Indoor cycling is a great way to burn calories and get your daily cardio in and even though it’s fairly low-impact, it’s not uncommon to start feeling knee pain every now and then.
The causes of knee pain while cycling can vary, but more times than not, it’s likely due to overuse, improper form, or good ol’ fashioned tight muscles.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to relieve this pain yourself and prevent it from coming back in the future.
In this article, I’ll be going over some of the common causes of knee pain while cycling and some easy fixes you can do yourself to help avoid it.
But if you’ve been dealing with chronic or severe pain, it may be a good idea to consult your doctor first- when in doubt, always speak to a medical professional.
Ok, let’s start things off with a rundown on some common causes of knee pain while using your indoor cycle.
What’s Causing My Knee Pain While I Cycle?
I can’t answer that question confidently without putting eyes on you, but as a physical therapist, I can offer some insights into some common causes that could be causing your pain.
When trying to figure out the culprit, it’s a good idea to think about where you’re feeling your knee pain – is it in the front of your knee? Sides? Behind your knee?
It’s true that where you’re feeling your pain isn’t always the root cause, but in this case, the location of your knee pain can give us some clues to what’s causing it.
Pain In The Front of Your Knee (Anterior pain)
If you’re feeling pain in the front (anterior) part of your knee, odds are there’s something funky going on with your knee cap (patella) or your quadriceps.
Our quads play a big role in producing the force necessary to keep those pedals spinning and this makes them susceptible to getting overworked, tight, or irritated.
And if your quads get too tight (or develop trigger points, or tight “bunches” in the muscle), it can easily throw off the way your patella is tracking across the knee.
Which can lead to pain anywhere around your knee cap.
This is a very common condition and it’s known as patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS).
What usually happens, is that the quad muscles on the outside of your thigh (vastus lateralis) get overly tight/strong and start pulling your knee cap toward the outside of your knee.
Depending on the severity of your pain, you may need to see and MD or physical therapist for guided treatment, but rest, ice, stretching, and some targeted strengthening exercises usually does the trick.
Other causes of anterior knee pain could be patellar tendonitis, bursitis, or even arthritis, but if your pain is only with cycling, my first bet would be PFPS.
Pain Behind Your Knee (Posterior pain)
Feeling pain behind your knee while cycling is less common, but it can still happen.
If you’re experiencing poster knee pain, it likely has something to do with your hamstrings.
Our hamstrings run down the back of our thighs and they’re responsible for bending our knee and helping extend our hip backwards.
They’re basically the counterpart to our quadriceps in the front of the thigh.
Anyway, the hamstrings don’t usually get worked as hard as the quadriceps do during cycling, but if you’re cycling appropriately, they should still be helping to rotate those pedals.
A common cause of hamstring or posterior knee pain during cycling is an irritation that occurs due to your knees extending (straightening) too much as you pedal.
When your foot is at the bottom of the pedaling motion, you should still have a good 25-30° of bend in your knee – if you’r knee is fully extended at this position, you could easily irritate the back of your knee.
The culprit is usually having your seat too high – lowering it should help.
Pain In Sides of Your Knee (Medial/Lateral pain)
Feeling pain around the inside (medial) or outside (lateral) of your knee is a lot less common during cycling, but it could still happen.
Some causes of medial knee pain could be irritated adductor muscles (inner thigh muscles), an MCL sprain, meniscus issues, or even the patellofemoral tracking issues mentioned above.
Lateral knee pain could be caused by IT band syndrome, an LCL sprain, PFPS, etc.
Generalized knee arthritis can cause aching anywhere around the knee joint as well.
Ok, now that we’ve gone over some of the major causes of knee pain, let’s go over what we can do to decrease the chances of it occurring.
5 Tips To Help Avoid Knee Pain While Cycling
1. Check Seat Position
One of the most important things you can do to avoid pain is to make sure you’ve got your seat in the right riding position, because having it too low, too high, or too close/far away can cause problems.
A good place to start is to adjust the seat up so that it’s about the height of your hip bone (while you’re standing).
Start with the seat here and then hop on and see how much bend you have in your knee with your foot at the bottom position – you can adjust a little for comfort, but keep in mind you should have 25 – 30° or so of knee flexion in this position.
If you’re knee is too straight, lower the seat a little and try again.
Next, with both feet in the pedals, turn the pedals until both feet are the same distance from the ground (feet will be in tandem) and take note of how your front knee lines up with your foot below.
If you dropped a string from the front of your knee, it should hit around the ball of that same foot – if not, adjust the fore/aft position of your seat until you get it right.
And keep in mind these are simply guidelines, ultimately it’s all about what feels comfortable for ya while you cycle.
2. Progress Gradually
Something else I’ve seen folks do to cause pain is progress their routine waaaay to quickly.
If you’re a beginner and you jump from riding for 15 minutes/workout to 45 minutes/workout in a week, you might have some problems.
Our bodies need time to adjust, so progress the intensity and duration of your workouts gradually.
This is especially true for beginners, where there could be issues with riding form or seat positioning as well that didn’t cause any problems with shorter workouts but does with longer ones.
Starting out with 3 workouts/week, each lasting 20 – 30 minutes is usually a pretty safe place to start; and then gradually increase duration of each workout and start adding more workouts/week as you tolerate.
3. Use Full Pedal Strokes
Earlier we went over how overworking your quads can easily lead to anterior knee pain.
Having your seat at the proper height and progressing gradually can help avoid overworking your quads, but it’s also important to make sure those hamstrings and glutes are helping out too.
You can help those quads out by making sure you’re cycling with full pedal strokes throughout your workouts.
This means activating your hamstrings and actively pulling the pedals as your feet hit that downward position.
You can think of it as the quads working in the first half of the pedal stroke and the hamstrings working throughout the second half of the stroke.
In reality, it isn’t this neat, but it’ll help you get those hamstrings involved if you think about this way.
Using your hamstrings more will also make your strokes more efficient and you’ll likely see your performance improve.
I should also mention that your knees should be pointing straight ahead toward the front of the bike as you pedal – if one or both knees are angling out, that’s a recipe for trouble.
Stretching should be a given, but I’m a realistic guy – I know a lot of folks out there aren’t stretching on the reg.
Hell, I’m a physical therapist and it’s a struggle for me to make myself stretch, so I get it.
Stretching sucks, but it really does help prevent issues.
With regards to cycling, it’s a good idea to stretch everything from the waste down, so we’re talking glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves.
But when in a hurry, just stretching out your quads and hamstrings is a good place to start.
I like to do a quick stretch before my workout and a little longer stretch afterwards, but nothing too crazy – a few minutes is all it takes.
5. Foam Roll
Stretching is good, but foam rolling is great.
I was introduced to the foam roller years ago in my first PT job and I’ve been rolling myself ever since – between my back, neck, shoulders, and legs, there aren’t many parts of my body I haven’t rolled before.
Foam rolling basically allows you to give whatever muscle group you’re working on a deep tissue massage, breaking up muscle adhesions and increasing flexibility, blood flow, and all that good stuff.
I highly recommend going with a firm roller, but if you’re new to it, a softer roller might work too.
And when it comes to avoiding knee pain with cycling, I’d recommend rolling out your quads (front), quads (lateral), and hamstrings.
And just like stretching, this doesn’t have to take long – I like to do a quick set of 10 reps for each muscle group and I’m good to go.
I seriously use my foam roller every week and it’s the only thing keeping me going (relatively) pain free.
You can get a great workout on an indoor cycle and even though you can crank that resistance up and stand up while climbing hills, indoor cycles are still relatively low impact.
Especially when compared to running outside or on a treadmill.
But, things happen.
Luckily, a lot of cycling knee pain is treatable and avoidable with proper positioning and some stretching.
Ok, well I think that about does it.
I hope you found this article helpful and again, if you’re dealing with severe or chronic pain that just won’t go away, please consult a physician for guided treatment.
And even though the tips mentioned in this article are very non-invasive, never try anything you aren’t comfortable with.
Stretching and foam rolling can be uncomfortable while you’re doing them, but they shouldn’t cause any lasting pain or discomfort – so if these things are causing more problems, please stop and see your MD.
And don’t forget about good ol’ fashioned ice and rest – they can work magic too.