Cycling 101: Posture
As the ride leader for a bike tour outfit that travels all over the country, I've had the opportunity to observe just about every riding style there is. And while our focus is more on enjoying the scenery than winning Strava segments, we recognize that poor form on the bike can ruin a relaxed ride as much as it can hurt your chances in a race. Knee pain, a stiff neck and an aching lower back make for a rough day in the saddle whether you're pushing the pace or poking along.
To help reduce discomfort during your rides, we recommend paying close attention to your posture. There's certainly no substitute for time in the saddle when it comes to improving your cycling, but putting in the miles without good form can actually exacerbate problem areas. That's why it's important to get in the habit of periodically checking your posture in the following areas as you ride:
KNEES: Are my knees pointing out? Riding with your knees pointing out not only increases the chances of knee pain, but it also reduces the power in each pedal stroke. Keeping your knees in line with your feet will take pressure off the knees.
BACK: Is my back arching? Having a "turtle back" that bows away from the bike is typical in new cyclists and also seems to be a common occurrence when cyclists get fatigued. That's because it takes less effort to rest heavy on the handlebars and to relax your core. Unfortunately, that easy posture will trigger all kinds of back and neck pain as the miles add up. Improving your core strength and putting a slight inward curve in your lower back (as if you're sticking your butt out) will help take pressure off of your back. Also focus on throwing your shoulders back and pushing your chest out. Your front should be as open as possible, not closed under the turtle shell.
SHOULDERS: Are my shoulders raised? One of the dangers of the "turtle back" mentioned above is that it tends to put your shoulders near your ears. The more you raise your shoulders, the more likely you are to end up with neck pain. Lowering your shoulders and pushing them back limits the amount of tension that can be transferred into your neck. Again, the key is to have an open front with the chest out and the shoulders low and back.
ARMS: Are my elbows stiff? Straight arms are another common occurrence in new and fatigued cyclists. While it's definitely easier to rest your weight on straight arms than it is on bent arms, locked elbows will transfer all the vibration from the handlebars straight into your neck and shoulders. Straight arms also tend to push the shoulders up toward your ears, further contributing to neck pain. Putting a slight bend in your elbows will help diffuse the vibration that makes its way to your neck and will also give you greater control over the bike. (Recruit your core muscles to help take some of the pressure off of your arms in supporting your upper body.)
HANDS: Are my knuckles white? Another key to reducing tension in your neck and shoulders is to keep a relaxed grip on the handlebar. Holding on for dear life and white knuckling the handlebar is a waste of energy and a source of neck pain. In addition to relaxing your grip, move your hands into different positions on the bar over the course of the ride. Think of your core and hips as the primary drivers, with your hands just there for fine-tuning the steering.
I would also strongly recommend getting a proper bike fit at your local bike shop. Having the seat at the right height and the right distance from the handlebars is critical to avoiding injury and having an enjoyable ride. With the right fit and good posture, the only time you should feel pain is when you decide to push your limits on a steep climb or a fast sprint!
Enjoy the ride!
Shannon Burke is the owner of Velo View Bike Tours, offering basic skills clinics and personal instruction, guided Central Texas road & mountain bike rides, and four and five-day bike vacations in some of the most beautiful places in the country.