Beyond the Position
Enhancing the body before achieving correct bike position can set you on the road to a higher performing experience.
Dr David Stapleton and Dr Billy Chow look at how enhancing the body through aspects such as spinal alignment before achieving correct bike position can set you on the road to an infinitely more comfortable, injury free and higher performing cycling experience.
Lately we’ve been reading so much on how to achieve the correct bike set-up that we find it all a bit confusing if not sometimes, a bit daunting. Whether it’s on the net, other cycling magazines or hard-back cycling ‘manuals’ there seems to be volumes written about what you need to do to be totally comfortable on the bike in an effort to maximise performance.
It would however, appear that everyone, no matter who and what their background, seemingly has an opinion and while the proffered solutions are very much a ‘variation on a theme’ it seems that most of the remedial action is frustratingly uni-dimentional with a focus primarily on the mechanical. You know, take the saddle up here, extend the stem there, measure this and apply that.
Admittedly there’s no question that this is all very much part and parcel of a proper bike set-up of which we heartily endorse and recommend to everyone, not just the serious cyclist.
Two to Tango
It’s never our intention to become controversial, in fact far from it. We’ve been doing this for far too long for any nonsense, but the reality is this; cycling requires two players. Yes, you and the bike, and like car and driver, instrument and orchestra they both need to be tuned to compliment each other.
Given that once your bike has all the tricks, the carbon additions the ‘you-beaut’ wheels etc, you get to the point of ‘improvement impossible’. That is, your bike has now reached its’ maximum potential, which means that it now leaves you as the weakest link.
It’s well known that a poor fit on the bike consequently leads to skeletal imbalance which in turn, will ultimately create symptoms all their own. Proper positioning on the bike should have the rider’s weight evenly distributed over the saddle, pedals and handlebars so that the entire skeletal structure bears the weight instead of a few muscles of the back and arms.
Commonly, riders experience a wide range of debilitating problems such as low back pain, paraesthesia or pins and needles to the legs, upper body and neck, together with shoulder and forearm pain, just to name a few. It’s fair to say that over the years we’ve seen a huge range of musculo-skeletal complexities ranging from premature bony degeneration, debilitating knee problems to serious compensation of the larger muscle groups especially throughout the upper torso.
All of these ultimately result in loss of power, premature fatigue, and the generation of new injuries and, without a doubt, the exacerbation of old ones. Remember too, that while it’s vital to feel comfortable on the bike it’s also about maximising performance as well. Just as an example, we know that a proper fit is very likely to increase the economy of oxygen consumption.
In fact, research from an Olympic Training Centre in the USA tested elite juniors before and after they were positioned properly on their bikes and concluded that a proper fit reduced their average oxygen consumption by between 8 to 14% at a given workload.
Never underestimate your body’s intelligence and the power of your brain in its ability to ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ in terms of muscular and bio-mechanical compensation. It will do that without you even knowing about it until such time as the rot sets in and suddenly you have pain.
As an example, if you were to walk around with one heel of your shoe just a tad shorter than the other, you would subconsciously and quite quickly, develop a posture that would attempt to absorb the height difference on the other side. Over time however, it would quietly compensate at the expense of your low back or upper thoracic spine. If you’ve ever worn a plaster cast on your leg or had to use crutches you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about.
Not Just About the Bike
Here’s the point. Most advice with respect to bike set-up usually takes the body ‘as is’ to the bike, and adjusts the bike proportionally to the body’s measurements, which of course would appear a fair and reasonable thing to do. Common sense would tell you that and no doubt for a lot of people it would appear to work perfectly. And it does.
However, in reality it’s not always quite like that. There’s an extremely important piece of the jig-saw that appears to be sadly overlooked. People don’t come in ‘rack’ sizes and more importantly what you see on the outside is by no means what exists on the inside.
There is a huge variation of imbalances and asymmetries simply because human skeletal frames are certainly not perfect and other complexities arising from things such as injury, postural anomalies and other seemingly ‘normal’ day to day human imperfections tend to make us all somewhat different. Understandably, that’s why some riders can get away with the quick ‘mathematical’ fix and others simply can’t.
From a chiropractic point of view we always seem to struggle with the generalisation that we need to prop skeletal instabilities mechanically with some sort of compensatory device. That is, the assumption is very often made that if a leg is ‘short’ the immediate solution is to just jack it up with an orthotic device, measure up the bike again, adjust it accordingly and hop on.
Importantly we need to find out why the leg is short, that is, do you have an anatomically short leg due to an accident or birth defect or is your leg short, for example, due to rotation of the ‘wing’ of your pelvis. How would you know? If you had an anatomically short leg, there is no question that your decision to elevate your foot by way of an orthotic device is a wise move and will no doubt serve you well.
Podiatrists are great for resolving these types of problems. But if the latter was true you could lift your heel until you were blue in the face and be no further advanced. The truth is that you would more than likely become worse off over time in terms of wear and tear on other supportive muscles, connective tissue and ligamentation.
In other words the message is, where possible, get yourself checked. Just remember, ADIO, that is, assess your spine and skeletal structure from Above, Down, Inside, Out. Look at your entire frame and have it evaluated by a professional for what it really is.
Very often to the untrained eye, anomalies such as swayback (hyper-lordosis), scoliosis (s-bend in the spine), forward head projection, kyphosis (hunch back) or hip, knee and foot rotation are overlooked or in fact so well camouflaged, that they’re never questioned.
Remember also, that any one, if not all of these anomalies may well be asymptomatic or without pain at any time and so once again escape detection.
To help you understand what we mean, here’s a classic example of an actual case study, which by the way, is one of many on our files. Confidentiality prevents us from revealing any more than the fact that this person (figure 1 and 2) is a team rider, male, aged twenty something, and sought our help out of pure frustration of an ever increasing discomfort on the bike.
Over time he had numerous bike set-ups with each being remedial in the short term only to have the original problems return over and over again once he seemed to ‘settle in’ to the ‘new’ riding position. In his own words it was ‘a bit like putting out spot fires’.
He would complain of right quadriceps pain and consequently had his seat adjusted and when that finally settled his shoulder and left trapezius pain would come back. When the distance between the saddle tip and the brake hoods was adjusted, his pain would temporarily subside until something else cropped up. It seemed as if he was just going around in circles with frustration at boiling point and his personal racing performance dwindling badly. We’ve seen it a thousand times.