Any sport comes with risks, but sometimes it feels like every time I get off my bike. I have a new injury or two. As a regular cyclist and doctor, I wanted to take a look into the ways you can try to limit any injuries or accidents you may get from cycling, and find ways to help yourself prevent them in the first place. So, how can you prevent an injury while cycling?
Tips for beginner cyclists
First things first. While I am a qualified doctor, I need to remind you that I have not been able to properly assess you before giving this advice. This page has generic information to help you reduce your risk of injury while out on a bike ride.
If you are looking for more personalised advice or are dealing with a specific injury, you should first talk to a medical professional or physiotherapist who can help you with the particular issue you may be having. Some causes of pain after cycling can be serious and should be discussed with a medical professional urgently.
1) Take regular breaks
One of the main mistakes that beginner cyclists make when cycling, is taking on too much at once. Taking regular breaks from cycling, specifically during a ride is very important.
This is because taking breaks while cycling can limit the strain you put on your joints (for example your knees), but also gives your muscles some time to rest, which can limit the rate of pulled muscles and ligament injuries.
If you’ve just conquered a particularly tough hill or section of your ride, it can be good to give your legs a short break, be that through a quieter or easier section of the road, or even taking an actual break from the bike for a few minutes.
It is important to note that if you get off the bike to give yourself a rest, make sure to warm up again before you get back on the bike and keep yourself moving during your break to ensure you don’t cool down too much.
2) Get a bike fitting
The most common cause of pain from cycling is a poor-fitting bike. I for one experienced this when I first got into riding regularly, not realising that the cause of my back and neck pain was just the saddle being too high.
When you get your bike, it is worth checking that it is the right size for you. Bikes come in many sizes and manufacturers will clarify which size of bike is best for your specific measurements (using your leg length and overall height).
If you already own a bike and are suffering from pain, you can take your bike to a bike shop and get a professional fitting. Here they can take your measurements and adjust your saddle height, handlebar distance and even crank size to help make your ride more comfortable.
If you are suffering from pain in your bum after rides, you can also ask them to do a saddle fitting!
3) Warm up properly
As with all sports, warming up for a bike ride is important. Jumping onto a bike without warming up your muscles is a surefire way to pull a muscle, crash or develop a repetitive strain injury.
A warm-up for your bike ride does not have to be a long process, but it is useful to have a set routine that you can do before getting in the saddle (just make sure that it warms up all your key muscles).
If you are interested in which muscles you need to warm up before a bike ride, you can take a look at my article where I review the main muscles used when cycling.
4) Stay hydrated
Staying hydrated is important when doing any form of exercise, but particularly when doing low-impact sports such as cycling where you may be exercising for many hours in a row.
Keeping hydrated helps your body, muscles and brain to properly function. This can limit any muscle injuries you might experience following a cycle (for example delayed onset muscle soreness – DOMS).
As well as this, drinking fluid helps your brain to function at its best, this can help to reduce your risk of crashing, and also helps you to cycle in a more sensible way that will limit injuries.
5) Stay fueled during cycles
As well as drinking water or sports drinks during your cycle, it is also important to ensure you are providing your body with fuel to keep it going on longer rides.
The general rule that many cyclists follow is to try and have a small snack or something to eat after every 45 minutes of cycling. Certainly don’t wait until you are hungry before you eat something, as this may be too late.
Not eating enough during a ride can cause you to “hit the wall”, also called “bonking” by cyclists. This can increase your risk of injury from overworking your muscles or increasing your risk of a crash.
6) Wear protective gear
As you might expect, no list of the ways to limit injuries would be complete without talking about helmets and protective gear.
First things first, get a well-fitting helmet from a reputable brand such as this one found on amazon. However, this isn’t all you need.
You will also want to look into getting some cycling shorts, these can be a great way of protecting your bum and limiting saddle sores as you cycle, also they’re far more comfortable!
On top of this, you will also want to ensure you are wearing a highly visible jersey, this is especially important if you are cycling at night or on the road.
Just make sure to take off your new bike clothes and shower when you’re finished with your ride. This is not only more hygienic but can also reduce your risk of getting any skin infections if you have saddle sores.
As well as specific clothing, you will also want to get yourself a good pair of lights. These will allow cars and other road users to see you better, reducing your risk of being involved in an accident. A cheap pair such as this set from amazon is probably sufficient for your needs as a beginner cyclist, provided you aren’t cycling in the pitch black or off-road in the dark.
It is also useful to invest in a pair of headphones that you can use while cycling. Cycling with a normal pair of headphones can be dangerous as they may limit your ability to hear hazards such as car horns. However, newer headphones such as these found on amazon can allow sounds from the outside world through, even while you are playing music.
7) Properly maintain your bike
You must make sure your bike is being regularly serviced and maintained. This involves either taking your bike to a bike shop to be checked over or doing so yourself if you are more experienced.
Here they can advise you on any parts of your bike that are getting old, for example, if your tire needs replacing. This can reduce your risk of the bike breaking down mid-cycle which may cause an accident or injury.
If you are planning to do your own bike maintenance, you can take a look at some of my other articles, such as this one on bike tires, that cover how frequently you should be replacing certain parts of your bike.
8) Rest between cycling sessions
As well as making sure you take breaks during a cycle, it is also really important to rest in between rides. Resting in between rides gives your muscles and joints time to recover from the repeated strain of cycling, and can also help to give other areas of your body, such as your bum and hands, some time to recover from the pressure they have to deal with on a bike.
In some training regimes, you will even see allocated rest weeks. These are where you will either cycle at a very slow pace or not at all for an entire week, reducing your risk of injury following an extended period of cycling.
9) Address small problems before they get worse.
While there are many steps you can take to try and reduce your risk of injury or an accident while cycling, injury or pain as a result of cycling is still very common. What is just as important as taking precautions against injury is making sure you see your doctor or a medical professional early on if you have a sign of a problem.
Seeing someone early on helps to ensure that a small problem does not become a big one. As a doctor myself, I know that small issues often require small solutions, and can be much easier to manage when dealt with early on, before they had time to get worse.
10) Get a proper training programme
While we’ve already established that good training programmes will build in rest days or weeks, it is also important to check that any training regime you are following plans to gradually increases the frequency, intensity or distance of your rides.
This helps to limit the impact of cycling on your body, giving it time to recover and reducing your risk of an overuse injury, or an accident.
Some cyclists will suggest a limit of 10% on your weekly increase in either distance or pace as a general guide. This can be good to keep in mind to ensure you are not pushing yourself too hard.
Remember, that at the end of the day, don’t feel committed to a ride and push through discomfort, as this is how injuries happen.
Tips for advanced cyclists
11) Improve your strength
While spending some time in the gym can be good for you generally, it can also be a great way to limit your risk of injury. Increasing your base strength level means that you can focus on technique as you cycle, rather than how tired your muscles are. Being in good shape also means you’ll recover from injury faster if it does happen.
Increasing the strength of the muscles around your joints can make them much more stable, and reduce your risk of a twist or sprain. For example, strengthening the muscles in your thigh or lower leg can help to limit your risk of knee and ankle injuries as you cycle.
On top of strengthening your legs, working on your core muscles can also be very beneficial. As you cycle, your core takes on a lot of the workload, holding up a large part of your upper body weight. Improving your core strength can limit your risk of hand or wrist injuries as you cycle, this is because it helps to reduce the strain being put through them as your core can take on more of the work.
12) Improve your flexibility
Improving your flexibility can help to reduce your risk of delayed onset muscle soreness or pulled muscles. Some people worry that being more flexible increases your risk of a sprain, however recent studies show this is not the case.
To increase your flexibility it is important to set regular time aside each week, and also to use a combination of dynamic and simple stretches.
Many will suggest that you use a foam roller both before and after a cycle to help relax your muscles and increase your flexibility. Current evidence shows that while this is beneficial, it may not be as effective as many people think.
For an example of some good flexibility exercises, take a look at the video above where a professional physiotherapist works you through some exercises.
13) Check your form
Once you have worked on your baseline flexibility and strength, spending some time on your cycling form can be very important.
Activate your core
First of all, make sure that you are holding your upper body weight with your core, rather than through your arms. This reduces strain on these areas and limits your risk of repetitive strain injuries as well as nerve damage.
Keep mobile on the bike
As well as this, try to keep moving your position around the bike, especially on longer cycles. This helps to relieve stress in certain areas such as your neck and back which over time can increase your risk of pain. For example, try varying whether or not you are up and out of the saddle or sat down, whether your hands are down in the drops or on the top, and try spending some time in a less aerodynamic position.
Practice your cornering technique
Finally, one of the most common times of an accident or injury is during cornering, so spending some time focusing on your cornering technique can be very beneficial. First of all, ensure you are turning with your outer pedal being lowest to the ground, this ensures that your inside pedal is further from the floor, and so is not able to catch on any rocks or tarmac which might cause an accident.
As well as this, you also need to ensure that as you ride around tight corners, you are keeping your weight over your wheels, braking before the corner (and not during it), as well as coming out of a corner more slowly, which can all cause your wheels to slip out from underneath you.
14) Practice group riding
As people become more experienced, they often look to take part in group cycling clubs. While this is a great way to work on your riding ability and be sociable, it can also be quite risky if you do not know the rules of group riding first.
Group riding is a skill in itself and so you should practice group riding before joining any race or group riding events to limit your risk of an injury or fall.
Learn how to communicate with other cyclists
When cycling in a group, learning the hand and voice signals used between cyclists is very important to keep you safe and limit your risk of an accident. For example, using your left arm to point right behind your back means you are overtaking an obstacle.
If you want to take a look at the more common signals used between cyclists, take a look at this article on communicating with other riders while on cycling trips.
Never overlap wheels
The main benefit of riding in a group is that it can be more efficient, limiting the amount of drag you get if you cycle close enough to someone’s back wheel. This does mean though that you are at more risk of a crash and an accident.
One of the most important rules to know is that you should never overlap your front wheel with the back wheel of the rider in front, this is a surefire way of getting into a crash. And, if you are new to group cycling, then give yourself some more leeway and don’t ride directly behind the person in front of you.
15) Optimise your diet
As you get more involved in your cycling hobby, you can focus on your diet to optimise your body for rides and recovery.
While at a very basic level, you need to ensure you are supplying your body with enough energy to ride your bike (getting enough calories in), you also need to make sure you are eating a well-balanced diet with key macro and micronutrients.
Particularly, you will want to ensure you are getting the optimum level of proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, antioxidants, and dietary supplements as these have all demonstrated their importance and effectiveness in muscle recovery.
16) Be aware of your weaknesses
As you cycle for a longer period, you will start to work out which areas of your body are more prone to injury. For example, always tweaking your lower back or developing pain in your knee after a long ride.
If you can pinpoint the common types of pain or injury you are getting, then the first step is to speak to a doctor or medical professional about it. This person may be able to direct you to a service that can help with this (for example a physiotherapist), or advise on other lifestyle factors that might help to reduce your risk of injury in the future.
Once you’ve done this step, you can also look at other ways of limiting your weaknesses, for example getting a bike fitting (and specifically mentioning your problems), or starting a muscle-strengthening routine to take some of the strain off of that area.
17) Plan your routes
Picking a specific route before you leave for a ride can help to reduce your risk of injury. This is because picking a low-traffic route, or one with minimal hazards reduces your chance of an accident.
Using an app like Komoot can be a good way to see which routes other cyclists are already taking, and therefore often have less traffic.
Not only do you need to think about the route you take in advance, but as you cycle it is important to make sure you are scanning the road ahead, avoiding potholes and parked cars. You should be riding at least 1.5m away from parked cars when you can, to limit your risk of being hit by a car door.
18) Cycle with a safe riding style
One of the best ways you can reduce your risk of injury is by riding safely. This means cycling assertively, defensively and predictably when sharing the road with other motor vehicles. In high-traffic areas, it can be safe to presume other drivers haven’t seen you yet, and give way if you need to – People use the phrase “dead right” for a reason.
As well as cycling defensively, you also need to ensure you are following the rules of the road, even as a cyclist. Make sure you are cycling within the speed limit, and stopping for red lights or stop signs.
It is also important to make sure you are not cycling under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which is not only illegal in many countries but also increases your risk of an accident by over 10 times.
19) Stay safe in dangerous weather
As you get more experienced at cycling, you may become more capable of cycling in worse weather conditions, for example, rain, snow or heat waves. However, it is important to make sure that you are adjusting your bike, and riding style to account for this.
For example, you will want to think about reducing your tire pressure in wet or slippery conditions, which can help to increase your grip. If the road is too slippery, for example, if there is ice on the road, then skipping a ride may be the safest option.
If you are cycling in hot weather, then make sure you are staying hydrated, and also replace electrolytes if you are sweating profusely, as a low level of potassium or sodium can increase your risk of a crash, or cramp.
20) Learn how to crash properly
While you can take all the precautions in the world, certain types of cycling (such as mountain biking) are much more prone to accidents and broken bones than others. It is important to learn how to properly crash your bike in a way that keeps you as safe as you can be.
You can take a look at the video from GMBN above for some tips on this. However in general:
- If you start to fall, make sure to jump away from your bike, don’t grip onto your handlebars and fall face first into the floor
- Get away from your bike as fast and as quickly as possible
- Make sure to practice jumping off your bike before you need it
- Tuck and roll – If you end up falling, try to tuck and roll once you hit the floor, this reduces the impact on your body.
- If you see a dangerous part of a ride ahead of you, try jumping off the back of the bike before you lose control
- Bail on a jump early if you think you won’t succeed, this helps to save you from falling with the bike underneath you.
As you can see, there are many ways you can reduce your risk of injuries while out on a ride. Be that from wearing the right protective gear to planning your meals to give your body the best chance of recovery.
No matter what, if you develop an injury, seek advice from a medical professional early to ensure that the problem does not get worse!