Why does spinning hurt my knees?
October 25, 2010 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Why do my knees hurt after spinning, but running doesn't bother them?

Probably too much background: I am 28 years old, female, 5'4", with no history of knee injury or knee pain, or any other injuries or joint pain. I am currently about 5 lbs over the top of the bmi range for my height, and about 10-12 lbs over my personal goal weight. At the beginning of this year, I weighed about 10 lbs more than I currently do.

I was an athletic child/teen, though never skinny, and I played basketball, soccer and softball up through the end of high school without any injuries. In college I went to the gym sporadically, but my main form of exercise was walking on campus. In grad school I got into the gym routine somewhat, but wasn't always consistent with it. I am better at making myself do cardio than strength training and was doing cardio (running or elliptical generally) a few times a week consistently, as well as periodically playing full-court basketball and work league softball.

Despite trying to maintain my activity levels, my desk job was winning with respect to weight and making me feel out of shape. In January I started working with a trainer and tried to be more consistent with hitting the gym (in addition to trying to eat better). It has mostly worked - I am much stronger than I was previously, and my running and general cardio abilities have improved.

Since January I've been doing strength training twice a week for an hour each time - lots of squats, lunges, compound lifts, plyometrics, core work, kettlebells, and some functional training. I haven't had any joint pain during the strength training sessions and my form is good (or corrected when it hasn't been). I've also been doing cardio on my own 3-5 times a week, for 35-60 minutes a session. The cardio has been running 2-3 times per week (never two days in a row), swimming, or elliptical machines. I've increased my running gradually and currently do 30-40 minutes twice a week, with 45-60 minutes once a week. My shoes are comfortable (and fitted from a specialty running store) and I stretch after all my cardio (and strength) sessions.

I've wanted to add spinning classes to my cardio choices because I've taken a handful in the past and enjoyed them, while also feeling that I got a good workout. I also read that cycling uses different muscles from running, and is generally easier on the joints. I've also toyed with the idea of getting a bike and biking instead but was planning on waiting for the spring.

However, two weeks ago I went to a spinning class (for the first time in several months) the day after I ran 4 miles. The bike was adjusted with the instructor's help and my form in the mirror looked fine. I was feeling a sort of dull pain on the side/bottom of my left knee however, pretty much from the start of the class, but I kept at it (possibly a stupid move), thinking that it would get better as the class went on. It hurt mostly while seated, as opposed to the standing portions of the class, but never went away, though it was certainly bearable. However, even worse, for the next four days, both my knees were incredibly achy. Again, it didn't stop me from doing anything, but there was constant throbbing aching (relieved temporarily while I iced them) that I'm concerned about. My mother has arthritis and bad knees, and I don't want to aggravate something now that will have life long repercussions.

The aching eventually stopped, and for the last two weeks I've avoided spinning classes, and stuck with running and elliptical and my knees have felt great. However, I'm not prepared to give up on spinning/cycling unless I'm sure that I have to. Therefore, my questions are:

1. Is there something specific about spinning (as opposed to running/elliptical) that would be hurting my knees? And more importantly, what, if anything, can I do so that it doesn't hurt?

2. If spinning is bad for my knees, does it necessarily follow that biking would be as well? I biked a LOT as a child, and never had any problems and have biked occasionally in the past few years without any problems.

Thanks for any thoughts or advice.
posted by Caz721 to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Something is probably off with your fit on the spin machine, I've had similar knee issues from having my seat too far forward.
posted by ghharr at 11:34 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'll second ghharr - get someone who really knows how to fit a bike to look at your fit. I've had problems with the seat being too low when I don't pay attention and that has cause me knee discomfort.
posted by cftarnas at 11:40 AM on October 25, 2010

I get a pain like that if I try to keep my feet straight when pedaling. My natural motion has my right heel pointed out just a little. Fortunately, I now know this and all my bikes are setup to accommodate this. I figure this out by riding my bike mounted in a trainer and watching the motion of my knee through the pedal stroke and trying to find the adjustment that would keep it in a smooth circle. You could probably do this on the spinning bike too.
posted by advicepig at 11:51 AM on October 25, 2010

Spinning isn't like real cycling (says the woman who just impulsively bought a package of 5 classes to tide me over the worst parts of the winter *sigh*). IIRC my old spinning classes correctly, they have you put on some serious resistance to stand up and pedal up the "hills", instead of shifting to less resistance and pedalling faster. This puts a lot of stress on your poor knees. See this old AskMe discussion for a pretty strong consensus that high resistance isn't great for you.

If you have great form, a great fit, and strong, well aligned muscles, you may be able to mash like this with relatively little damage if it's an occasional part of your workout. Take it easier on the hard sections -- there's nothing wrong with spinning fast instead -- and talk with a trainer, sports doc or physiotherapist to see where your weight training can be tweaked to strengthen the appropriate muscles around your knee.
posted by maudlin at 12:32 PM on October 25, 2010

Bike fit sounds like the problem. Did you clip in or use the toe straps?

My knees hurt if I'm too "tippy toed" on the pedals and not pushing with the full foot. I always have problems with the toe straps since it forces me into the tiptoe position, but when I use my clip-in cycle shoes I'm good.
posted by 26.2 at 12:32 PM on October 25, 2010

During spinning instructor training they spend Hours on how to fit the bike to the student, and almost Nobody comes out knowing how to truly get it right the first time for every student. Spinning should be Great for your knees, and the fact that it hurt more when you were in the saddle says to me (someone who took their training and taught classes for about a year) that, yes, you saddle wasn't in quite the right spot.

Most people need to be a little further back and higher up than they might expect, but tell the instructor the problem you had last time, and work with them to see if you can figure out what adjustment needs to be made. If your knees hurt, stop. You've learned that this isn't the sort of thing you can peddle through.

Good luck, it can be such a fun workout!
posted by ldthomps at 12:33 PM on October 25, 2010

When I took the cert one way they had us check fit was if you put your HEEL on the pedal your leg could be straight (that way you had the slight angle when your foot is in position) and to check position, bring your feet (while on pedals) "parallel" (in other words, equidistant to floor, one foot behind, one foot ahead) and make sure your knee was directly over the ball of your foot on the pedal. (It was even suggested we get a weight on a fishing line to check!)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:02 PM on October 25, 2010

You might take a look at the late Sheldon Brown's advice on cycling and pain, especially knee pain, as well as his article on saddle height adjustment.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:55 PM on October 25, 2010

Oh, and you definitely should be spinning--i.e. cycling quickly, at least 70 rpm if not much faster, with low resistance--and not mashing, i.e. pedaling slowly with high resistance. As Sheldon wrote, that can be very bad for the knees.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:57 PM on October 25, 2010

The number one reason for sore knees, in spinning and cycling, is saddle height. A secondary cause is mashing the pedals (as another poster says - pedaling slow at high resistance). Finally, you should keep your feet as light on the pedal as possible; you are pulling up with your hamstrings / pushing down with your quads - not your feet.

Also, avoid jumps. They are unnatural.
posted by Siena at 4:28 PM on October 25, 2010

My first few spinning classes were agony. It took quite a few sessions before I figured out the most comfortable bike setup for me. I had to buy new trainers since mine were too tight and I ended up with a black toenail. I used to let my arms take too much weight instead of straightening up and engaging my core, my hands would go horribly numb before I figured this out.

If I hadnt been going to the classes with a friend I'd probably have decided it was too painful and stopped but Im glad I stuck it out, it doesnt hurt at all now that I'm fitter and have better technique.
posted by Ness at 3:55 AM on October 26, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone - all very helpful. I'm going to try to make it to a beginners class this week, so I can have a little more time to speak with the instructor and play around with the bike set up. Thanks again.
posted by Caz721 at 7:50 AM on October 26, 2010

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