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I recently got some SPD pedals. Initially, my seat was too high (old pedals added about 3/4th of an inch to height), and at the end of the downstroke, pulled uncomfortably on my knees. After even moderate rides (~5k), it would be painful walking up stairs, for example.

Anyway, figured that part out, lowered my seat, no problems for several weeks. Weather gets better, start ramping up the distance I travel, and now I find that I get a (much) less painful version of the same thing after longer rides (>40k) with a headwind.

Is it normal to get some soreness in your knees, or is this a sign that the seat is still not at the right height? Is there an algorithmic way to adjust seat height?

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What is your typical cadence? It may be that you're simply pedaling too slowly. –  Daniel R Hicks May 4 '12 at 0:20
    
None of the answers address whether or not this soreness is normal. Anyone? –  Neil Fein May 4 '12 at 2:13
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Not "normal". However, various types of discomfort after a 40k ride are not "abnormal" either -- it's difficult to say whether you're experiencing what would be expected from unaccustomed effort or instead something that needs correction. –  Daniel R Hicks May 4 '12 at 3:02
    
Unfortunately my cheapo cyclocomputer doesn't have a way of measuring my cadence. I'd guesstimate it somewhere between 70 and 90 rpm. –  John Doucette May 4 '12 at 4:47
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To an ortho it would be of interest that your pain is going UP STAIRS rather than DOWN STAIRS. Pain going down stairs is generally "patellofemoral" pain, but I don't know what up-stairs pain suggests. The precise location of the pain -- directly under the kneecap for patellofemoral, eg, or on the left or right side for other syndromes -- is also instructive. For patellofemoral pain the problem is often an imbalanced force on the kneecap, due to different muscles having different "tone". Strengthening the correct muscles can bring things into balance. –  Daniel R Hicks May 4 '12 at 11:01
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6 Answers 6

up vote 8 down vote accepted

If your bike is set up with a proper fit to your body, and your pedal's cleat position is set up for your body, soreness in your knees like you describe is not normal.

Whether the discomfort you are experiencing is simply muscle soreness, as in "I exercised heavily and my body noticed" or whether it requires corrective action, is harder to decide.

If the discomfort is only after heavy exercise, like 40+ km rides in a headwind, I'd be inclined to say its because the pedals are new to you, and you're building the muscle you need to use them, as your body adapts to pulling up, not just pushing down on the pedal.

However, if this continues to be an issue for more than a few weeks, consider having a bike fit done which includes cleat positioning.

Also, if you are not riding off road, and you have purchased mountain bike style SPDs, rather than the road version, consider getting the larger and more supportive version. Unfortunately, this would usually also require new shoes, but many riders report cramps, hot spots, and muscle soreness when riding longer, uninterrupted distances on MTB clipless pedal designs.

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In addition to perhaps adjusting the height further, also have a look to see if the cleats are forcing your foot inwards or outwards. That can cause problems with knee or ankle if it isn't lined up with your natural axis.

Some excerpts from bikesplit.com:

  • Optimizing cleat position is crucial to minimize stress through your knees and maximize power output...Several pedal types allow float (lateral rotation) and that's the key to healthy knees for many athletes.

  • Float allows the foot to change the angle it pushes or pulls from at various points around the pedal stroke. On the down stroke a straight forward foot position is natural, while pulling back a heel-in, toeing out position may feel more natural because the hamstrings are doing the work and their attachment point is toward the medial (center of the body).

  • Once set, cleat position should be neutral: there should be absolutely no twisting sensation through ankles, knees, or hips.

  • There are five dimensions to consider when setting cleat position: height, cant, front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotation.

  • Cleat height modification is to compensate for a leg length difference. It's more important for the run than bike, but can still be helpful if your difference is 1cm or more.

  • Canting is tipping your foot to the inside or outside with a shim shaped like a wedge, usually tipping toward the lateral (outside).

  • For front to back adjustment the ball of your foot should be directly over the pedal spindle.

  • Next you need to choose the best spot on the pedal laterally (side-to-side). Too close and your ankle will hit the crank arm; too far away and it will be awkward, like walking with feet spread far apart.

  • Setting the rotational position is ... the most important setting to keep your knees happy as you pedal.

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Cleat position is very important. –  zenbike May 4 '12 at 4:01
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According to my copy of "A Guide to Cycling Injuries..." by Dr Domhnall MacAuley "Knee pain is almost an occupational hazard of cycling". So some knee pain is common. MacAuley does go on to say that, "For some, knee pain is inevitable".

In the context of this question it seems like the rider has some tendency to knee pain but has not experienced chronic problems with a properly fitted bike so it should be possible to accommodate the change in pedal and return to comfortable rides.

If it proves impossible to get the position (including saddle height) adjusted as per advice in the previous answer then it is possible that the change of pedal has restricted the freedom of movement of the foot causing stress on the knee, to continue from MacAuley:

"Cleat pedals are manufactured for the anatomically perfect but we are all different and although some may have symmetrical feet and legs most of us are not biomechanically identical. Clipless pedals will emphasise any anatomical anomaly or biomechanical misalignment. If you have any tendency to knee pain then perhaps these pedals are not suitable."

Before giving up, do check that you have sufficient float in the cleat/pedal, different systems provide for different levels of float.

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Yeah. I tend to walk a bit splay footed, and I found that when my SPDs were adjusted "normally" it was a hair uncomfortable. So I adjusted the angle of the plates ever so slightly to let my heels come in closer. Observing how you walk may be of some help in achieving fit. –  Daniel R Hicks May 4 '12 at 10:50
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And in addition to checking your setup, float, fitting et al, check your insoles...have you got flat feet?

I suffered knee pain, and messed around with set-up and fitting for a long time until I discovered my flat feet where the cause. Reason being as you power down your feet go flat and move the knee slightly. So I got some good footbeds(Sole) that mould to and support my feet, took some rest and have never had a problem since(a year). The footbeds in most cycling shoes are garbage, and that goes for running shoes as well.

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You should note where on your knee(s) the pain is originating. Is it on the side? The front? The back? Check out this article.

Previously, when I was riding with SPDs, I had a misaligned cleat (but didn't know it). I was getting pain on the outside of my right knee. I went to a fitting, and after describing why I was there, the first thing the fitter looked at was the SPD cleat on my right shoe.

When the cleat was aligned, the pain went away.

You may want to check your overall fit. If you can find a professional fitter, and plan to ride a lot, it would probably be worth it to get fitted. If you don't want to pay for that, I would suggest that you try this online fit computer and see how the outputs match with the current configuration of your bike.

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That's a good article! –  Daniel R Hicks May 7 '12 at 2:29
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It's still not the right height. Try lowering it another half inch.

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