Training & Nutrition

How To: Fix Problems Caused by Desk Work for Cyclists

Cycling can be many things, but it certainly doesn't need to be painful

Cycling can be beautiful, exhilarating and exhausting in equal measures. One thing it doesn’t need to be is painful.  We’ve worked with Scott Holz – the expert who trains Specialized dealers in their Body Geometry Fit fit system (using advanced Retül bike fit tools) to bring you a series of guides on common problems and their equally common solutions. Holz has been helping riders discover their optimum fit for over 30 years, providing expertise for amateur everyday cyclists right through to World Champion Lizzie Armitstead. He’s well qualified, we assure you. 

We’ve already looked at knee pain and wrist, back and shoulder pain. Next up – we’re looking at an issue rather close to our editor’s heart: pain caused by what we do off the bike, namely sitting. 

Body Geometry FIT, Lea Davidson

Sitting is bad for you – human beings were never meant to sit down at a desk at 8am, staying there until 6pm with a few short breaks in between. Unfortunately, many of us work in jobs that require us to do so.

How To: Safeguard Yourself Against Cycling Injuries at Home

Sitting Wonky? The Relationship Between Saddle Discomfort and Lower Back Pain

When we’re sitting, we’re shortening our hip flexors and putting pressure on our lower backs if we don’t sit ‘correctly’ – which most of us don’t. On a personal level, I have a tendency to sit with my screen slightly to the left and my hands slightly to the right – which over time causes a pelvic tilt – or rotation. The resulting pain where the nerves in the lower back become upset isn’t actually a result of the cycling I do outside of working hours – but it certainly affects my bike riding.

It’s not just me that has issues – Holz tells me his wife also suffers from a pelvic rotation, and that he finds his bike riding is compromised by his working life: “When I’m doing my exercises, and being good, and not sitting on planes – I’m pretty straight. When I don’t do my exercises, and I travel a lot, I’m a mess.”

Catering for lack of flexibility on the bike

Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media

What we do in our day-to-day lives, how flexible or inflexible that makes us, as well as the degree of core strength we have will affect the ideal bike set-up for a rider. Sometimes, we need to cater for that on the bike.

Holz explains: “Desk work and lifestyle plays a huge part in bike fit. If you have two twins – and they’re absolutely identical in every way in terms of body dimensions, but one does a lot of yoga and is active, and the other works at a desk and isn’t active, they’re going to need very different bike fits.”

Hyper-mobility: When Flexibility Goes Too Far and How It Effects Cyclists

The flexible rider, with a strong core, will be able to get longer and lower on the bike. This means they can have a greater drop between saddle and handlebar, created by a higher saddle, longer stem and reduced spacers. A less flexible rider with a weaker core rider will need to be more upright, with a reduced reach. This will be obtained via bringing the bars up and in, using spacers below a shorter or positive angle stem. Of course if you’re lacking flexibility and core strength, you can start with a bike fit that reflects that, and alter it if you work on stretching and strengthening off the bike. We’re coming to how you do that in a minute.

One thing is for sure, we do need to remember we shouldn’t try to emulate the pros, too much. Holz says: “The pros get paid to ride their bikes. They have people helping them train to ride their bikes, massage, stretching, someone working on them all the time. You’re not them. Even if you ride a lot, or race as an amateur – you’re not them. It’s not right to compare yourself to that lifestyle. It’s not an obtainable thing so your bike is going to look different.”

Catering for pelvic rotation as a result of desk life

Bike fit can be altered to suit a less flexible rider. But it can’t be used to address a rotation in the lower back or pelvis, such as I described as a result of my own desk position. An trained physiotherapist or osteopath can help you spot this – but symptoms include pain around the lower back, in the glutes, and sometimes running down the leg if the sciatic nerve is being compressed.

Holz says, speaking to me personally (but probably applicable to many desk workers): “If it’s purely a pelvic rotation – and the segment lengths in your lower legs [are the same] and there’s no asymmetry, the problem is just that for whatever reason your pelvis likes to go out of alignment. It is not something we try to fix on the bike for the simple reason that it changes all the time. Pelvic rotation is not permanent – so if you build in a structural change into the bike, and the rotation changes now the bike is problem. So for pelvic rotations it’s an off the bike solution – in terms of training, core work. There are exceptions but you’d need constant moderation – if you’re not monitoring it all the time [checking the pelvis rotation matched up to changes made on the bike, daily] then it can become a problem.”

Personally, I see an Osteopath whenever my hips have shot out of alignment, try to stretch my lower back daily, and I’m working really hard at looking at my computer screen straight on [right now, as I type].

Holz has some other recommendations for those of us lacking flexibility or alignment as a result of our off-bike lifestyles.

What to do off the bike to address cycling and desk work issues

There are many forms of off-bike training recommended for cyclists: yoga and pilates are popular as they encourage stretching and core work.

Holz has a few other ideas, but he’s keen to preface them: “I’m not a PT and everyone has their own unique challenges… but I have seen that when cyclists take up sports that encourage twisting motions and core strength, they improve.”

The Best Cross Training Exercises for Cyclists

He explains: “Cycling is a very forward, sagittal plane [divides the body to left and right] activity already. It is already all sitting forward, just like desk work, and travelling and so on. What I typically see when people make improvements in their body is when they’re doing things that are core strength related, and transverse movement related: so sideways twisting.”

He adds: “Everything we do for cycling is totally one directional. We are locked into a system that allows almost no change. Then we make it worse by repeating that in our day to day lives. So those things where we do activities that challenge our other types of movement are things where I see cyclists benefit from a lot.”

We discuss a few options: tennis, basketball, volleyball. Swimming – my other regular sporting activity is recommended too – but it’s best if you’re joining a club where you can swim backstroke and butterfly, rather than just completing endless frontcrawl. Holz validates my belief that swimming is a useful supplement to my training, saying: “You’ve got the twisting motions – and you get all the core strength as well.”

I ask about running, and many cyclists will be pleased to hear that Holz doesn’t recommend it – saying: “Running is unfortunately very similar to cycling. It’s still a very sagittal plane. You go in one direction. And of course you’ve got the weight beating impact. Even though it’s a really different sport, runners and cyclists face a lot of the same problems.”

We do hope that helps clear up a few questions around knee pain and cycling, helping any reader’s suffering to overcome issues that are easy to solve. If you’re experiencing ongoing problems, check in for a bike fit.

The average fit can cost around £100, which might seem a lot to be leaving an identical bike, just altered a bit here and there. However, being comfortable on your bike is a performance aid greater than any upgrade, so we’d recommend it. 

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