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Bike Fitting Top 10 most common issues and how to solve them

I have been coaching cycling for closing in on a decade and riding for even longer.  For most of that time I have had a keen interest in bike setup, whether it’s aerodynamics for time trial and the various distance triathlon events or road cycling.   During my time as a cycling coach I have conducted hundreds of bike fits and recently I had cause to look back at some of the original fit sessions I conducted and it revealed two things: how much I have learned about bike setup and how common the key issues are now as they were back then.

This post provides a list of the most common bike fitting issues I have come across over the last decade and provides some general advice on what to look for and how to fix the problem.

Now, before we jump into the list of issues there is one very important thing you need to know.   Making changes to a bike set-up must follow a very specific order.   It’s no use moving your handlebars and then your saddle and shoes as you will just need to re-do the handlebar position again at the end.   Always start at your feet, then check saddle fore-aft and height, followed finally by handlebar position and rotation.   As you go through this list you may want to hold-off on making any modifications to your setup until you figure out every change you need to make.   I also strongly recommend that if you have more than one or two simple changes that you get the assistance of a qualified and experienced bike fitter

#1 Saddle too high

While you will probably notice that most of this list relates to ‘pain’ problems, the first two issues on this list have an enormous impact on comfort and efficiency while riding.

By far the number one issue I see is that riders have their saddle set too high.  Without going back through my records one by one I would say about 8/10 riders have their saddle set 5-15mm too high. In the vast majority of these cases it causes an over-extension of the leg – beyond the flexibility of the hamstrings and calf muscles and this leads to a slight (to severe) pointing down of the toes during the downstroke.  

Sitting too high also places additional loading on tendons at the top of the knee and quite often leads to an uneven pedalling stroke and saddle issues.  However, by far the most important aspect of sitting too high (or too low for that matter) is that it doesn’t allow the rider to correctly use the leg muscles to provide maximal force through a long power phase on the down-stroke.  In turn this leads to lower power and earlier fatigue.

How do you know whether your saddle is set too high?

Unfortunately this is goes straight to the heart of most bike fitting issues, we can’t actually see what we look like when we are riding.  What this means is we need the assistance of one of our riding buddies or better yet get yourself set up on an indoor trainer and have someone use a tablet or smart phone to take a short video of you riding.    It’s best to film from both sides, but what you are looking for is any indication that you are stretching or reaching down with the toes – especially in the bottom part of the pedal stroke.

Check the images below (click on images for expanded/larger versions) which show some examples of what to look for.

2014-10/toesdownslightly_2.jpg

2014-10/toesdownsignificantly_2.jpg

Note how the heel is raised slightly in the first (left) image and compare it to the significant and quite noticeable stretching in the second (right) image.

Now compare them to the next image

2014-10/flatfoot_2.jpg

 

The heel is ever so slightly above the pedals but overall the foot is primarily flat at this position.  This is a good indication that saddle height is correct but is also provides for a much more stable foot position which will enable you to push down with more force.

As you might expect from looking at the first two (and especially the second image) is that riding for prolonged periods like this can cause a number of issues, with pain behind the knee and sore toes being the main two.

Now on to the important stuff.  How do you fix it?  Well that can actually be a bit trickier than you might expect.  The problem is that saddle fore-aft position can also impact the foot position during pedalling so before you make any changes to the height to should first check your fore-aft placement (see #2 on this list).  Once you have that correct then start by dropping your saddle by 2-3mm and reassess.  You may need to ride for a good 5-10 minutes before your body adapts and in some cases you may even need to ride for a a week or two before reassessing and making further changes.

#2 Saddle too far forward

In all fairness to saddle height, the fore-aft positioning only narrowly gets beaten for the #1 position and in many cases these issues can be considered one and the same.   The reason for this is that most people that sit too far forward start to have issues and the usual response is to raise the saddle height.    In all honesty I can say that I believe that the reason that so many people have their saddles too high is that its actually too far forward and they have increased saddle height to compensate.

The problem is that the forward saddle position created a number of additional issues, such as shortening the reach to the handlebars, creating instability in the pelvis.  However, most importantly, it begins limiting the riders ability to apply power over a long arc during the downstroke.  The reason for this is that the foot gets trapped behind the knee early in the downstroke.  As a result the foot hasn’t had time to ‘flatten out’ and it gets locked into a ‘toes down’ position.  This is done, in part, by the calf muscle but overall it looks identical to the ‘toe down’ position from an overly high saddle.

So how do you know whether you need to move your saddle back or down?

Well the old school way is to use a plumb bob and check your knee over pedal alignment (referred to as KOPS).   However most good bike fitters have done away with using this method in recent years as there hasn't been any research to support it’s use – after all what does the position of the front of the knee really have to do with bike set up and pedalling efficiency.

Biomechanically, its more important to look at the centre of the knee joint.   Several years ago I spent some time reviewing research documents and came up with another way of devising a better way of determining the correct amount of saddle setback.   It involves assessing the riders knee position (centre of knee joint) when they are 1/4 of the way through the pedal stroke.  This is roughly the position when the forward crank lines up with the down-tube of the bike.  The first quarter of the pedal stroke is a place where the rider can start to apply power.  Their foot is starting to line up under the knee and assuming no major flexibility issues or ankle problems, the foot can flatten out and provide the stable platform for the rider to push with.    So, what you’re looking for is the pedal axle (or ball of foot) to be lined up directly underneath the centre of the knee joint at the 45° position (approx when forward crank aligned with the down tube). Personally I am usually happy when the plumb bob falls no farther forward than the end of the cranks at this position (nb: time trial position is an exception to this rule). 

So, now that you have some information on assessing your fore-aft position it’s time to determine whether you need saddle height changes, fore-aft changes or both.   The first thing to do is to measure your current saddle height.  Take a tape measure and measure the length of the saddle and find the centre point.  Then measure from here to the centre of the bottom bracket, preferably on the non-drive side of the bike.  Do this a few times to ensure you are getting a reliable measurement.  Now, if you need to more the saddle backwards do this first and then re-check your saddle height.  Moving the saddle backwards also increases the distance to the pedals so a rearward movement will have a similar effect as increasing the saddle height (and now you might start to understand why most people raise their saddle when they actually need to move it backwards!).

Once your saddle has been moved to the correct fore-aft position then drop the saddle to the same height as it was previously set. Then hop back on and re-check your saddle fore-aft position.   In some cases you may need a seat post with a greater level of offset (also called setback) however do the best you can with what you have to start with.  Repeat this process (moving the saddle back and lowering it to the initial height) until you have the fore-aft position sorted.   At this point it’s time to reassess the seat height, which in the majority means simply going back and redoing the assessment from #1 above.  However, in cases where the saddle position was excessively forward and/or the toes were significantly pointed down during the pedal stroke, it may be necessary to ride in this new position for a week or two before you can accurately assess whether any further changes to your saddle height is required.

#3 Shoulder or Neck Pain

Tight shoulders, stiff neck, headaches, tired arms or sore wrists.  Any one of these can indicate the same problem but more often it’s the shoulders or neck that bear the brunt of the cause – poor handlebar position in relation to the saddle.

In the vast majority of cases it comes from the saddle and handlebars being too close together.  This creates a problem where neither the torso or arm can be entirely comfortable.  What happens next is the body makes a choice.  The torso normally assumes its most comfortable position and the hands (being essentially fixed by the bar position) dictate the position of the arms.  However, this often leads to excessive bend at the elbows so the arms are straightened to compensate. The problem now is that a straighter arm will push the torso up so to prevent this the rider shrugs or tightens the muscles around their shoulder.   These muscles are then ‘held’ in this contracted state for prolonged periods (something they are not designed to cope with) and the result is pain in the shoulder or neck.   In severe cases this the leads to light-headiness, dizziness and head-aches

Like the saddle height problem, fixing shoulder or neck issues is actually a process of elimination.  The biggest mistake you can make is to just pop on a longer stem.  Remembering that poor saddle fore-aft positioning is very common, the first thing you should do is to check it.  Sitting too far forward reduces the reach to the handlebars and I would say 9 out of 10 cases a rearward saddle movement (that was required) was also enough to correct the handlebar reach issues and resolve the shoulder/neck problems.  So first up, check your saddle setback, then as with the seat height issues, ride for a week or two before reassessing your handlebar position.   

#4 Knee pain (medial or lateral)

While the previous three issues are the most common, the next two are perhaps responsible for more people being prevented from riding than any other problem.  Knee pain!

Knee pain comes in two general groups: side of the knee vs front/back of the knee.   When we look at the side of the knee we talk about lateral or medial pain, with lateral being the outside and medial being the inside (think M for middle).

Both lateral and medial knee pain are usually caused by a misalignment of the leg/knee during the pedal stroke, often accompanied by some twisting.  Take a look at the following two images.  They show quite a common scenario, with the knee (in this case the right knee) tracking ‘inside’ on the downstroke and ‘outside’ on the upstroke.  This tracking is relative to a vertical line between the hip socket and the foot.

2014-10/rightkneeinondownstroke_2.jpg

2014-10/rightkneeoutonupstroke_2.jpg

This type of tracking problem is very common and the extent of the sideways movement and twisting of the knee varies from person to person.

This is another one your friends can help you with (or the short video from your tablet).  The first thing to check is the foot position (remembering this is where we start out fitting process).  You should be able to see quite clearly in both of the above images that the foot is well positioned below the hip.  What you want is to basically have the gap between your big toe and second toe lined up beneath your hip socket.  If it’s not then you need to move your cleats sideways so that the foot is lined up correctly.  This will help correct the alignment issues on the downstroke and help reduce movement on the upstroke.

Next you need to consider the foot itself.  Inside the shoe there is a whole lot that goes on based on the actual structure of your foot.  In running terms we would be talking about pronation and supination but in cycling we refer to them as varus or valgus forefoot tilt.   The reason this is important is that a forefoot tilt of as little as 5 degrees can lead to knee alignment issues while pedalling and a tilt of 15-25+ degrees could be responsible for all of your knee problems.  Unfortunately this isn’t something your can check all that easily, however if you know whether you pronate or supinate then that’s a good place to start.

If you do have forefoot tilt issues then wedging or orthotics are usually required.  Cleat wedges provide a reliable and much more affordable means of correcting this problem and if you suspect these are required then you need to seek assistance from a bike fitter suitably experienced with dealing with these issues.

Nb: varus forefoot (pronation) generally shows up as per the above images, with the knee tracking inwards on the downstroke, but not necessarily out of alignment on the upstroke, whereas a valgus (supination) will be the opposite, with the knee tracking outwards on the downstroke. 

Once pain sets in it can be difficult to complete any ride in a pain free manner.  Ultimately the knee is being subject to minute damage on every pedal stroke and the only way to fix it is to correct the knee alignment.  Once this is done then the pain should subside over the following fortnight, however applying ice and seeking assistance from a physio can help speed up the healing process and return to pain free riding.

#5 Knee Pain (anterior)

The second grouping of knee pain covers the front and back – referred to as anterior and posterior.   Posterior pain is a good indication of a saddle that is too high and while that is a common problem I haven't found too many people suffering from this type of pain.  Anterior knee pain on the other hand is much more common and results from a saddle that is either too low or too far forward.

Like a high saddle position, a low one restricts the range of motion of the leg during the power phase of the pedalling stroke, but more importantly it leads to an over-compression of the knee joint at the top of the pedal stroke.  This means the knee is already loaded up when the rider is starting to apply power.  This often leads to pain at the front and just above the patella.  The other side of the equation is a saddle that is too far forward.  This can also lead to an over-compressed knee joint but it also places additional strain on the front of the lower leg, just below the knee.    In both cases the pain can be quite severe and prevent you from riding.  A visit to a physio usually results in a diagnosis of an inflamed patella tendon.   Like the lateral/medial knee pain issue above, the solution is two-fold.  Treat your knee pain to correct the saddle position as required.

In both cases, (i.e. any knee pain) you should avoid any steep hills or high-resistance pedalling for 5-10 days to help speed up the healing process.

#6 Cramping in calf muscles

Cramping is perhaps one of the most misunderstood problems in sport.  Is it a physical issue or hydration/nutrition related? 

For cycling it’s true that some cramping can be from poor hydration and nutrition, just the same as it can be from riding for an extended period beyond your current fitness level.  Both of these stress the muscles and lead to cramping, however they tend to be more limited in their impact, for example training is a ‘cramp free zone’ but come race day or that long 5 hour ride over hilly terrain and the cramps appear to come out of nowhere.

The other scenario here is common cramping.  Some people just seem to suffer from cramping – especially in their calf muscles, on a regular basis – even after ensuring their hydration and nutrition are perfect.

To understand this problem you need to first look at what’s going on with the calf muscle during the pedal stroke.  

First lets look at a ‘normal’ pedal stroke.  As the foot tracks upwards during the back half of the pedal stroke the calf muscle must contract slightly to facilitate the high heel-low toes position.  Then during the downstroke it stretches slightly to let the foot assume a flat position.  Overall the calf muscle is doing very little work, and after all its not a big power muscle, like the quads, so it shouldn’t really be doing much work other than helping stabilise the foot during the pedal stroke.

Now lets look at a someone who is sitting too high or too far forward (fore-aft saddle position).  In both of these cases the toes usually adopt a ‘toe-down’ position during the downstroke.  So while the calf muscle still contracts slightly on the upstroke it also has to contract and do more work on the downstroke.    It has to do this to hold the foot stable when it’s under load (remember you’re pushing down on it). The more severe the ‘toe-down’ foot position the more the calf muscle has to contact and work to hold things in position.   Now, when you consider we ride with a cadence of 80-100rpm for the majority of our ride time, that’s a lot of extra work the calf muscle has to do in order to keep you moving forward. Unfortunately, like the shoulder and neck muscles, this is not the job the calf muscle was designed for and ultimately if you ride like this for too long it will get tired and ultimately cramp.

So, what’s the solution?

Well if you are getting regular cramps in your calf muscles, the first thing to do is to go back and re-check your saddle position.  Start with the fore-aft and then check the height.

It’s also worth mentioning that sometimes riders only experience cramp in one leg.  This is often a sign that one leg is functionally shorter than the other one, either due to a leg length difference or hip misalignment.   If you have one calf muscle that is cramping while the other is pain and fatigue free then I strongly recommend you get yourself in for a proper bike fit with someone who is familiar with both hip alignment and leg length issues.

#7 Hip Misalignment

Up until now most of the issues could be regarded as ‘obvious’ or well known, with plenty of information available on the next to help you get things sorted out.  But now we move on to the most under-rated issue with bike setup, hip misalignment.

The human body is seldom perfectly symmetrical.  Sure we have a left side and a right side but there can be, and often are, minute (and not so minute) differences from one side of our body to the other.   For example most people have one leg that is slightly longer than the other one.  It may only be 1-2mm and we don’t even notice it, but the difference is their.  With the hips, their is a lot of musculature that can have an impact on the alignment.  Tightness in one side can result in that side being held higher, lower, forward or back in relation to the other side.   Now aside from the potential stability issue that this present, the most significant problem that hip misalignment causes is an uneven pedalling stroke.

Let’s consider that for a moment.

If one side of our hips is sitting higher or farther back than the other side then there is a greater distance between that hip socket and the pedals – in other words, the leg on that side has to extend more than the opposing leg.  This can make dialling in the correct saddle position difficult as a certain saddle height might work for, say the left leg, but for the right one it might be too low.   Fortunately there is rarely an exact mm specific saddle position for a rider so there is some freedom to set a saddle position that will cater for slight variations, however when the misalignment is more significant there is little that can be done in the way of bike setup to help.  The answer is to remove the bike from the equation and go back to the fact that the issue is with the hips and this means physical treatment, usually by a physiotherapist or remedial massage therapist.   A good place to start is to get a muscular skeletal assessment done by your physio.  They can identify what is causing the misalignment and prescribe the relevant exercises and stretches to correct it.

If you are unsure whether your hips are aligned properly there are a range of checks that you can do.  Some of these need the help of a friend, or again get out the tablet or smart phone for a video.    The first thing to check is your hip alignment from the rear.  What you are looking for is the vertical seam that runs down the back of the cycling shorts/knicks.  Check out the image below where I am deliberately dropping the left side of my hips.   I have marked the image with a red line to clearly show the central line of the hips and knicks and you can clearly see that the hips are tilted to one side.

2014-10/hipsdownleft_3.jpg

Now this may seem like an over-exaggeration but I actually see this type of hip misalignment on a regular basis.   

The other thing to look for is a rotation of the hips (one side farther forward or back than the other).   The image above can also show – especially when there is a combination of twisting and tilting but the image below shows it a little more clearly.

2014-10/hipstwistedright_2.jpg

 

As you may be able to tell, it can be difficult to differentiate between twisted and tilted hips so if you want to isolate twisting of the pelvis then the best thing to do is to move farther down the body and look at the knees.  Set the bike up on a trainer and grab a plumb bob.  Place your right crank into the 3 o’clock position (i.e. as far forward as it will go) and then drop the plumb bob from the front edge of your knee (old KOPS method) and see where it lines up, both in relation to your foot/shoe and the pedal axle.  Then do the same with the left leg.  When the hips are even (i.e. not twisted) the knee position relative to the feet and pedals should be the same.  However, when there is a twisting it moves the hip socket on one side backwards and that in turn moves the knee on that side backwards as well.  If this is happening then you will clearly see that the knee on one side has a different vertical alignment than the other one.  The two images below show this type of assessment using some video footage and motion analysis software.

2014-10/rightkneeforward_1.jpg

2014-10/rightkneeforward_pt2_2.jpg

Again I have deliberately twisted my hips to attain this result but you can see from the two lines (red and green) that one knee is farther forward than the other.

One thing you need to consider when assessing hip alignment is any leg length difference.  A rider may have a ‘real or true” leg length difference and they compensate for this by rotating or tilting their hips out of alignment so that their legs are extending about the same amount (although that’s not always the case).  In these cases the real answer is shimming the cleats on the shorter leg to reduce the reach.    This is a very complex area as a hip misalignment with the same length legs will create a functional leg length difference.    If you suspect there might be a leg length difference then you can have it checked and this will help inform you whether shims are required (real or true leg length difference) or whether physical treatment is the right way to proceed (apparent leg length difference) before considering shims.

#8 Sore/numb toes

There are a number of causes for sore toes/numb feet but the most common relate to saddle position and forefoot tilt.

Where the saddle position results in a ‘toes down’ position on the downstroke, more pressure is placed on the toes as they are effectively pushed into the front of the shoe on every downstroke.  I liken it to kicking or tapping your toes on the floor (without your shoes on) 80-100 times a minute for a few hours.  Eventually they are going to get sore and this is just what happens on the bike.  The solution to this one is pretty easy, correct the saddle position and work on getting the foot into a flatter position on the downstroke.

The second type of toe pain is with either the big toe or small toe – more commonly the later.   Where a rider has a significant forefoot tilt, it can lead to the rider pushing down more on the outside (varus/pronation) or inside (valgus/supination) edge of their foot.   In the case of a varus tilt then often leads to the little toe being placed under more pressure and it goes numb while the other toes generally remain fine.  The opposite is true for a valgus tilt with more pressure on the big toe, however it is less common, not the least due to the fact that only 5-10% of people have this foot structure.

If you are experiencing pain or numbness in just one side of your foot then there is a good chance that either your foot is out of alignment (i.e. it needs to move sideways and under your knee/hips) or that you need cleat wedges to correct a forefoot tilt.

#9 lower back pain

Lower back pain is most common with riders who have either a hip misalignment or leg length difference, however it can also occur when the handlebars are too low or the saddle is too far forward.

Lower back pain that is isolated to one side of the back generally indicates there is a misalignment issue.   If this is what you are experiencing then go back to issue #7 and assess your hip alignment and potentially your leg length.  If you have a combination of lower back pain (on one side only) and leg cramps (again one side only) then there is definitely a misalignment or leg length difference and you should head straight to the physio for a muscular skeletal assessment.

If however your lower back pain is more general or across both sides then the odds are that your handlebar or saddle position is to blame.

If the saddle is too far forward then the pelvis tends to be more upright and the core muscles (abs and lower back) need to do more work to keep the hips/pelvis stable during pedalling.  Over time this leads to fatigue and soreness.  Correcting this problem is as per issue #2 above.

Handlebar wise, if the bars are too low or too far forward this can lead to stretching and discomfort in the lower back.  This is usually more likely in combination with a saddle that is too high as it leads to hamstrings that are too stretched out and in turn this limits the flexibility of the lower back.  Correcting this problem is usually a combination of checking and correcting saddle height and then gradually raising the handlebars until the pain disappears.  There are some advanced ways that you can check whether there is too much handlebar drop but they need a trainer eye to detect.

#10 Saddle sores or discomfort

Finally, just scraping into the top 10 is saddle related issues.   Nowadays this is a less common issue as saddle design has greatly improved with better padding, shaping and support.  However, saddle shape is very personal and some people need a very specific type of saddle to enable pain free riding.

Saddle issues can generally be broken down into three types: saddle sores, soft tissue pain/numbness and sit bone pain.

The first of these, saddle sores is actually a consequence of an infection caused at the point where the skin is broken.  Improving hygiene goes a long way to preventing and eliminating the possibility of saddle sores but there is still the underlying problem that the skin is being broken.  The two main culprits for this are poor fit of cycling shorts (either wrong size or brand) and excess rubbing.   The later of these is caused by swaying from side to side on the saddle (usually do to a saddle that is too high) or a saddle that is too wide or flat across the centre section.   If you have ruled out knicks choice and seat height then have someone ride behind you (or stand behind you when you're on the trainer) and check how much side to side or up and down movement you have on the saddle.

Soft tissue issues are usually a result of bearing too much weight on the centre of the saddle, usually from it being too high. However on occasion it can be the shape of the saddle.  A saddle that is too rounded or has insufficient padding or give can lead to pain and numbness.  In these cases switching to a saddle of the same shape that has a cut-out centre is a good option. If your saddle has a rounded profile then switching to a flatter saddle may be the way to go.

Finally, sit bone pain.  This is less common and when it happens you can almost guarantee that it will require a change of saddle.   Each persons sit bones have a specific width and the actual width and shape of the saddle (across the mid section) dictates how that person bears their weight on the saddle.   More often than not sit bone pain comes from a saddle that is too flat or too wide so first look to a slightly narrower saddle. 

Nb: Many bike shops offer test saddles so you can try before you buy.  Saddle choice is very personal and what may be the perfect saddle for one rider may be the saddle from hell for someone else.  Don’t be afraid to try as many saddles as necessary to find the right one.  Settling for something that is not quite right will only lead to further discomfort on longer riders.

Summary

Bike and equipment choice are important to cycling performance, as is the right training.  But it’s important that you get the most out of your body and equipment on race day and ensuring your bike is set up properly is one of the first things you should do upon getting a new bike.

The above list of my top 10 issues should help you complete some quick fixes but they are not a replacement for a good bike fit.  Feel free to try some quick changes yourself but remember that Argonaut Cycle Coaching provides a quality bike fitting service at an affordable price if you need more assistance.  We don’t believe that bike fits should cost another $500 on top of a new bike purchase and we like to see you up and running in the best position possible for a fraction of that cost.   Full details of our bike fitting service can be found on our website (just check the main menu at the very top of this page).    We also offer an online questionnaire where you can complete a self assessment.  This can be done with or without a bike setup calculation.

Jason Mahoney Wednesday 22 October 2014 at 3:48 pm | | Tips

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