Muscle imbalance and injuries related to cycling either progress with time as a result of improper bike fit or develop due to repeat movement and overuse. Understanding the role of connective tissue and how it influences postural imbalances is important in addressing injury prevention and treatment for cyclists. By focusing primarily on the support that connective tissue offers the body we begin to unravel the mystery of chronic tension that can happen with overuse. Like any other “organ”, understanding the interconnectedness of connective tissue helps us consider its importance as an unifying fabric within the body. Seeing the body as interconnected is more efficient because tissue is cohesive. What happens in one area of the body can have implications in a completely different zone. Let us look briefly at connective tissue:
Living tissues are not just accumulations of tightly packed cells. Much of a tissue’s volume is made up of extracellular space. This space is filled with a complex meshwork called the extracellular matrix. Rather than being inert or static the extracellular matrix is a dynamic, physiologically active component of all living tissues. The extracellular matrix largely determines how a tissue looks and functions. When body segments are pulled out of place and become “locked” such as when we are injured, the tissue is considered to be “bonded” and the extracellular matrix (ECM) divests the muscles of their contracting and relaxing nature.
Muscles that are overworked and undernourished due to reduced blood flow can cause pain and reduced function and weakness. This is the result of fascial bonding or adhesions. Such adhesions or scarring may arise from repetitive strain, surgical procedures or trauma during the process of wound repair.
So how do we fix pain cycles that result from “bonded” fabric adhesions?
The first step is to restore blood flow, fluids and suppleness in the muscle tissue and the second step is to lessen the pull that causes the stress or binding on the tissue in the first place by looking at opposing muscles that support and correct for the imbalance.
Most Cyclists Have Experienced the Following Major Complaints:
- Foot Pain
- Knee Pain (there are 2 primary causes)
- Back Pain
- Neck Pain
Many cyclists endure poor fitting cycling shoes in the name of aerodynamics or just plain poor judgement. Shoes that are clipped in are no different than regular shoes. Ensure that shoes are not too tight or it will affect circulation to the feet as well as pedal stroke efficiency and power.
Knee Pain 1.
Stress on the patellar tendon could be from excessive flexion at the top of the pedal stroke. If your knees are hurting, first, check foot placement: Your knees should line up over the second toe and the cleat should be mounted under the 2nd metatarsal (2nd toe). Due to the position of the foot (plantarflexion) during the push phase in pedalling, overuse of calves may be the culprit. Tight calves can affect knee position. Properly stretching and releasing your calves will ensure efficient biomechanics of the lower leg and ankle joint. *When cycling, power from the upper hamstrings and not from the lower leg. Focus your training on developing power in the upper hamstrings and not just the glutes.
Knee Pain 2.
Another source of knee pain can arise if you are riding in a gear that is too high. This overuse injury can result in patellofemoral pain syndrome/tendinitis. Adopting a slightly higher cadence can reduce undue stress on the knee joint. If, however, if you prefer pedalling at a lower cadence, consider a strengthening program that focuses on vastus medialis and balancing quadricep and hamstring strength.
Lower Back Pain
The body’s blueprint on the bike can become problematic on and off the bike if there is no opposing stretch or counter tension to balance the necessary flexion of the spine when riding. With the front of the body in a perpetually contracted (short) position, it is extremely beneficial to focus on movement off the bike that targets extension.
Releasing pec minor and biceps, opening shoulders and front of the body, the thoracic spine/chest and releasing psoas and hip flexors and quads will go a very long way to balance the shortened front line. Releasing tight fascia in the hips (adductors and abductors), glutes, hamstrings and quads can significantly optimize power.
Improper positioning on the bike or inefficient bike set up can lead to neck pain, create pinched nerves and aggravate or contribute to spinal stenosis. It goes without saying that a proper bike set up can significantly improve your power, comfort and aerodynamics. Ensure that your bars are not too low or too narrow (causing your shoulders to elevate). The distance of your handle bars to your seat can also play a role in neck and shoulder tension. However, if you have bike set up covered, developing a strong powerhouse which includes the mid back will greatly reduce neck tension.
The fascinating thing about this ‘unifying fabric’ is that connective tissue cells are able to respond to various imposed demands which account for flexibility and stability as well as lack thereof. This explains how your body feels tight or “stiff” after days of inactivity. Conversely, regular exercise and movement can result in feeling more energized and flexible. Connective tissue responds by generating a variety of fibres that vary in density within this fabric or “grid” ranging from very fluid to viscose in anatomically balanced bodies to solid in the case of injured tissue.
Through proper biomechanical, awareness based movement as well as active release therapy and massage we can ‘shape’ the tissue to respond more positively over time to the stresses and demands placed upon it within the limits that nutrition, age and protein synthesis dictates. It is central to healthy movement that all muscles be in harmony with each other and that no one muscle group is emphasized over another. Unless you discover that your erector spinae or multifidus is under-functioning, spending time isolating just those muscles will not result in better core function. It is simply not enough to focus on pelvic stability alone because that is not how we move naturally. In movement, we generally do not “hold” our muscles and “isolate our pelvis”.
Employing whole bodied movement that addresses the complex group of muscles that makes up the pelvic girdle in all ranges of motion restores healthy anatomical functioning. Becoming more aware of your movement habits and learning how to address your specific imbalances will go a long way to untangle your “tighter fabric” and is the most important thing you can do to improve your cycling performance and prevent injuries.