The large-scale cycling crashes at the Tour de France may get all the media attention, but cycling crashes and injuries happen to all levels of cyclists. And on all terrains.
A competitive cyclist, certified athletic trainer, and bike fit specialist, Matt Tinkey’s job is to help cyclists avoid injuries. He’s worked with high school, college, and professional athletes. Now he works at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, running the Cycling Performance Program at UPMC Sports Medicine.
In his nearly 30 years, he has seen just about every cycling injury. “I sometimes say that I’m a cross between an EMT and a physical therapist,” he says. “It’s given me a lot of perspective on the different injuries that happen with cycling.”
While not all injuries are preventable, he says, there are many things you can do to lower your risk.
So how can you stay injury-free on the roads and trails? Tinkey has some words of wisdom.
Never Miss a Beat!
Subscribe to Our HealthBeat Newsletter!
Thank you for subscribing!
You are already subscribed.
Sorry, an error occurred. Please try again later.
Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!
Improper Bike Fit Can Cause Injury
Cycling athletes often come to see Tinkey for a bike fit to improve their performance. But another leading reason they schedule with him is pain. “They come to see me because their lower back and knees hurt,” he says.
The reason for their pain is both simple and complicated. The simple part is that their bike isn’t fitted properly for their body and biomechanics. But the complicated part is figuring out what’s off.
Fortunately, Tinkey has decades of experience fitting bikes. Riding with the wrong saddle is a huge culprit, he says. So is a weak core — that is, weak muscles in your abs, obliques, hips, and pelvis.
A strong core helps protect your low back as you hinge forward to grip the handlebars. But if the core muscles aren’t strong enough, it puts a strain on the low back. That problem gets even worse if the handlebars, saddles, and pedals aren’t adjusted correctly.
That’s why preventing overuse injuries is usually a two-pronged strategy:
- Make sure your bike fits you properly.
- Do core strengthening exercises.
Exercises Cyclists Can Do to Reduce Injury Risk
“A lot of cyclists love yoga and Pilates, because of their focus on both core strength and stretching,” Tinkey says.
There are plenty of core strength exercises you can do at home, too.
These are the top exercises Tinkey tells cyclists to do to improve performance during the season and build strength off-season. Do them three times a week, he advises.
Many of these exercises simply use your body weight. If you’re using added weight or dumbbells, focus on more weight and fewer repetitions (eight to 12) during the off season. That helps you build muscle.
During the season, focus on higher reps (15 to 30) with less weight. This helps you build endurance.
The basic lunge
“Lunges are great because they incorporate single leg work,” Tinkey says. Lunges target your glutes and quads. They also involve your core and train your balance — something cyclists need.
Make lunges more challenging by adding weights or doing them on uneven surfaces.
Pushups are an old-school favorite of Tinkey’s, because they build upper body strength. “If you are stronger in the upper body, you don’t have to worry about fatiguing as quickly,” he says.
This matters for cyclists, especially those who ride on uneven terrain. Having the arm strength to stabilize your upper body can keep you safer.
“The number one accident-related injury for cyclists is a collarbone injury,” Tinkey says. This is because of how cyclists tend to fall if they get thrown off the bike. They stick out their hand or try to brace themselves with their shoulder.
You can’t necessarily prevent a collarbone injury, Tinkey says. But the stronger you are, the less likely you are to get thrown off the bike. And if you do get thrown off, you have a better shot at catching yourself without collapsing.
When climbing, cyclists need to be able to pull the handlebars toward them as they stand. This helps you leverage your body weight and get up the hill faster. Doing pull-ups helps train that and is another way to build strength in your upper body.
If you have a bar at home, ask for a spot to help you pull up if you can’t quite get there. You can also use a resistance band. (Loop it around the bar, tie a knot at the bottom, and put feet or knees in.)
In a gym, work toward a full pull-up by doing assisted ones on a pull-up machine. Gradually reduce the weight you’re using to assist you.
Planks are like a playground in that they offer so many variations. Tinkey likes stationary planks because they help practice holding your body steady.
When you’re riding uphill, you need to be able to hold steady. Otherwise, you’re rocking all over. “The less you move, the more you can focus on peddling up the hill,” he says.
Adding movement to your planks is also good. This mimics the practice of holding a tight core while other parts of your body are moving.
“When you’re navigating downhill terrain and moving fast, you need that stability within movement,” he says. Riding downhill, your body is moving all over, just trying to maintain balance.
There are all kinds of variations you can try with planks. Lift one arm and one leg; rotate into side plank and back; jump your feet in and out. And you can also hold your plank pose for increasingly longer times.
This is a combination of a pushup and a row. It requires hexagonal dumbbells (because the flat edges make them stable on the floor).
Start in a plank position with hands on dumbbells. Do a pushup, and at the top, lift one arm back into a row. Alternate arms after each pushup or do a row on each side.
The combination of pushing and pulling is so good for cyclists, Tinkey says. “You’re also getting core activity with the plank and having to stabilize by holding weights.”
Bridges target those harder to reach muscles in your glutes, pelvis, and low back.
To do a bridge, lie on your back with feet flat and knees up. Tilt your pelvis and begin to lift your bum and lower back off the floor. You can do bridges with knees together or apart, and at varying speeds.
Tinkey also likes to add weight. Set the weight on your lower belly or hips. “Even a dog food bag works—just whatever you have lying around,” he says.
Hand eye coordination drills
This last exercise is something Tinkey has been thinking about more recently. He watched elite racers warm up at the World Cup last year. “They were doing all kinds of things to challenge their balance and hand eye coordination,” he says.
This included exercises like tossing small balls while they balanced on an exercise ball. He’s also seen pros balance on stability balls while using dumbbells. Or even juggling while balancing.
It makes sense though. A cyclist needs to be able to react quickly in any situation.
So, is it time to take juggling lessons? Maybe! But your exercises needn’t be fancy — just consistent.
Wondering if your bike fit could be better? To set up a fitting, email Tinkey.
About Sports Medicine
An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.