Protect Your Knees With Indoor Cycling

Yes, you can safeguard your knees while riding hard. Here's how . . .

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There’s a common impression that indoor cycling is hard on your knees and that it’s a bad idea to do it if you have vulnerable knees. These notions aren’t entirely off base, but they aren’t entirely true, either. The reality is: Indoor cycling can be a terrific way to stay fit if you have a history of knee problems. Not only is it a great cardiovascular workout, but it can also help you lose weight, which will in turn ease the pressure on your knees.

And because cycling isn’t a weight-bearing activity, it doesn’t place strain on your knees and other joints. Plus, it’s a good option for people with balance problems because you don’t need to keep the bike upright or lean as you turn. These are some of the reasons why the Arthritis Foundation recommends stationary cycling for those with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

In order to get as much out of the workout as you can, it’s important to take steps to protect your knees. Here are six ways to do that:

  1. Make sure your bike is set up properly for your physique. Adjust the seat height so that you can get a full leg extension on each pedal stroke while maintaining a slight bend in your knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Move the seat forward or back so that when you’re seated in the saddle with both pedals parallel to the floor (the pedals are level with each other, in other words), the kneecap on your forward leg is directly above the center of the pedal and the front of the talus (the bone that connects your ankle to your foot). Cycling in the proper position will help you avoid placing undue strain on your knees. 
  1. Use proper cycling technique. For starters, this means: Maintain good posture and form (keeping your knees aligned with your hips and feet in both a seated and standing position). It also means: Avoid dangerous moves on the bike such as super-fast jumps, squats and thrusts over the saddle, figure 8s (with the hips in a hovering position), and the like. These moves create unnecessary stress on the knee joints and increase the risk of injury. If an instructor tells the class to do these during a drill, take a silent pass. 
  1. Manage your pace wisely. It’s a mistake to pedal at an incredibly fast pace (120 RPMs or higher) with little resistance on the bike. Under these circumstances, you’re literally spinning your wheels fruitlessly, gaining little in the way of benefits but risking injury to your knees, in particular.
  2. Put the right resistance on your side. Loading on so much resistance that it becomes a struggle to keep the pedals moving smoothly is a bad idea because it puts excessive stress on your knees. If you can’t sustain a cadence above 40 RPMs or if your knees are torqueing from the strain, you should drop some resistance.
  3. Assume the right position. If you have a knee injury and the instructor has everyone riding in a standing position for long stretches of time, make sure you have enough resistance on the bike to support you but not so much that you’re straining your knees. If your knees need a break from the pressure of standing, return to the saddle, even if everyone else stays upright. Ultimately, it’s important to modify the ride so it works for you and your physical needs.
  1. Increase your training gradually. Once you discover the power and pleasure of indoor cycling, it’s easy to get gung ho about the activity. But doing it too frequently too soon can set you up for an injury. Instead, aim for a gradual increase so that your body has a chance to adjust along the way. In general, the American Council on Exercise recommends increasing your total weekly time spent doing cardio by a maximum of 10 percent per week. That’s an easy guideline to apply to running but not to cycling classes. If you’re new to indoor cycling, my feeling is that it’s good to start with one to two 45-minute classes per week and get accustomed to that; if you’re feeling good, after a month you can bump it up to a third class per week and continue to build slowly from there. It also helps to vary your rides so that you’re doing a variety of endurance, strength, and interval rides from session to session. Above all, listen to your body and trust its messages!

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