Adopt these simple strategies for a more effective, safer cycling workout.
Workout trends come and go—the vibrating belt, Jazzercise, and Tae Bo, to name a few. But indoor cycling has stood the test of time, thanks in part to the rise in virtual classes that allow you to sweat in your basement.
Streaming a class or doing your own cycling workout at home certainly wins points for convenience, but there’s a potential downside: It’s a whole lot easier to go on autopilot when no one is around to check your form (or you’re catching up on your favorite show while you pedal). But that doesn’t mean missteps don’t happen at the gym—they do!
Wherever you hop on an exercise bike, make sure you don’t diminish your results—or up your injury risk—by making these common mistakes.
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Exercise Bike Mistake #1: Your Seat Is Too Low
Most people—especially those new to cycling—set their seat far too low, which can end up causing knee pain, says professional cycling coach Garret Seacat, C.S.C.S. The lower you sit, the more your knee has to bend with every pedal stroke. And too big of a bend can risk overuse injury, he says.
Sitting too high can also be problematic, as your knees should never completely straighten when cycling. There should be a slight bend—about five to 10 degrees—in your extended leg’s knee at the bottom of your pedal stroke.
The fix: Before you get on your bike, stand next to it and adjust the seat so that it’s even with your hipbone, says kinesiologist Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S.
Then, hop on the bike, but don’t clip your feet into the pedals or put them in the cages right away (if you have the option). Push all the way down with one leg, aiming to get your knee completely straight. To reach full extension, you should have to flex your foot and drop your heel, Seacat says. When cycling, you stay on the balls of your feet, so if you have to really flex your foot to completely straighten your leg, it means you’ll have the right amount of bend in your knee when pedaling.
A good sign you’re at the appropriate height: When you take your feet off the pedals, only your toes touch the floor. Any more means you’re sitting too low. Can’t touch at all? You’re too high.
Exercise Bike Mistake #2: You Lean Too Far Forward
Join any in-person or virtual cycling class, and you’re guaranteed to see a few people leaning over the handlebars. Don’t follow suit.
Only very experienced cyclists should use this form, Harcoff explains, and it’s usually a no-no for older adults. Why? When you lean over, you force your wrists and elbows to support a lot of your weight–and that can cause or aggravate joint issues. Plus, when your upper body is nearly parallel to the floor, the pull of gravity on your back can trigger lower-back pain.
The fix: Ride with your upper body as tall as possible–like there’s a string pulling the crown of your head toward the ceiling, Harcoff says. In this position, you should still be holding the handles, but they shouldn’t be supporting any of your weight.
If you have trouble getting into the proper position, try moving your seat horizontally closer to your handlebars. It may take some trial and error, but once you figure out where your seat needs to be to allow you to hold on while sitting up tall, lock those settings in place!
Exercise Bike Mistake #3: You Overdo it or You’re Just Spinning Wheels
“When first starting out, most individuals will attempt a workout that’s far too intense or they’ll just sit and spin their legs with no resistance,” Seacat says.
Both scenarios are problematic. Going too hard too soon risks inflaming your body’s tendons and ligaments, while idling by won’t give you the full strength or cardio benefits you’re probably after.
The fix: “Ride at an intensity that makes it hard for you to complete more than two sentences without having to catch your breath,” Seacat says. “If you can’t say more than a couple words, chances are you’re going harder than you can maintain for very long. If you feel like you could tell an entire story, you’re riding too easy.”
Finding that sweet spot—a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10—will help you get a great aerobic workout, he says.
Exercise Bike Mistake #4: You Think Seat Discomfort Is Par for the Course
Getting used to a bike seat usually involves some discomfort, but it should never be painful. Unfortunately, a lot of riders just push through, thinking groin pain and saddle sores are simply something they have to deal with. Workouts are far less enjoyable as a result, plus you can risk worsening or infecting developing sores.
The fix: Invest in some bicycle shorts, Seacat says. The right gear is designed to prevent problems exactly like this—true bicycle shorts have padding in them to help cushion pressure points in your lower body and keep things more comfortable. To reduce the risk of chafing, Seacat recommends not wearing underwear with the shorts.
If you develop any skin irritation or sores, clean them thoroughly and take a break from cycling until they calm down. If they’re reluctant to heal or you have type 2 diabetes, talk to your doctor about whether you may need a prescription antibiotic or any other steps you should take to prevent worsening infection.
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