Is Cycling Good for Knees? An in Depth Look at the Perks of Cycling

Is Cycling Good for Knees? An in Depth Look at the Perks of Cycling

You long to feel the wind on your face and smell the fresh air from the seat of a bicycle. Childhood memories of days of freedom on two wheels flood your brain. But at your age you wonder, is cycling good for knees?

Cycling is a great exercise for your knees. It has low impact and fluid motion that keeps your knees moving, builds leg and core strength, and boosts mental health, allowing you to see the world from the seat of a bicycle. 

Is Cycling Good For Knees?

Nothing makes a person more skittish for exercise than knee surgery. If you've had a knee replacement, you know the knee replacement exercises to avoid. You understand the things you need to do to see a healthy knee injury recovery

Cycling can supplement physical therapy exercises at home after you've injured your knee. Many physical therapists start their knee and hip patients with a recumbent bicycle to help them regain some range of motion in their recovering joint.

Cycling is good for your knees under the right conditions. Before you explore the right conditions and the reasons why cycling is good for your knees, you need to understand what happens to your knee when you cycle.

What Happens To Your Knee When You Cycle?

Your knee is the connection between your thigh bone and your shin bone. It consists of eight basic parts:

  • Patella: this is the bone in the front of the knee. We refer to it often as the knee cap.
  • Femur: this is your thigh bone, the large bone that forms the top part of your knee.
  • Fibula and Tibia: these are the two lower leg bones or the shin bones. The smaller of the two bones is the fibula and the larger is the tibia.
  • Lateral Meniscus: the meniscus is the cartilage or spongy material between the femur and the tibia. The lateral meniscus is the meniscus on the outside portion of the joint.
  • Medial Meniscus: this is the meniscus or cartilage on the inside of the joint.
  • Lateral collateral ligament: this is the ligament on the outside of the knee that connects the femur to the fibula or the thigh bone to the shin bone.
  • Medial collateral ligament: this is the ligament that connects the inside of the femur to the tibia or the inside shin bone.

The knee also has a series of tendons that connect the bone to the muscles that move it. The knee joint moves only because of these tendons and muscles. It's truly a beautiful and complex piece of machinery.

When you sit on a bicycle and begin to ride, the knee appears to move in a single, effortless, fluid motion. A lot is happening under the skin though.

  1. Your quadriceps or thigh muscle engages with every pedal stroke down.
  2. Your hamstring muscle, the muscle behind your thigh, engages every time you pull the pedal stroke up. You'll especially feel this pull if you have cycling shoes that you clip into your pedals.

So the health of your knee as you cycle depends heavily on the strength of your thigh muscles. The stronger your thighs, the better you are at cycling. If you've ever head the term "biking legs," you'll understand why this refers to meaty, thick thighs.

Your knee should not undergo any undue stress when you cycle. A well-fitted bicycle will allow you to use your leg muscles to pedal while keeping your knee in line with the rest of your body.

Why Is Cycling Good For Knees?

You can imagine cycling does not hurt your knees now that you can picture the knee working on a bicycle. The fluid motion will increase your knee's mobility. Cycling is good for your knees in multiple ways.

Muscle Building

Whenever you ride your bike, you're building the muscles that support your knees. Your hamstrings, quads, and calves all engage in cycling activity. You do not have to be sprinting or in a spin class for this magic to happen, but you just need to go for a bike ride.

The stronger those leg muscles are, the stronger your knee will be. Knee injuries happen when the knee joint moves out of place. When you put undue stress on the joint, it will move from one side to the other, causing stretched or torn ligaments that typically keep the joint in check.

You could also cause a meniscus injury when you repeatedly pound on your knee. 

Cycling keeps your knee in line and does not pound on the joint. Plus, it builds your muscles.

Weight Loss

Often our joints suffer because we overindulge and carry around too much weight. Even a five-pound loss can make a difference in our joints.

Experts say the stress on your knees is equivalent to one-and-a-half times your weight. So if you're a 200-pound man, you are putting 300 pounds of stress on your knees.

Your creaky, sore knees may result from too much weight. Cycling is a great way to help you lose weight without putting more undue stress on your knees.

Cycling duration and intensity matter more than distance when you're trying to lose weight. So you do not have to go a copious amount of miles. If you start with even a 30-minute ride three times a week, with a healthy diet you will see the scale numbers begin to move down.

Mental Health

Your biggest asset after a knee injury or knee surgery is your mind. It's not uncommon to battle a bout with depression after surgery.

Cycling gives you a bump of endorphins because you're exercising but also because you're outside in fresh air. You see things from a bicycle that you'd never notice from a car. As a result, cycling requires you to practice mindfulness, a skill that you need to battle mental illness.

What About Arthritic Knees?

If you suffer from arthritis, you may wonder if you're the exception. Is cycling good for arthritic knees?

Yes, it is. The more you keep your arthritic joints moving, the better off they are. Cycling, in particular, is good for arthritic knees because it is low to no impact on the joint but still keeps it moving.

Also, the biggest factor in arthritic knees is the weight. If you're overweight, your arthritis is worse. Cycling will help you drop the pounds that keep stress off your knees.

If you're a little hesitant to step over the top tube and jump on a saddle, you have other options. You can cycle inside on an upright stationary bicycle. Stationary bikes have everything an outdoor bike has except you do not have to worry about balance. 

If leaning forward on an upright bicycle causes you undue shoulder, neck, and back pain, then you can always use a recumbent stationary bike. These bicycles have a chair-like seat and are easier on the lower back and hips. You sit back into the frame in a somewhat reclined position and then pedal with the pedals in front of you.

What About Knees After Surgery?

Does cycling affect knees?

Absolutely, cycling affects your knees. If you've had surgery on your knees such as a knee replacement or meniscus repair, cycling can help strengthen the muscles around the knees.

How does cycling strengthen your knees?

Technically, your knees themselves aren't strengthened. Rather, the muscles that support those knees grow stronger when you cycle, and this keeps your knee healthy.

Weak muscles around the knee mean your ligaments take on more stress than they were intended to bear. Strong muscles bear the brunt of the stress.

What Causes Cycling Knee Pain?

If you experience cycling knee pain, you're not alone. Studies show 23 to 33 percent of cyclists have suffered knee pain at some point in their time as a cyclist.

Usually, pain comes from a long-brewing problem. You've had the problem for a long time and didn't know it. The pain is the final indicator that something's happening beneath your skin.

If you've been cycling on improper equipment, you'll have knee pain. If you have a bad bike fit, you'll have even more pain.

To avoid knee pain when cycling, start by taking your bicycle to a professional bike mechanic and bike fitter. You can find such a specialist at a local bike shop. Do not attempt to tweak this project on your own unless you have extensive experience as a cyclist.

A bike mechanic with a bike fitting experience will have an important set of eyes. They will have you sit on your bicycle and ride it on a trainer in front of them or ride it around the parking lot so they can see how the bicycle fits you. In a matter of minutes, they should know what is causing you pain and be able to adjust the bike accordingly.

Even a few centimeters can make a difference. A bike mechanic may adjust your seat or handlebars a couple of centimeters, and you'll feel the difference immediately. 

You can do a little self-diagnosis before you visit the bike fitter so you enter the shop with some working knowledge. Your knee pain will stem from anything from seat position to the position of your cleats on your cycling shoes.

Cause of Pain in the Back of Your Knees

Pain in the back of your knee usually stems from overextending your leg. This means your seat is too high or too far back. If you lower your seat or move it forward a bit in relation to your handlebars, you may see some relief.

If you ride a fixed-gear bicycle, you may be experiencing this uncommon symptom as well. Fixed-fear bicycles require you to use your hamstring to decelerate your pedal stroke. Too much load on the hamstring can run down to the back of your knee.

So take it easy on your fixed-gear bike every once and a while and coast a little.

Cause of Pain in the Front of Your Knees

If you're feeling pain in the front of your knee, your powerful cycling quads are delivering too much force across your knee joint. Check your bicycle's saddle height, saddle fore and aft, and crank length.

When you're sitting on your seat, your leg should be straight when your pedal is at the six o'clock position. You should have a fully extended leg at that time. Adjust your seat height accordingly.

A saddle that is too far forward will cause front knee pain. The bony bit below your knee cap should be directly above the ball of your foot when the foot is above the pedal spindle.

Your front knee pain could also just come from bad form. Do not mash on your gears or attempt to climb big hills in the hardest gears of your bicycle.

Cause of Pain Outside Your Knee

When your cleats are positioned too far to the outside of your shoe, you put undue stress on your IT band, the fibrous tissue that runs from the outside of your hip down to your knee. Stress on the IT band will trickle down to your knee and cause outside knee pain.

Cause of Pain Inside Your Knee

If you're using cycling shoes with cleats that clip into your pedals, poor cleat position can cause inside knee pain. Your cleats should be spaced so that when you push down, your loads go directly down and do not put stress on the collateral ligaments on the side of your knee. If your cleats are positioned too close to the inside of your cycling shoes, you'll end up with inside knee pain.

If you're still feeling a twinge of pain after several adjustments, feel no shame in using a knee brace. Sometimes you just need a little extra support to keep your knee in check.

Cycling Strengthens Knees

So, is cycling good for knees? Absolutely. When you take time to cycle with the right bike fit, you'll see your knee health greatly improve.

Keep visiting our site for more helpful articles about joint health. If you're looking for a knee brace or solution to your knee pain, contact us. We'd love to help.

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