chainring on rides now, and a bigger cassette (13-25 or so) is on my "to-get" list.

I don't think I'm over-training, unless a five-mile commute every day counts. I'm really only going on one ride per week that's more than five miles. I might have accelerated my long ride length and pace too quickly though.

lonefrontranger: It's hard to say, but ITB looks like the spot that I've been getting pain from. I'll definitely try some targeted stretches before/after my next ride.

The Michael The: I ride with BCP on Saturdays (the C+ to Ambler) and Sundays (the C ride to wherever). I really like the people, so I'm definitely going to keep that up. And there's always someone who knows the route better than me. Next season I'll hopefully move up to the B rides that leave Saturday and Sunday mornings.
posted by supercres at 1:06 PM on September 28, 2010

A good set of rollers isn't cheap, but I find rollers are much more satisfying than a trainer to ride on when I can't ride outside. They force you to pay attention to balance in a way that a trainer doesn't. You can get rollers with resistance accessories, or TruTrainer rollers that have built-in resistance.

Rollers without resistance also help you develop an even spin and a faster cadence, which can be good for the knees.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:31 PM on September 28, 2010

I'm agnostic about the whole bike fit thing.. Seems to me you can figure it out for yourself, but it is obviously important to get it right.

Most likely it is your cadence. Spin faster!
posted by Chuckles at 1:33 PM on September 29, 2010

Funny, when my knee bothered me, it turns out that mashing helped it get better.
posted by Doohickie at 7:07 AM on October 12, 2010

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