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I get most of my exercise through cycling. Does cycling without cross-training cause injuries? If so, are there specific injuries to which cyclists are susceptible (knee, hip, etc.), and is it possible to prevent them?

Assume that the bike is well fitted, since bike fit and knee pain is discussed in the question: How to adjust seat saddle and saddle position for knee pain? Other related questions include: How to avoid knee pain when cycling, Should cyclists use weight training to strengthen underutilized muscles?, and How can I get rid of I.T. Band pain caused by cycling?

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Everything I've heard from phsyios indicates that cycling is pretty gentle on the body, much like swimming. If you do front crawl, swimming seems like a good complement to cycling. I can also recommend indoor climbing/bouldering, which is mostly an upper-body workout. –  James Bradbury Apr 12 '13 at 7:45
    
I find that Iyengar Yoga with the stretching and holding poses is very helpful in maintaining flexibility and strength in the lower back and ankles. –  user6874 May 8 '13 at 18:50

6 Answers 6

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First, of course, we must exclude accidents, collisions, and component failures -- these obviously can result in injury.

Beyond that, in almost any physical activity it's possible to apply so much force to a muscle that you produce a muscle or tendon pull. In cycling this would be, eg, when you're climbing in too high a gear and exert enormous force on the pedals, sufficient to cause an injury to your leg, arm, or back. This would be more likely in a person who has gained strength in some other activity and only recently begun cycling intensely, however, such that their muscle and tendon strength was imbalanced for cycling -- unlikely to occur in a regular cyclist.

That leaves the knees. While most cyclists never have serious knee problems, a substantial fraction do. This would be due to any or all of three problems:

  1. Poor knee "geometry", either as an inborn trait or due to some prior injury.
  2. Cycling with the seat too low and/or in too high of a gear.
  3. "Imbalance" in the muscles supporting the knee, due to lack of "training" of some of those muscles, while others are being strengthened.

Knee problems can be avoided/controlled by assuring that the seat is at proper height (and that the bike is otherwise properly fit), using a gear appropriate to the conditions and your degree of training/tolerance, and doing knee-strengthening exercises. It is imperative that one not try to "work through" significant knee pain, but instead address it, correcting the problems leading to it.

The most common form of knee pain is "patellofemeral pain syndrome", a condition where the kneecap gets "off-center" relative to the thigh bone.

Finally, it should also be mentioned that there are about a dozen inherited "minor metabolic disorders" -- myoadenylate deaminase deficiency, McArdle's disease, CPTII, and others -- that maybe 3% of the population carries. If a person has been exercising regularly for some time they would already have become aware of these, but if someone begins a program of fairly vigorous exercise for the first time in their life (cycling or othewise) they may encounter muscle pain/soreness that lasts beyond a few days, severe muscle cramps, or other such conditions. If these symptoms continue for more than a week or two they should consult a physician (oddly, the doc to see is a neurologist). In many cases it will be possible to continue reasonably vigorous exercise, if the condition is properly treated and accommodated.

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You mention doing knee-strengthening exercises. Are you thinking of any specific ones that are particularly applicable to cyclists? –  amcnabb Apr 16 '13 at 19:58
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@amcnabb - The simplest knee-strengthening exercise that is applicable to cyclists is to lay flat on your back, keep your knee straight and your toe pointed up, and raise your leg for a count of 5 or so. Then slowly lower and do the other leg. Repeat 10-20 times. This is actually quite effective. (But if you are experiencing significant knee pain you should get a exercise plan from a therapist.) –  Daniel R Hicks Apr 17 '13 at 0:27

You can get overuse injuries, but if you are careful and the bike fits well, they aren't that common.

If you only ride, however, there are a lot of muscles that don't get much of a workout, so you can get some imbalances. I cycle seriously but I also lift weights.

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There are two major risks associated with limiting your physical activity to cycling:

  1. Increased risk of broken bones - your bone density decreases due to little strain being put on them - see here for details: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/01/is-bicycling-bad-for-your-bones/

  2. Increased risk of twisted ankles - if the volume of cycling you do is large compared to the volume of walking you do (a common thing with bike commuters I guess), you may weaken your foot stabilizers, which may cause injuries. Two years ago I started getting twisted ankles - this coincided with the year I became an all year-round bicycle commuter.

Solution: Go running at least once a week. Not only will it prevent injuries, it will also increase your comfort while cycling (stronger back muscles).

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Welcome to Bicycles.SE and thanks for this helpful answer. –  amcnabb Apr 16 '13 at 15:40
    
Easy and helpful prophylactic for ankles: stand on one foot as long as possible. Waiting to cross the street is a fine time to do this. This exercise improves proprioception as well as ankle strength. –  dsalo May 10 at 23:34

You can get injuries from all kind of exercices if not done correctly.

You cannot get injuries by cycling (unless you crash or overdo it or have bad posture).

What you can end up with though with cycling only is a weak upper body.

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Sure your upper body will be weaker than your legs, but I don't do much exercise other than cycling, and I wouldn't say that my upper body is weak. Certainly weaker than someone who lifts weights, but there is a decent amount of upper body movement in a good bike ride. Just holding yourself up in a road bike position for hours on end is no small feat. Also, if you do mountain biking or even just lifting the front end over curbs and holes in the road there's a non trivial amount of exercise for your upper body. –  Kibbee Apr 12 '13 at 12:23
    
Agreed, it's better for the upper body than not exercising. –  James Bradbury Apr 13 '13 at 10:19

I haven't heard of any people getting knee injuries from riding unless they were using a bike not fitted for their size or doing something else strange. In fact, my mother was "prescribed" bike riding after her knee replacement surgery to rebuild strength. However, I know of a few people with back problems from improper posture while riding, particularly those who are always hunched over road bikes, or are constantly being jarred on trails while mountain biking.

My wife has an issue in her hip known as piriformis syndrome from an accident a few years ago. We commonly ride 20 - 30 miles at a time on 7 speed beach cruisers, but if it has been a while since our last ride, biking too long or hard does bother her.

Otherwise, it is really common for men using narrow saddles to have testicular issues. Similarly, women can have pelvic floor dysfunction. These issues result from leaning forward on a thin seat, placing too much weight on this sensitive area of the body. My wife is a nurse working in labor and deliver and is no stranger to "private" issues.

It is never a good idea to only do one specific exercise or focus on one aspect of the body if you are striving overall health and wellness. Biking is great, but should be combined with other types of exercise.

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Also important to note that you should wear cycling gloves and change hand positions often. Proper bike measurements will ensure that force is evenly applied amongst the saddle, pedals, and handlebars, but there's still a risk of hand numbness.

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Welcome to Bicycles SE. This site, like all Stack Exchange sites, is not a typical forum. Answer posts should directly answer the question. This post would be better suited as a comment than an answer on its own. –  jimirings May 7 '13 at 21:43

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