Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Do I Need a Bike Fitting?

Driving around town the other day I saw so many people who were so obviously uncomfortable on their bikes (and suffering a loss of efficiency because of their lack of comfort along with other factors).  So, since so much of my material is inspired by my experiences - I was inspired to write another post: A few quick pointers on how to know if you need someone to assess your bike fit.

Several of the signs are pretty obvious: persistent knee pain being the most common.  But there are a few quick and easy signs that something is wrong that aren't immediately apparent (or that some of you think you just have to live with).  Let's start at the front of the bike and work our way back.

-Numb hands: Bike fitting can't always eliminate this issue as sometimes there are some deeper things going on (poor circulation being an obvious one).  But, often this is a marker that something is wrong with your position and your hands are having to do too much of the work of supporting your torso.

-Can't comfortably use all or most of your handlebar: I see this one pretty often.  You paid for all of that handlebar, you might as well be able to use all of it that is possible!  All kinds of position errors can limit your access to your handlebar.  If you're not able to reach all the different positions on the bar, you're not getting the most out of your bike and not able to change positions enough to enhance your comfort.

-Poor handling characteristics or difficulty descending: There can be many causes to these symptoms ranging from the mechanical to the psychological.  But, a correct position on the bike is not only comfortable, but lets the bike work as it is designed because the rider's weight is distributed properly.  Handlebar position, stem length, and saddle position can all contribute to fit related causes.

-Locked elbows: Usually mean your handlebar is in the wrong spot.  This makes your bike handle less predictably and often causes soreness in the elbows, shoulders, neck, and possibly elsewhere.  Your bar could be wrong in any direction though: High, low, too close or too far; so consult a pro.

-Sore neck or headaches after riding: Often also an indication of poor handlebar position requiring the rider to hold the head up too far or driving the shoulder blades together

-Muscular soreness or fatigue at shoulder blades: Often indicates a handlebar that is too wide, thereby forcing these muscles, instead of skeletal structure; to do too much of the job of supporting your torso.

-Lower back pain, soreness, fatigue: Can be poor handlebar position or saddle position causing strain on the muscles or vertebrae.

-Sore hip(s): On one side? Usually an alignment issue between the hips and feet.  Can be saddle or shoe and pedal related  Both sides? Poor seat or clipless cleat position.  This can definitely be something deeper as well.

-Persistent symmetrical seat discomfort: Improper seat position (usually too high) is the most common cause of this symptom that I encounter.  This causes too much of your weight to be supported on the saddle rather than being shared on your feet and hands.  Poor saddle choice for your anatomy, riding position, or riding habits is also a cause.

-Asymmetrical seat discomfort/saddle sores: Often caused by a misalignment between the hips and feet causing the rider to not sit squarely on the saddle.  Improper saddle choice can also cause the issue due to a rider's tendency to attempt to adapt thereby creating a misalignment.

-Frequent Hamstring/Quadriceps cramping: Seat position usually not optimal for your physiology and/or riding style and strengths.  Can also be nutrition related.  Examine your nutrition first as it is usually easier to solve (and a good thing to pay attention to anyway...)

-Knee pain: Dr. Andy Pruitt could write a whole book on this (wait, he practically did!).  This is a complicated issue. If it is persistent, see a trained, experienced, respected fitter.

-Calf (Gastrocnemious) cramping: Often poor seat or cleat positioning or nutrition as above.

-Ankle pain or soreness: Usually because cleat alignment, rotation, or angular orientation is not bio-mechanically correct for you.

-Foot pain, numbness, discomfort: Often due to lack of proper support in the shoe, improper cleat positioning, or poor shoe fit.  Can also be the result of other physiological issues such as poor circulation or nerve issues.

This is of course, not a complete listing and only meant to serve as a point to begin a conversation with a fitter - be it myself or another experienced, trained professional.  If fitting has not helped or solved your problems, definitely consult a physician.  But, if any of these experiences are familiar to you; it might be a good time to seek out someone to help you get more enjoyment from your riding.

I'll do my best to address comments on this one; but some riders' issues require a different medium of communication than this allows.  I may refer you to a fitter in your area.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Great advice. I am tempted to go get a fit but the price is daunting.

  2. I will say this: while the cost is perceptibly high, most of my fitting clients have commented that the money they spent getting their bikes fitted is the best money they have spent on cycling. Doesn't matter if their bike cost $1000 or $10,000 - they usually say the same thing.

    If you're experiencing persistent discomfort or pain, save up some money and get a fitting. Do your research and find a good fitter and you won't regret it.

    Thanks for your loyal readership!

  3. I have IT band issues that cause pain in my left knee, espsecially if I don't stretch before heading out. I've also noticed that it feels like my left sit bone takes a lot more of my weight on the saddle than my right sit bone. Could these be an issue of different leg lengths?

    Less bothersome is some shoulder fatigue from holding up my torso on the handle bars.

  4. Wesley-

    Stretching is still a good means of addressing IT band issues; but it does definitely sound like there is some mis-alignment with problems focused on one side of the bike. Saddle type or position and/or foot/shoe/pedal interface are all possible culprits. Also sounds like a handlebar position adjustment is in order.

    The thing to remember about getting fitted is this: a good fitter will at least document the final position. Then, you have a starting point for setting up subsequent bikes - potentially saving money on fits down the road. Individual bike position is dynamic and it changes as our bodies change (with age, injury, and fitness/flexibility changes), but a good starting point is better than guessing. Otherwise it's like trying to hit a bullseye with a blindfold on.

  5. Matt, I'm beginning to shop for a new bike, but there's so much to choose from, with barely perceptible differences really. Can someone get fitted for a new bike without knowing precisely what brand they're going to buy? Since no single shop carries all the possibilities, it makes this a much tougher process.

  6. Greg-

    Excellent question. Something I should probably answer in more detail with a dedicated post. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Now, the short answer is: This is actually where you should start! However, we must clearly define that there is a difference between "fitting" and "sizing". What you're actually referring to is sizing - finding out what size and frame dimensions work best. Fitting is then taking that bike and making it work for you and your individual physiology and riding style.

    So; start with sizing - because you'll discover then if there are any bikes on your list that will not work ideally for you. The most common example from my experience is a customer who might be looking at a Specialized Tarmac or Roubaix. While these are close in size or dimension; the head tubes are different enough that we sometimes discover that one is a better fit than another. Often you can reduce the number of bikes that will work ideally simply by establishing a starting riding position first. This is sizing (but is often what stores incorrectly refer to as "fitting") and should be your first step.

    It can be hard to find a place or person who will take the time to "size" a bike competently - as this is not the "slam-dunk" route to a bike sale. It is however the correct route to a happy, comfortable, cycling experience which a shop worth doing business with should be willing to provide.

    After you have been "sized", you are now ready to start testing potential bikes and making a decision on what you like. Pick your bike, ride it about 200 cumulative miles, then come back for an exhaustive fitting.

    I hope this helps and look for a more detailed post on this topic soon!

  7. Greg-

    Also be prepared for stores to not relinquish the "sizing" dimensions they have established for you. However, an expert at another store - provided with information on another brand, model, or size of bike which has been deemed ideal or less-than-ideal - can compare that frame dimension with what they offer and quickly narrow the herd of possible test bikes.

    Most important is this: The bikes are indeed all very similar to each other, often with minuscule differences being disproportionately touted as radical, life-changing, revolutionary competitive advantages. In light of this - find a competent store or stores that you feel good about working with long-term and make your selection from their offerings. You will not regret this method of shopping.

    Counter to what they might want us to believe: Specialized, Trek, Giant, Cannondale, Felt, Bianchi, Scott, Colnago, Time, Look, (insert other favorite bike brand here), etc... do not own the patent on cycling perfection. Don't believe too much of the marketing hype.

  8. Appreciate the response, and look forward to your article.



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