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Given that 'training' is a valid topic, can you say how much rest a novice needs?

My ambition is to commute 18 km each way, every week day: in Toronto (mostly flat, some hills, mostly bike lanes and some bike paths). I have a bike and I am currently doing the 18 km in about an hour and a quarter (so, about two and a half hours total per weekday).

My schedule has been:

  • Full days (18 km each way, 40 km total) since the Tuesday before last (8 days ago)
  • No riding (complete rest) last weekend (2 days)
  • About 10 km/day, for the 6 days before that
  • Virtually no exercise (occasional 1 hour on an exercise cycle) before that (this is a new job and a new bike) ... so, I'm a novice
  • I'm 49 years old, have a sedentary (computer) job/life-style, male, not over-weight (6 foot / 185 cm and 170 lb / 77 kg).
  • It's been a little cold (down to about -8C; I've been wearing jeans, and caring more/only about my core temperature, so maybe the back of my knee got cold; certainly my feet got cold sometimes; it wasn't especially cold today though, about +4C, when the pain started)

I've been loving the rides, and I want to continue.

Today I developed a pain at the back of my knee at the top of my left fibula. I don't know whether that's a ligament or a tendon (I'm presuming it's one or the other). I'm using Shimano SPD shoes with the clip at the default position (centre of the ball of the foot). My right knee is fine. The one other thing I do with my left knee is, when I stop, I put my left foot down on the road: which means pointing my left foot down, putting my weight on my left toes (not heel), while my right foot is still on the right pedal; but maybe that's not relevent.

Towards the end of my ride I tried unclipping my left shoe, and rode with the pedal under my arch (instead of under the ball of my foot, to reduce the work being done by my calf ... because I couldn't work out why it's the back of my knee that's hurting: I would have expected the front, if most of the force/work is from the front thigh) and that seemed to help: less acute pain.

I don't care much about short-term pain, except that it might be a warning of worse chronic pain to follow.

Why am I getting that pain there? What should I do or change, to remedy it? Am I resting enough and if not how much more rest should I take?

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Hi, and good question! Just one (meta-)comment: To comment on answers, just use the "add comment" under the answer. If you comment the answers in your question, it's rather hard to read... –  sleske Mar 17 '11 at 17:36
    
@sleske Yes normally but that was much longer than the maximum permitted comment length. –  ChrisW Mar 18 '11 at 1:56
    
You can, of course, leave more than one comment. :) –  Neil Fein Mar 18 '11 at 17:58
    
"rode with the pedal under my arch" -- What to look for when buying cycling shoes and pedals suggests that I should move the cleats towards the back of the shoe by about 1 cm (they're under the ball of my foot at the moment; their position is slightly adjustable). –  ChrisW Mar 19 '11 at 4:36
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6 Answers 6

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Also, not a doctor. I took a sports medicine class in school, once. Once. So what I am about to describe is an example and a suggestion--not a medical prescription.

Note. The objective answer to your question, "How much rest..." will be different for different people. It depends on diet, your individual musculoskeletal structure, what other things you might be doing to train or otherwise, possibly genetics. The answer can be anywhere from twelve hours to three days for regular training-related recovery.

What you are doing is awesome and amazing. And I'm not surprised that you are enjoying the rides!

Any sort of strength training is similar. You need to stress your body, provide time and input for replenishment, then stress it again. Over time conditioning improves. This conditioning applies to muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

I agree with the other respondents. You might have lept into this a little quickly--especially starting from zero. I would recommend that you initially ride your whole commute by bike on Tuesdays and Fridays. During your weekend, take your bike for a training ride that is more than a quarter but less than half of your commute-ride. Maybe ride to the grocery store? Run some other errand? But work in a training ride on your days off. Do something similar on Wednesday or Thursday--either after work or on your lunch-break. Eat well and healthfully each day.

Work into this slowly, allowing your body maximum opportunity to normalize the new routine. Remember that if you feel pain--that's pain where ligaments or tendons attach to muscle or bone. Ligaments themselves have minimal vascular and nervous structure, so apart from at these attachment points you may not even feel damage that's caused elsewhere in the ligament. You may be able to detect swelling: mild inflammation, including behind the knee. This (inflammation) is itself an early warning. The recovery time varies: it depends on the extent of any injury.

After you've done this for about three months, start riding the full commute on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Continue to take that training ride on the weekends, but go easy with it. If you have pain, switch back to the old schedule for a week. If the pain keeps coming back, switch back to the old schedule for another month. It takes time. Keep eating healthy--which MAY mean eating MORE if your body demands it!

Do that for another three-or-four months without recurring problems and then try riding five days in a row every other week for a few months. Use either of the old schedules on alternate weeks.

And so on.

Also get acquainted with the public transit system in your area so that if you feel pain on your ride in, you don't have to ride on the injury to go home. Take advantage of this regularly so that you don't hesitate to take it if you ought to.

I recommend getting into this carefully so that you don't develop a syndrome or injury that prevents you from cycling in the long run. Individuals who take up regular strenuous activity after long periods of sedentary lifestyle may be subject to compartment syndromes--which are possible where your muscle growth "suddenly" outpaces the expansion of other tissues in your lower leg, for example. Continual re-injury of connective tissues around the knee can also lead to tendonitis, bursitis, or similar soft-tissue injury. Any of these can make cycling seem like more pain than it is worth in the long run--especially if most of your life's fondest memories aren't already on a bicycle! (Here you see my ulterior motive: to encourage you to develop these positive associations with cycling before you get a cycling-related injury!)

Working into this slowly--and of course eating right--will rapidly transform you, though, from a "sedentary computer job/lifestyle" into an "active cyclist who does computers for a day-job".

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The important thing that I should stress, though, is that since ligamenture is less vascularized than muscle tissue... it will take conditioning more slowly. All else said still applies. –  DC_CARR Mar 17 '11 at 21:24
    
Yes I'm used to tired muscles recovering quickly, e.g. overnight or within a few days. I don't remember ever having tendon/ligament problems and I can't imagine how they're supposed to heal themselves. I was surprised to read they're vascularised at all and Wikipedia suggests many, many weeks after an injury. I also didn't realize (perhaps I should have deduced it, but I hadn't made the connection) that they can be damaged not only by an accute excessive force (causing inelastic strain)... –  ChrisW Mar 18 '11 at 2:11
    
... but also by repeated stress, eventually causing failure even though the stress is not too high, through something analogous to metal fatigue. I am eating more: nutristrategy.com/fitness/cycling.htm suggested I needed an extra 1000 calories a day: so, a big breakfast with lots of protein; a muffin (400 calories, in a muffin!) when I get into the office; lunch, and then another snack before leaving work; etc. google.com/search?q=ligament+nutrition suggests I should do even more, nutrition-wise: vitamin C, Zinc, water, etc. –  ChrisW Mar 18 '11 at 4:15
    
Yeah, @ChrisW, I think that the fact that we often cannot "feel" damage to connnective tissues until it is becoming serious is something that many people forget--especially when first starting to train or when taking up training after a long hiatus. Fortunately for us, cycling does not tend to be a high-impact sport. High-impact sports stress-load these structures far more and--in the situation that we discussed above where there are pre-existing microinjuries present--can lead to unexpected ruptures. Just don't go taking up rugby, now, while you're getting into cycling! –  DC_CARR Mar 21 '11 at 18:13
    
What I'm doing is very low impact, but repeated 12,000 times per day (2.5 hours at 80 RPM). What I'm feeling must be the other kind of strain: the "metal fatigue" kind, not the "high-impact" kind. –  ChrisW Mar 22 '11 at 1:27
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I am not a doctor, so please take this with a grain of salt.

You can't expect to go from zero training to big training in a week. You may try taking it slow, like two days a week at first, or three. Once you dont have a problem with that, go on for more. A 40km commute is nothing to be scoffed at.

Personally, I avoid commuting below -2°C because if I dont wear special protective clothing, I get pain in the knees. I dont want to change clothing at work, therefore I take the bus when it is cold.

Generally, knee pain can have a lot of sources:

  • Lack of training - muscles in the knee not up to the job. Or lack of strength in the back, arms, shoulders leading to a sagging posture, off to one side, etc.
  • Temperature
  • Pre-existing damage to your knee, that you didnt notice before (sedentary lifestyle)
  • Bicycle settings: seat height, handlebar width, distance, clip position etc. Experiment with it.
  • Habits: different pattern of force application on the left leg. Always using it to start? Watch what you're doing. Move about the bike. Change the settings.
  • Jeans might be interfering with the blood supply - try with bycicle pants. If you feel uncomfortable on the bike, this may be the reason.
  • Saddle
  • etc.

My experience when I had a severely damaged shoulder, it became nearly impossible for me to bicycle, because I got problems in the left knee. I had ridden 10k km per year before. Left arm broken, left knee hurts. (Or any other improbable combination, really)

I then moved to a recumbent, and my right knee hurt when I did a 150km a week commute. After much experiment, I noticed the pain stops when I move a few centimeters to the right of the seat.

After the accident and before getting the recumbent, I slouched for three years, with next to no bicycling. When getting back on the bike, despite having ridden so much before, it took an astoundingly long time to get back to the 150km commute (44yo, sedentary lifestyle)

After some training on the recumbent, there is no problem on the upright any more. Okay, the shoulder is 95% fine now. This took two years, though.

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It is especially important to note knee problems can come from any other source. Weak left shoulder -> bad posture -> knee problem (or any other problem, for that matter, or none at all) –  posipiet Mar 17 '11 at 6:06
    
Added more comment on my personal experience –  posipiet Mar 17 '11 at 15:08
    
"I am not a doctor, so please take this with a grain of salt." - Yes. Thank you for offering your experience. I had doubts about this question. I will be having my annual checkup, in two weeks. I figured that you/bicyclists would have some experience with this. –  ChrisW Mar 24 '11 at 2:19
    
"You can't expect to go from zero training to big training in a week" -- My muscles seems/seemed to be managing; and my breathing; and my heart; and my internal heating (no hypothermia, though the weather's cold). And I've been eating more, and sleeping a whole night. But I'd forgotten to anticipate that tendons/ligaments could be problem (I remember hearing another cyclist talking about his problematic patella; but I hadn't expect that problem, knees, to affect me: he's big, and I had never previously experienced any tendon/ligament problem myself). –  ChrisW Mar 24 '11 at 2:23
    
"You may try taking it slow, like two days a week at first, or three. Once you dont have a problem with that, go on for more." -- OK. My first problem was today: the 3rd day of this week, after 4 days the previous week. So, I suppose I shouldn't try again until next Monday, then. –  ChrisW Mar 24 '11 at 2:24
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I believe the general rule for seat height and knee pain is:
-pain in the back of the knee -> seat is too high.
-pain in the front of the knee -> seat is too low.
I first saw it in discussion on bikeforums.net and I've found it to be true in my own experience.

So try moving the seat down a teeny, tiny bit. Your hips should not be rocking side-to-side as you ride--if they do, the seat is too high. The often-stated rule that the seat height should allow you to straighten your leg with your heel on the pedal will give a good starting point most of the time, but keep in mind that it's only a starting point. I tend to need my seat a wee bit lower than that to avoid pain in the back of the knee.

Your body will tell you how much rest you need--it's going to be different for every individual. Zero to 200 km/week is a huge jump, so it's not surprising that your tendons and ligaments are protesting a bit. I'd say you should probably rest until the pain goes away--shouldn't be more than a couple of days, but I'm no doctor.

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"Hips rocking back and forth" -- Do you mean side to side (left to right); or, like the pelvis moving forward and back? If I've any complaint it's that the pedal arms seem a bit short: and it's a stretch to reach the ground, but I think the maximum pedal distance is about right (my leg is straight if my heel is on the pedal); but I'm really not experienced enough to judge how everything is supposed to be. Also, can you tell me any more (or can I read about it somewhere) about that 'general rule' concerning the back of the knee: because I don't understand how back-of-the-knee pain is caused. –  ChrisW Mar 18 '11 at 3:02
    
I've edited my answer to describe hip motion more clearly and add what sourcing I can for the seat height rule. One interesting feature of your Dr. Dew is that the bottom bracket is fairly high--almost as high as a cyclocross bike--so that's going to leave your feet a bit farther from the ground than they would be on, say, a road bike. Not a big deal once you're used to it. –  jefferee Mar 18 '11 at 16:47
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There's more information (confirming a lot of this) in Sheldon Brown's article on A Comfortable Saddle, specifically the section on height. –  Neil Fein Mar 18 '11 at 17:56
    
"pain in the back of the knee: seat is too high" -- Maybe if it's because, if it's too high, then the leg can become fully extended (straight): and then if you're pulling back (because you're clipped) when your leg is straight, then that's a ligaments-at-the-back-of-the-knee stress. The actual leg extension will vary somewhat depending on the ankle (since the pedal is on the ball of your foot, not the heel). –  ChrisW Mar 19 '11 at 4:21
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Here's an interesting article with some observations on seat height. From the 3rd paragraph..."The Holmes method, on the other hand, suggests setting knee angle at the bottom of the stroke to between 25 and 35 degrees to avoid injury." –  user313 Mar 20 '11 at 21:54
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Other good answers here, as a long-time knee pain sufferer I will only add a few things:

  1. Keep your knees warm. Knees have very little insulation by themselves and as the temperature drops the fluid in the joint will get more viscous plus you'll get less blood flow. I try to keep my knees covered any time the thermometer dips below 20 degC. If you're wearing jeans that are loose enough, you can try wearing cycling knee covers underneath. They'll keep your joint warm and the compression will help too.

  2. Check your saddle height. As @jefferee pointed out, pain at the back of the knee is a common indicator of your saddle being too high. Try lowering it 0.5cm or so and it should clear up quickly if that's the case. Otherwise it's something else.

  3. Get your bike & cleats fitted. A serious bike fitting session might be overkill for commuting, but this is how I eventually cleared up my chronic knee pain. You may have an unusual pedal stroke, or one leg longer than the other which might require fine tuning your saddle position and cleat adjustments.

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I lowered it a whole cm, per wdypdx22's guideline "setting knee angle at the bottom of the stroke to between 25 and 35 degrees to avoid injury"; and I bought some knee support bandages from a pharmacy, in case they're similar to "cycling knee covers". –  ChrisW Mar 21 '11 at 0:19
    
I noticed that I was riding on the outside (little toe) of the ball of my left foot, puting stress on that (posterior + lateral) part of the knee. I think fixed it: by moving my cleats backwards by 1 cm, and angling my left shoe outwards. A cause might be that the bike lock hangs offset to the left of the frame, so my left knee must stay maybe 4 inches away from the frame: and that was causing supination of my left foot. –  ChrisW Mar 23 '11 at 4:24
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Cycling Performance Tips - Leg, Knee, and Hip Pain is all about knees.

It includes different reasons and corrections for e.g. anterior versus posterior pain.

It has a section on treatment towards the bottom, which starts with, "Knee pain generally develops slowly over a number of days and is not an emergency" and "physician rather than walk-in clinic."

For rehabilitation it suggests, "Take a few days off and then ... cut back mileage by 20 - 30 % and spin at a high rpm and in a low gear for a week or two."

For prevention: don't get cold, get the right fit/posture/biomechanics (as explained earlier in the article), have a cadence of at least 75-80 rpm, and avoid "big changes" in training (saying that a risk factor is increasing mileage by more than 10% a week).

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Especially since you're new to regular cycling, you might also consider working on hamstring flexibility; although getting the seat height correct may be enough. –  user313 Mar 19 '11 at 19:36
    
@wdypdx22 - Some stretching out after Chris is warmed up might help, perhaps half an hour into the ride. –  Neil Fein Mar 23 '11 at 16:38
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Don't have enough points to comment or upvote but I wanted to +1 to wdypdx22's suggestion on hamstring flexibility. My sore knees pretty much went away with improvements in hamstring (and hip) flexibility.

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