Cycling for Knee Pain: Is Riding a Bicycle a Good Idea? 

A sketch of a man cycling with knee pain

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As the largest joint in the human body, the knee is intricate and crucial for our movement. It is called upon so often and its many moving parts can be compromised and can cause pain to be felt in that area. Knee pain is one of the most frequent causes of GP appointments.

The knee is composed of four main components: bones, cartilage, ligaments and tendons.

Three bones meet to form the joint at the knee. The thigh bone and shinbone come together with the kneebone providing protection out front.

The tips of the thigh bone and shinbone are shrouded in cartilage, which helps the three bones maneuver amongst each other when you bend or straighten the leg. A tougher form of cartilage called a meniscus sits between the thigh bone and shinbone to act as a shock absorber between the two.

Ligaments and tendons join the thigh bone to the bones in your lower leg. They perform like ropes to provide stability to the knee and keep the bones held together.

Let’s look at how cycling can support the healthy development and action of the knee and how riding incorrectly might bring about the symptoms of knee problems. 

We’re not physiotherapists or GPs here at Discerning Cyclist and would recommend that anyone feeling knee pain should seek the attention of a medical professional.

cycling stretches, strengthens, and supports the knees

Is Cycling Good for Knees? 

Cycling allows for gentle stretching and bending of the knee joint which helps keep it working. It helps to strengthen the muscles around the joint and they will absorb more of the impact of a fall. Cycling can also help reduce weight which also limits wear on the knee, especially as we get older.

Because you sit for the majority of your rides, you take the pressure off your knee joints. Altering your riding posture – forwards over the bars or leaning upright – moderates tired muscles. The slow and steady turning of the pedals exercise the knee from a variety of positions.

knee pain in cyclists can be prevented by gradually building strength, flexibility and proper bike fit

Can Cycling Cause Knee Pain? 

Knee pain is a common complaint amongst cyclists, especially when they overexert themselves. It affects newcomers to cycling, who need to build up strength and flexibility in the knee. In addition, new cyclists should ensure they have the correct bike fit for their posture and riding style.

The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy reported in 2017 that the repeated turning of pedals makes the knee prone to injury. Chief among the factors influencing knee pain were foot position on the pedals, the height and fore/aft position of the saddle, the length of the bike’s cranks as well as power and cadence.

Only these last two factors are directly controlled by the effort we put into turning the pedals, which demonstrates how correctly positioning yourself on a bike that is set up for you is crucial to avoid knee pain. 

Is Cycling Good for Injured Knees? 

The key to exercising your way out of an injured knee is finding an activity which reduces any impact at the knee joint. This risk of further injury is limited and exertion on the joint itself is controlled. Cycling is a great low impact form of exercise. The joint bends and stretches only mildly.

The low impact and the weight-bearing nature of cycling mean that it’s a go-to activity recommended by the medical profession. We’ll look a bit more at the specifics of how cycling benefits the mechanics inside the knee.

cycling benefits knee cartilage by building leg muscles without impact, but avoids overexertion

Is Cycling Good for Knee Cartilage? 

Day-to-day cycling is good for knee cartilage. You’ll build up the leg muscles around the joint which regulate the forces placed on it and the meniscus. The routine of a commute allows control of your intensity. Over-exertion through heavy gearing on steep hills could actually harm the cartilage.

It’s important to listen to what your body is telling you and tailor the intensity to suit. Don’t try to power through any form of knee pain. The great thing about cycling is you can slow down – there’s no baseline beyond an unsafe minimum speed – if you are overdoing it.

Whilst walking and jogging are great forms of exercise and help with weight loss, they are impact exercises. Body weight, leg movement and momentum are forced through the knee joint. Cycling allows the body weight to be supported and because your feet are off the ground, there is no impact. 

Is Cycling Good for Knee Ligament Injury? 

Cycling helps recovery from knee ligament injury but must come after first stabilising and resting. Knee ligament injuries are associated with a blow, twist, or ‘pop’ and your knee feels like it is giving way beneath you. Stabilising the knee and reducing the inflammation takes priority.

Knee ligaments – the ropes joining the bones – need to heal, to knot back together. Restricting the movement of the knee is vital.

Strains or tears mean swelling and pain, so you’ll be looking at a brace and RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) at first. The lack of activity, particularly on a healthy leg, will weaken the muscles and if you hop on the bike too quickly, you risk repeat injury. Your medical professional might include cycling as part of your strengthening and recovery once the knee is stable.

Is Cycling Good for Knee Arthritis? 

Arthritis is a painful inflammation and stiffness of the joints. It’s a common condition with a tendency to occur in people in their mid-forties. It also occurs as a result of other joint-related conditions. There’s no cure for arthritis, but the health benefits of cycling help ease the symptoms.

As well as the low-impact on the joints which we’ve covered, the regulated turning of the pedals actually lubricates the joints, which reduces the stiffness and pain. But it’s the support that low-intensity cycling can offer in terms of weight loss and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the knee which helps reduce the stiffness. Cycling helps with your gait too and if you can stride more effectively, you’ll be helping to control the inflammation.

cycling can aid knee pain if done gradually and with proper setup

Can Cycling Relieve Knee Pain? 

Cycling benefits the knee and helps to relieve pain. Medical experts say riding – whether stationary or on the road – reduces levels of pain and stiffness while promoting movement. By strengthening the joint and lubricating it, riding your bike helps weight control to reduce the stress on the knee.

Following the advice of a medical professional is vital. Riding a bike to alleviate stiffness in the knee is lower risk than hopping over the crossbar straight after a ligament tear. 

Will Cycling Strengthen the Knees?

Even low-intensity cycling will improve the function of the knee joint and lower half of the body as well as reducing weight. Your aerobic fitness will escalate, your stride and gait will strengthen, the range of movement and flexibility in your thigh muscles, hamstrings and hips will widen. 

The stability and strength which forms in the legs through cycling all go to relieve and support the knee joint and alleviate pain. It’s important to emphasise that we’re talking about leisurely riding  – the type we prefer at Discerning Cyclist – for small intervals. 

Even five to ten minutes per day will provide hundreds of reduced-strain revolutions of the knee joint. If you wish to increase the intensity that’s fine. The complexity in the knee joint does allow you to have more of a ‘feel’ for problems. Always take medical advice and follow it. 

Cycling for Knee Pain: Good or Bad Idea? 

Riding a bike in order to help you through knee pain will be a good experience both directly or indirectly if you follow medical advice and do not overexert yourself. If you have the right bike set up and regain the strength and flexibility in the knee slowly, you’ll reap the benefits.

The benefit of being seated while exercising or rehabilitating cannot be overemphasised. Limiting the pressure on your joints helps get over the pain and being relatively comfortable also means you might actually enjoy your recovery. If not, you can make minor adjustments to your body position through small shifts on the saddle or handlebars.

Once you have established a comfortable riding position, you won’t even notice the frequency of your controlled movements and lose count of the number of lower leg muscles, joints and core elements of the body that are receiving a workout.

But just like any exercise or sport you might be considering, if you don’t take the right precautions, you could induce more problems than just in the knee. Keeping a stable position over the bike frame is crucial. If you crouch too far forward in a bid to become more aerodynamic and powerful, you’ll increase the strain on the knees.

When you ride uphill, choose a gear that allows you to keep a high cadence of between 70 and 90 rpm where possible. If you grind your way upwards, even with a bike fit, you risk serious tendon problems in the knee. 

Don’t be Bernard Hinault. The five-times winner of the Tour de France, cycling’s most prestigious race, was a famous over-geared rider. Tendonitis in the knee played a big part in him not winning more races. But we’re less interested in lycra.

Riding within your limits is important. Try to limit the causes of the knee pain. I once had four weeks off my bike by suffering a low grade medial collateral ligament (inside of the knee) tear. My knee suffered a traumatic twisting impact on the pedal – while coming down from pulling a wheelie!

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