Does cycling strengthen knees?
Unfortunately, knee pain is a commonly reported complaint amongst road cyclists. It seems that back pain is the biggest problem, closely followed by knee pain in second place. In fact, I recently read a study where 23% of professional cyclists had said that they had suffered from knee pain or a knee injury in recent years. That’s not to say that 23% of us non-professional road cyclists will have knee problems but pain in the knees is still a common problem.
So why is this? I thought cycling was supposed to be good for your joints as it’s a low impact activity that’s supposed to not stress your joints. I decided to do a little bit of research and to try to find the answer to the question:
Is road cycling good for your knees? Road cycling is good for the knees in that it is a low impact activity that doesn’t stress the joints. Cycling is good for strengthening the muscles around the knee joints which in turn supports and strengthens them. However, there are a number of factors that can cause problems with knees when cycling such as poor bike fit and poor technique.
Does road cycling strengthen your knees?
According to the Chester Knee Clinic and Cartilage Repair Centre people who cycle regularly have up to 10% more muscle on their legs than people who don’t. Now, it stands to reason that a proportion of this muscle is going to be connected to, and will support the knee joint. Your knees take quite a battering on a daily basis in that they absorb a lot of impact as well as have to twist and flex as we change direction. In fact, sports like football, basketball, and others where you have to quickly accelerate or suddenly and frequently change direction are known to put an excessive amount of stress on the knee joints.
Our day-to-day lives are less stressful on our knees as they are heavily used and as we get older increasingly the knee joints become more worn. So, if we have strong and supple supporting muscles around our knee joints it stands to reason that less strain will be put on the joint itself and we will suffer less pain as a consequence.
When you are cycling your legs can rotate around several thousand times an hour which means that inevitably, even if you are cycling at a relatively steady pace your leg muscles are getting a good workout. Cycling is also a low-impact sport so your knee joints themselves aren’t put under any excessive stress. You can get a similar workout for your legs through running or jogging but obviously, every time your foot hits the ground your knee joint has to soak up the excess energy from the impact. Cycling doesn’t have any of these associated issues and along with swimming is one of the lowest impact sports you can participate in.
So, if you add all of these advantages together then cycling really does inevitably strengthen the muscles around your knees although, if you have an ongoing knee condition such as Osteoarthritis, cycling won’t cure the underlying problem.
Is cycling good for bad knees?
So it makes sense that cycling is in many ways excellent for your knees. However what is causing all of the problems? Cyclists do commonly report knee pain so what is it about cycling, bearing in mind that it’s generally very good for your knees, which could be causing the problem? Here are a few issues that could be causing problems with cyclist’s knees:
Not warming up – Its’ really tempting to go hell for leather and totally flat out from cold right at the beginning of your cycle ride. You feel fresh, full of energy and are raring to get out and hit the open road. However, if you aren’t careful, setting off too fast can be damaging not only to your knees but other muscles in your body as well. It’s a far better plan to do a proper warm-up and to gradually increase the amount of effort you are making as your body and muscles warm up. Cold muscles are tough and inflexible and prone to damage, as they warm up they become much more supple and able to work more efficiently.
So for the first 10 to 15 minutes of your ride, you should be going very gently and gradually increasing your effort as time goes by. Start in a low gear at a high cadence to loosen up the leg muscles. Think in terms of spinning your legs quickly and smoothly for a start before you move into a higher gear and start exerting more pressure on the pedals. As you warm up you can gradually include some very brief fast sprint efforts but be careful that you don’t overdo it.
For me personally, I find that if I can resist the temptation to go too fast at the beginning of a ride I’m much better towards the end of it. I noticed this particularly when I was training for my 100 mile Sportif. In fact, at this time I felt that it took the first hour or so of the ride before I really got into my stride. The second third and fourth hours would generally much more comfortable after a good warm-up and then, of course, after hour five the pain just kicked in!
Pushing too low a cadence – It looks quite cool to be serenely pushing a low cadence while gliding along the tarmac at a great rate of knots. However, if your cadence is too low, you will be putting an excessive strain not only on your knee joints between your back as well. A lot of beginner road cyclists do tend to pedal too slowly and this can cause all sorts of issues. It’s much better to increase your cadence and put less strain on both your joints and muscles. That’s not to say that low cadence training doesn’t have its purpose. However, if you are going to do it you need to make sure that you have a good base level of strength and fitness and that you gradually increase the amount of low cadence work slowly over time so that your muscles get a chance to build and don’t have to strain.
You can find out all about the best cadence for road cycling in my post here.
Is Cycling good for Knee Pain?
Saddle position – There are two adjustments to your saddle that will have a significant impact on your knees when cycling. The first one is saddle height. There are all sorts of ways of determining the ideal saddle height, you can find out about them in detail in my bike fit post here but, as a quick rule of thumb, this method works really well: To do this method you really need to have the bike on a turbo trainer or you can possibly do it leaning up against a wall. Put your pedals completely vertical so that they are at 6 and 12 o clock. Now, sitting on the bike place your heels on the pedals. If the saddle height is correct your heel should just skim the pedal at the 6 o clock point. If you have to bend your knee slightly to get your heel onto the pedal then the seat needs to be raised a little. Similarly, if you can’t reach down to the pedal with your heel then lower the seat until you can. Even a few millimeters difference in seat height can make a noticeable change to the angle at which your knees are working. If you are getting pain in the front of your knees when you are cycling then try lowering the saddle a few mm or moving it a few mm forward. If you are getting pain at the back of your knee then the saddle may need to go up a few millimeters or back a fraction. I have a few of my favorite top bicycle saddles I want to share with you
The second adjustment is in terms of front-to-back. To check this out again you need the bike on a turbo trainer ideally and this time your pedals need to be completely horizontal. I have a favorite pedal that is my go to for top bike pedal. With your foot in its normal place on the pedal at 3 o clock, there should be a straight line down from the kneecap to the center of the pedal. You can check this by dropping a plumb line down from your knee cap.
I have a very basic turbo trainer which you can check out here which will help a lot with the above. If you are in the market for a new saddle then my post here will save you a lot of research and probably literally a pain in the bottom!
Cleat position and float angle – It’s also really important that your cleats are in the right position as any discrepancy here can also put a constant stress on the knee joint. Firstly make sure that where the shoe is clipped into the pedal the ball of the foot is directly above the pedal axle. You also need to make sure that the lateral angle of the cleats is correct as well. It might be that your legs slightly spray one way or the other as you pedal and if the cleat position doesn’t reflect this it will put constant and damaging stress upon the knee joints. You also need to give a little bit of thought to the float angle of the cleats as well. This is basically the amount of free play in the cleats. You might have thought that the more free play the better but this does waste energy and can cause more problems than it solves. Ideally, the cleat float angle should be round about 4.5 degrees.
Is cycling good for arthritic knees?
Which shoes, pedals and cleats to use can become a bit confusing. If you want a simple guide and need to know which cleats and pedals to buy to get you started then read my post here.
Too much too soon – Another frequent cause of knee pain is when a cyclist just simply trains too hard too quickly. Inevitably, this puts extra strain on the joints and muscles and can cause injury. At the very least, you may experience aches and pains that could be avoided by a slightly more thoughtful approach. So, as with warming up don’t go too hard too soon. Gradually build up your speed or your distance incrementally so that your body has time to build and repair in between training sessions. This will reduce the risk of injury to all muscles and joints as well as your knees and will also provide a firmer basis for progress.
Can I cycle with bad knees?
If you know you already have a condition or problem with your knees then the best advice is to ask your physiotherapist or doctor before going cycling. Generally speaking, cycling is extremely good for your knees so long as you are riding on a well-fitted bike, warming up beforehand and not putting excessive strain on your knee joints. However, if you do have a particular knee condition there is a chance that cycling may not be a particularly positive experience so it’s worth checking first.
Knee pain was actually the reason why I got into cycling in the first place. I went to a physiotherapist with an ongoing knee issue that was getting worse when I was walking. I came out from the consultation with the not particularly good news that in my late 40s I had a deterioration of the cartilage in my knee which was causing the ongoing pain and swelling. I was also at this point, fairly overweight as well and completely unfit, both of which were not helping with the situation with my knee. The physiotherapist suggested wearing a knee brace and he also suggested cycling as a way of strengthening the muscle around the knee and supporting it.
I took his advice to heart and bought the knee brace which helped and also a few weeks later bought a road bike on eBay. It’s now 3 years later and I am around 4 1/2 – 5 stones lighter than I was at my heaviest and I have very few problems with my knee. The constant pain has gone and there isn’t any swelling anymore. I don’t have any issues with my knee when cycling although sometimes if I kneel down on it I can feel that there is a slight issue with it. I’m not suggesting that cycling was a miracle cure for my condition but it has certainly made a massive difference to my life. 3 years ago I was overweight, unfit middle-aged man with a concern that I may spend the rest of my life with a degenerating knee condition that was causing me pain and also making it so that I was limping whilst walking.
Now I’m not suggesting that cycling will correct all knee issues but it was exactly the right thing for me. If you do have an ongoing knee problem then speak to your medical professional about whether cycling is likely to be good for it or not.
Is riding a stationary bike good for bad knees
Is it Ok to cycle with knee pain? If you have recurring knee pain then it makes sense to find out what the problem is before you start cycling. In fact, your cycling could be causing, or at least making the pain worse. Sometimes not having the saddle at the correct height or fore and aft adjustment can cause knee pain as can incorrectly fitted cleats. So, it’s possible that if you already have knee pain that cycling will make it worse.
On the other hand, if you have some other sort of knee weakness or injury it could well be that cycling will help. Inevitably when you cycle regularly the muscles around the knee joint will strengthen which will, in turn, support the knee joint more and put less strain on it.
With any type of ongoing knee pain, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice first before cycling to try to ascertain whether cycling will make the problem worse or will help to cure it.
Is walking, running, or cycling better for the knees? Cycling is better for your knees than either running or walking because it is significantly lower in terms of the impact on the joints. When you are running the impact of the foot hitting the floor is transferred to the knee joints with every stride. In fact, the knees act as sort of shock absorber which, after a long time can become very worn on the joints. Cycling is a good low impact cardiovascular activity that’s very good for your health.
However, if your bike isn’t fitted properly or you overdo it on a bike it is possible to damage your knees when cycling. Try to make sure that the seat is the right hight and correctly adjusted for you, cleats are fitted properly and that you thoroughly warm up at the start of every cycling session.
Why do my knees hurt after cycling? If your knees hurt after cycling then your bike probably isn’t fitted properly. A professional bike fit is a good idea to ensure that you are positioned in the most comfortable and energy efficient way however, you can do some basic adjustments at home. In terms of adjusting your bike to help alleviate knee pain, if the pain is at the front of the knee you can try lowering the seat and if it’s at the back try highering it a few millimeters. You also need to make sure that your knee cap is directly over the pedal crank when the pedal is horizontal to the floor. Adjusting your cleats accurately will make a big difference as well.
is walking or biking better for the knees?
If you are sure that your bike is fitted correctly then make sure that you are doing an adequate warm up at the start of each session to warm up the muscles and avoid muscle strain. Make sure that you aren’t pushing too hard at low cadences for prolonged periods of time and if you are building speed or stamina increase the intensity of your training incrementally to avoid straining your knees.
As with any medical problem if the pain persists then seek the help of a medical professional