Don’t Let Your Saddle Position Stop You From Achieving Your Cycling Goals
Last summer a cyclist (we will call him Cliff) was referred to our clinic by his physiotherapist for a bike fit because he was having achilles tendon pain during his rides. In the month of July, Cliff quickly ramped up his time on his road bike. He went from riding infrequently at the beginning of summer, to riding over 60 km a ride, several times a week. Now in the past week, he couldn’t ride for more than 30 km without his achilles tendon pain coming on. Curious as to why anyone would want to inflict this kind of pain on themselves, I asked Cliff, “What are you trying to achieve on your bike?” He said to me, “At the end of the month of August, I want to ride the Triple Crown for a fundraiser charity that I feel very strongly about.” For you who don’t know what the Triple Crown is, it is basically cycling up Seymour, Grouse and Cypress mountains all in one day! That’s over 100 km and 2000 m elevation of climbing on the bike, all within one day. I was definitely motivated to help him achieve this feat!
When I assessed him pedaling on his bike on the trainer, 2 very apparent signs jumped out to me. At the bottom of his pedal stroke (bottom dead center= BDC) his knees appeared a bit too straight.
Normal ranges should be between 25-35 degrees knee bend, but he was below 20 deg. Also, his ankle at BDC was overly plantarflexed (pointed down). Basically, every pedal stroke he had excessive ankle movement (more than 30 degrees +), which caused the achilles tendon to shorten and lengthen excessively. Couple this with a rapid increase in km ridden on his bike and hill climbing training, his achilles tendon could not adapt fast enough and was starting to fail, resulting in pain.
On the Heel on Pedal Test (See Picture 2) where the heel is placed on the pedal at bottom dead center, you can see he had excessive rocking of his pelvis to that same side. Because his saddle was too high, he had to reach down for the pedal.
After we adjusted his saddle down to the optimal height, this pelvic rocking was less apparent. Afterwards, cycling on the trainer his ankle was not as pointed down (20 degrees) at BDC, as he didn’t need to reach from a saddle that was too high. He had 3 more weeks till the fundraiser, so we developed a conservative cycling training plan, along with a physiotherapy exercise program for his achilles tendon. Cliff messaged me the next week and said instantly he could ride 50 km with minimal achilles tendon pain! At the end of that month he was able to complete the Triple Crown with minimal discomfort and achieve his goal.
This was a simple example of what a small bike adjustment can have on his cycling biomechanics, and resulting effects on the bodily injury. Oftentimes it may not be as simple as this situation, and require multiple adjustments to the bike, cleat adjustments, teaching correct cycling biomechanics, tweaking the cycling training plans, physiotherapy treatment and strengthening to get the rider back to riding pain free.
Simple tips to gauge your optimal saddle height:
Do the Heel to Pedal Test: your heel is placed on the pedal at bottom dead center (6 o’clock position of the pedal stroke), from behind your pelvis should only rock/ drop slightly. If it feels like a lot, the saddle could be too high or too low. You can also put some coins in your pockets when you cycle, if you hear too much noise your pelvis might be rocking too much
At the bottom dead center (BDC) of the pedal stroke, with your shoes clipped in (knuckle of big toe in line with the middle of the pedal spindle), your knee bend should be between 25-35 degrees
General tips for injury prevention:
Always gradually increase your riding km. Eg: you normally ride 50 km a ride. After a long period of not riding, start at half of 50 km = 25 km, and every ride after add 5 km to each ride
Very gradually increase the amount of hills and elevation into your rides
Always have good recovery days between rides; or a flat, slower recovery ride day after an intense riding day
Pedal at a cadence between 80-100 (pedal revolutions per minute). Spinning too slow, or on an incorrect gear can put more excessive forces through your body.
Make sure your bike feels comfortable and is maintained well by a bike mechanic
Find comfortable cycling shoes, shorts, and a lightweight helmet