Anterior Knee Problems from Cycling

Posted on March 5th, 2010 by Tim Bell in Getting Started, The Road to Tourmalet

Working in the world of the web, I often need to trade off a precise understanding of cause and effect against expediency. I normally want to understand which new product feature might lead to a rise in sales, but this means making one change at a time when in practice I just want to get all my new ideas live. As soon as I started getting pain in my knee while cycling, there were dozens of potential causes suggesting themselves via friends and on the internet, and just as many potential cures. With the clock ticking on my preparations for the Etape du Tour, I tried them all. They mostly fell into one of two categories: behavioural and mechanical.

The first behavioural cause was obvious; I had never cycled this much before, and my body was complaining. Having realised, too late, the sheer volume of training ahead of me, I threw myself at it with a little too much vigour. It wasn’t after a long weekend ride, but midweek when I stacked shorter (around ninety minute), more intense sessions too close – a Tuesday night and Wednesday morning on the turbo trainer led to the first pain. Come Saturday I couldn’t manage 10k, so had to take a break for a week or so. The pain was just inside the top of my left kneecap, or patella. I had read up on anterior knee problems, noted gradual recovery training programmes, totally ignored them and was rewarded for my stupidity with an immediate recurrence of the pain.

But I don’t think it was my failure to build in proper recovery periods into my training that was the only behavioural problem. I had heard people talking about “pedaling in circles”, and knew that cyclists whose shoulders rocked were doing something wrong. You might think of the cycling motion as left, right, left, right, nothing to worry about; but, as with many repetitive actions, cycling right takes practice. I have played the ‘cello since I can remember, and people are always aghast at how anyone can know how to quickly put the fingers of their left hand in the right place to sound all the different notes, especially without the frets of a guitar for guidance. I always ask how you can remember where to put the fork when you’re hungry. What people find harder to swallow is that the toughest part; the one you lose first and regain last after periods of inactivity, is the repetitive bowing motion – it is not easy to push that bow in a straight line, then pull it back again, with a totally pure sound. Just like “pedaling in circles” isn’t easy, especially when you are pushing yourself to the limit. As with so many things, applying languid grace will do the job, but is easier said than done.

I just finished reading Clive James’s The Blaze of Obscurity, and will quote you a passage about his Italian ski instructor which puts this better than I can:

“Taking me out for a solo lesson, he carved a turn on the slope covered with fresh snow and explained the resulting sculpure using a ski-pole as a pointer, like an art critic decoding a doodle by Brancusi. The tiny amount of displaced snow at the start of the curve showed how the weight had been applied in a smooth progression as the knees were gradually bent to push the skis down. But then there was a symmetrically equivalent crescent indicating how the knees had been straightened with similar gradualness to complete the turn… what he had showed me served as an ideal in my memory of how the application of effort should always be exactly measured: nothing by force, everything by logical progression. Too much disturbance in the medium was a sign of strain… The result is an aesthetic effect that should never be aimed at directly, but only reaped as the harvest of correct preparation.”

Clive James The Blaze of Obscurity cover picture

The Blaze of Obscurity

In addition to acquiring a smooth pedaling motion, I was also encouraged to stretch my quads deeper and more often, and to strengthen the muscles and tendons around my patella by holding my legs out straight in front while seated; I am currently staring at my toes peeking back over the top of my laptop.

I was about to have two weeks travelling to think about all this, the first of which would allow me to rest the knee, the second of which would involve traumatising it in a different but newly-enlightened way on my snowboard. As usual, I managed to destroy my bindings by flinging myself with total abandon down the mountain. But this was not before I explored the mechanical causes of the knee pain by going for a proper bike fit analysis.

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4 Comments on “Anterior Knee Problems from Cycling”

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  3. King of the Downs 2010 | Tour Climbs

    […] time I climbed the most (that was when we did the Col de Vence). A big step up without any further knee complaints, and perhaps no surprise I utterly bonked towards the end. I’m sure it will stand me in good […]

  4. l’Etape du Tour 2010 | Tour Climbs

    […] and error I had surprised myself on the Ventoux Sportive six weeks earlier, having got over initial knee problems by incrementally building up my distance and climbing abilities, but a combination of hubris and […]

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