Good knees mean freedom of movement. Knees in pain means restricted freedom. Irreversibly damaged knees can lead to depression. When I started bike commuting several relatives and friends warned me about the wear and tear my new-found transportation causes my joints and told me that it could damage my knees. I heard horror stories of “friends of friends” who needed knee surgeries because of having cycled too much. In fact, one of the most frustrating problems you can experience as a cyclist is knee pain when riding.
I did some further research to get to the bottom of the question: Is cycling bad for your knees?
Cycling is a low-injury, low-impact exercise, and if done with the bike set up properly then it doesn’t damage the knees. Actually it’s so beneficial that physiotherapists prescribe cycling as part of rehab after a knee injury.
If you experience knee pain when cycling it’s usually a sign of something going wrong that can be fixed. The fix can be as simple as taking a rest, changing to an easier gear or a bike adjustment.
In certain cases doctors advise patients against cycling because of a specific condition, so please listen to your doctor, and get a second opinion if necessary. Here we only intend people with healthy knees.
In a nutshell, you will learn 5 things in this post:
- What can cause knee pain to you as a cyclist, and
- What adjustments can help to fix that
- How to set up your bike so it fits you perfectly
- Cycling in winter is not as bad for your knees as you may think
- Stretches that can help fix your knee pain
- What is the best bicycle if you have a bad knee
After you finish reading this article I recommend you to read this comprehensive guide I wrote on getting started.
Possible causes of knee pain
Let’s start with those issues that have an easy fix
Riding too much too soon
When you’re getting into cycling either as a hobby or you start to commute to work, your knees will experience some strain. This is normal, especially if you haven’t done much exercise before.
Pedaling too hard, too far, too soon is the most common cause of knee pain for beginners. Your bones, ligaments, and muscles can handle long distances and hard pedaling if they get used to it in a gradual way.
Tight and inflamed ligaments, especially IT band is a sure sign for beginners that they did too much too soon. If this is your case, you need to take some time to recover in order to prevent further and worse injuries. Recovery is an important part of exercise, and initially, longer recovery periods are required.
For example, if you bike commute 6 miles or more each way, it’s best to start off cycling one or two days a week and add another day every two weeks. It also helps if you start off slow and build up speed over time.
By cadence we mean the amount of times you turn your pedals per minute (revolutions per minute → rpm). A cadence of 60 rpm means that you turn a full revolution every second, completing 60 revolutions per minute.
The gear you’re riding in and your cadence together determine your speed. You can ride in a higher gear at a lower cadence and go exactly as fast as when riding in a lower gear at a higher cadence.
All the force transferred to the pedal needs to pass through your knees. A low cadence puts strain on the knee because it requires more force and it can lead to knee pain. You should aim to keep your cadence at 60 rpm or higher to minimize the strain.
Poor bike fit
Even though your knees are not in contact with your bike, their position and range of motion is determined by three of the five points of contact with it: two on the pedals and one on the saddle (the other two being the handlebar). Since pedaling is a repetitive circular motion, not having the fix points set up properly can lead to knee (and other types of) pain.
If you experience knee pain despite not riding too much too soon and riding in an optimum cadence, you need to adjust your position on the bike.
You can go to have your bike professionally fitted, where they examine and analyze your riding and set up your pedals, saddle, handlebars, cleats on your bike so they are in the best position for maximum efficiency and comfort.
The downside of a professional bike fit is that it’s very costly (around 200 dollars), and for casual riders and bike commuters not necessary. Once you understand the basics of what can go wrong, you can make adjustments to your bike to spare your knees.
How to make your bike fit you
Ideal saddle position
You can adjust your saddle in two ways: its height and front-aft position.
New and inexperienced riders often ride with the saddle too low. It gives them a sense of security because they can place their feet on the ground when stopped. This position keeps the knees in a flexed position throughout its entire range of motion and doesn’t allow them to extend the legs properly when riding and puts too much stress on the kneecaps and quad tendons. The saddle too low often results in a sharp pain under the kneecap.
To find the correct saddle height you need to raise it until your knee is in an almost completely extended position when your heel is placed on the pedal in its 6 o’clock position. When you pedal with the ball of your foot on the pedal, your leg is supposed to be extended to about 20-25%.
The second adjustment to the saddle is how much forward or backward it’s positioned. Ideally, it should be in a position where the kneecap of your forward leg is above the ball of your foot when in the 9 o’clock position, and also, you should comfortably reach the handlebar.
Ideal crank length
The saddle raised to the optimum height is only half of the equation when it comes to sparing your knees. The other half is the length of your pedal crank arm. If it’s too long then your knee will flex too much when in the 12 o’clock position. This can lead to knee pain too because at the top of the pedal stroke is where you exert the most force.
Shorter people have shorter legs, and as a general rule, they need shorter pedal cranks.
Most bikes come with a crank arm length that’s preset to “the average rider” who needs that size of bike. If you’re in between two frame sizes and opt for the larger one, you may receive a longer crank than what’s best for your legs, which you can replace to suit your body composition.
Cleats can cause knee pain
If you ride clipless and they’re set too tight you may experience knee pain too. This is usually down to the fact that your leg is not aligned in a perfectly straight position, and the cleats force it to move in a way that is unnatural to you.
If you walk like a duck swinging your feet too much outwards (or the opposite, too much inwards), then tight clips will likely lead to knee pain when in the saddle. You will need to loosen up the tension in the pedals in order to give your feet some slack so you can pedal in your natural position.
Common complaints, possible problems and how to fix them
- Saddle too low. Fix: raise the saddle to the correct height.
- Saddle too forward. Fix: 1) move the saddle back a little, or 2) raise the saddle a little to maintain a more aggressive riding position.
Pain behind the knee
- Saddle too high. In this instance you may also experience hip issues, because in order to have your foot on the pedal throughout its range of motion your hips need to rock from side to side. Fix: lower your seat.
- Saddle too far back. In this case you also experience stress in your IT band (back side of your quads). You may also experience pain in your biceps because you have to reach too far forward for the handlebar. Fix: move the saddle forward.
Pain at the side of the knee
Saddle too high. You can experience lateral pain through the IT band accompanied by saddle discomfort and possible Achilles pain. Fix: lower seat.
Pain in only one knee
Nobody is perfectly symmetrical, so we all interact with the bike in an asymmetrical way, which is made worse when the bike is not set up properly. Knee pain in one leg only is very common and in many cases, it’s a strong indicator that you’ve raised your saddle too high, because you’re lean to one side and sacrifice your other leg.
Cycling with a damaged cartilage and arthritic knee
Damaged cartilage can cause a lot of pain. It may result in cracking knees and sharp pain when walking. In some cases, surgeons and physiotherapists allow and even encourage cycling as the preferred form of cardiovascular activity, because of its non-weight-bearing nature, and because it helps to reduce body weight, which in turn makes walking less painful.
A low-intensity ride or a comfortably paced bike commute can be beneficial, but you should stay away from high intensity, long and demanding rides.
Is cycling in the winter bad for your knees?
Pain in the joints is quite common in cold weather, especially if you suffer from arthritis. This goes not only for knees but for other joints, such as fingers and elbows too.
The perceived temperature is lower than the actual temperature when you’re riding because of the headwind you generate.
To avoid pain in the joints you should keep them protected against cold with the right type of clothing: gloves, cycling pants, and elbow protectors.
Once the air drops below a certain temperature you need a thin layer to keep the wind out (for me this threshold is 60 F (about 15 C), and when it comes near freezing temperatures you need a thicker, warmer layer. For knees, winter cyclist trousers are great at keeping the wind out and warm, and yet allow plenty of flexibility so you can pedal freely.
If you keep the chill of the wind away from your knees and you keep them warm in cold weather there’s nothing to worry about.
Exercises that alleviate knee pain after cycling
If you do end up with knee pain, it doesn’t mean that your career as a bike commuter is over. Your knee and all the supporting muscles will get stronger over time. In the meantime, you can do some stretches that will help your knee to recover faster.
What’s the best bicycle for bad knees?
There isn’t a single best exercise bike for knee problems. Instead, you need to find a bike that fits your riding style and is properly adjusted for you. If you suffer from chronic knee pain then it’s best to talk to your doctor before taking up cycling as an exercise, and it’s probably worth spending money on a professional bike fit.
Having said that, if you experience knee and back pain, and especially if you’re overweight, consider using a recumbent bike, which gives you all the benefits of cycling without having all your weight on just a few pressure points. I have an article where I examine recumbent bikes as commuters.
While knee pain is certainly something that most cyclists experience at some point, and at times this can cause a scare, more often than not its cause can be detected and fixed. If you take the proper precautions by giving your knee time to recover, riding at an optimum cadence, adjusting your bike so it fits you perfectly and you keep your knees warm when riding in cold weather, cycling will not damage your knees. On the contrary, cycling has a positive effect on them.