Riding your bike can be a great alternative to driving or taking public transportation, as well as being a great way to stay fit and enjoy the outdoors. Despite the benefits and fun that come with bike riding, you might find that your knees seem to hurt from regular cycling.
Knee pain is especially common for riders who are new to cycling or bike commuting because there are few common mistakes that many people make, especially when commuting daily by bike.
Most knee pain that is associated with cycling can be fixed by performing warmup exercises and adjusting parts of the bike, such as:
- The height of the bike seat
- The gears
- The cleat positioning
Bike riding should be as enjoyable as possible, so it is more than reasonable to want to get rid of any knee pain or discomfort that results. You can safely ride a bike without pain, even daily.
When I started commuting to work 6 years ago, I was riding 26 miles from our home in New Jersey to Manhattan every single day. My knees started to hurt after about one month of riding daily, but they soon recovered after following the tips mentioned below.
Causes of knee pain while biking
In order to figure out the cause of your knee pain when biking is, you first need to determine where the pain actually is within the knee. While different areas of pain can have the same root cause, the specific point of pain can be the most helpful to find a fix.
1. Anterior knee pain hurts at the front of the knee
The front (anterior) of the knee is a frequent spot for pain while biking. This is often focused on the patella, which is the knee cap.
Most of the time, anterior knee pain is not because of the knee itself, but rather from tightness in the surrounding muscles. Aim to include stretches that target these muscles in your warmup routine before your ride to help the problem.
Your outer thighs have a strong piece of connective tissue called the Iliotibial band (IT band) that can pull on the knee cap when it is tight. The thighs also have quadricep muscles, which can pull on the patella when they are tight.
2. Posterior knee pain hurts at the back of the knee
The back (posterior) of the knee can also be an area of pain when you are biking. There are several things that can affect the back of the knee, including the overall bike fit, but most posterior knee pain comes from the hamstrings.
The hamstring is on the backside of the thigh, and overextension of the knee can cause the hamstring to be pulled, which then puts pressure on the back of the knee where the muscle meets the joint.
Just like above, most posterior knee pain can be remedied or at least reduced by performing stretches to warm up your hamstring and increase its flexibility.
3. Knee pain can also be on the sides
You may also find that there is pain along the inner (medial) side of your knee. This usually stems from your cleat position being wrong (in the case that you’re using clipless pedals). The same problem often occurs on the outer (lateral) side of your knee.
These types of pain can stem from tightness in the quadriceps or IT band, but they are most often due to improper cleat position. Try a few shorter test rides with your cleats in different positions to see it if helps remedy the tightness.
4. Improper bike positioning can cause knee pain
While it may not seem like a big deal, each part of the bike that adjusts should be set to the correct level for your body.
Common bike fit problems that can cause pain include:
- Seat that is too low or too high
- Seat that is too far back or forward
- Cleats too far out or in
- Handlebars at the wrong height
Most of these issues can be adjusted on your own, but you might have to consult a bike fitter for persistent problems.
Other causes of knee pain while biking
One major culprit for knee pain while biking is not giving your body enough time to warm up. Your muscles need time to loosen up, and you should not immediately be pushing your body to its limits. On a related note, knee pain can result if you suddenly start biking way more than you usually do without any gradual build-up.
Your overall body strength and positioning can also affect knee pain when you are biking. If your core is not strong enough, other parts of your body have to compensate for the weakness. This often means that your quadriceps have to do more work, which can lead to tightness.
Improper use of the gears can also put undue stress on your knees. Make sure to use the proper gears so that your body does not have to do more work than necessary.
How to fix knee pain from biking
After you have determined the location of your knee pain, you can address the issue and make adjustments as needed.
To fix front (anterior) knee pain
- Adjust the seat: Anterior knee pain usually results from the seat being too low and too far forward.
- Shorten the cranks: If the cranks are too long for the length of your legs, then the knee joints can become too tight, causing pain.
- Utilize foam rolling: Since anterior knee pain can often come from muscle tightness, using a muscle roller can help to loosen the muscles.
To fix back (posterior) knee pain
In contrast, back (posterior) knee pain usually comes from a seat that is too high and too far back. Adjusting the seat can be a huge help. Foam rolling can also help for posterior pain; focus on rolling out the hamstrings as opposed to the quadriceps. Icing may also provide relief.
To fix side (medial) knee pain
Cleat positioning, in addition to tight muscles, can be a major culprit for pain along the sides of the knee. The cleats should be set in a straight, neutral position so that they are directly under the ball of the foot.
Exercises that strengthen your core and glutes can help prevent your knees from overcompensating. Too much work for your knees can naturally be a huge cause of pain.
Is biking bad for your knees long-term?
Since biking is a low-impact exercise, it is generally good for your knees and joints. In fact, people with knee injuries often use cycling as a form of strengthening their knees because of the low-impact nature of the activity. As with any type of exercise, biking can be very beneficial for your body as long as you do not overdo it.
The important thing to pay attention to is any discomfort, no matter how minor it may seem. It is far better to catch the root of a problem early. The pain can be much worse and much harder to resolve if left untreated.
Biking can strengthen the muscles around your knees, which can help to reduce knee pain overall. If you have concerns, it is best to consult a doctor who can help decide what is best for your body.
How can you avoid knee pain in the future?
In order to keep being able to bike regularly, it is important that you regularly check your bike to make sure it is properly adjusted for your body. Listen to your body and do not try to push it past the point of discomfort into pain.
Always give your body enough time to warm up. This lets the muscles loosen up a bit, which helps to prevent muscle strain. Weakness in one part of the body can end up having an impact on the knees, which have to overcompensate.
If you have persistent problems or issues that seem to keep coming back, consult your doctor. You may also benefit from working with a bike fitter to make precise adjustments to your bike.
Listen to your body when riding a bike
As much as you may want to bike, doing so when you have even a minor injury can cause great damage if you do not allow your body resting time to heal. Take a week or two off the bike to see how your knees feel. Knee pain is a very common problem for cyclists of all kinds, but you can still find safe ways to enjoy the experience with your family.
Thankfully, most pains and aches that come from cycling are just symptoms of tight muscles or improper bike ergonomics, both of which can be fixed rather easily!