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Good Pain versus Bad Pain in Cycling

1 Jul 2016
Randall Cooper
If you’re training to improve your cycling performance, there’s an expectation that you’ve got to put yourself through some pain to achieve your goals. Sporting clichés such as ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘pain is temporary, but glory is forever’ have been around for ages, however, the experience of pain is a clever system that acts as a warning that damage is occurring or imminent. As a sports physiotherapist I see both sides, people who achieve sporting glory by training hard and successfully pushing their limits, but also people who injure themselves by ignoring important warning signs. Here’s three tips on how to walk that thin line between good pain and bad pain.

  1. Generalised muscle soreness is ok

Generalised delayed muscle soreness is something most of have experienced after a bout of intense or unaccustomed exercise. Generalised muscle soreness is most common after eccentric (muscle lengthening) exercise such as running or weight training (usually peaking at 48 hours post exercise), however a long and/or intense session on the bike can give rise to general muscle soreness as well.

If the soreness is dull and the stiffness mild-moderate, and is equal between left and right legs and/or gluteals, then there’s no need to be concerned.

If your symptoms are sharp, isolated to a specific location, or one side, or if the soreness and stiffness lasts more than a few days it might pay to get it checked out.

  1. Review your training history if pain develops

Is there a good reason for some pain? Most of the time I see an injury occur in cyclists is during a period of change. It could be an increase in weekly mileage, or intensity, a variation in training terrain, or change in bike set up or technique. There can also be a latency effect – for instance, you add another 60km per week to your weekly training volume and it’s all great for the first month or so, then a pain ‘starts’ developing. Take care with changes. Ensure that they are gradual, and it pays to have someone professional and experienced giving you some guidance.

If you’ve changed your training, and you start getting pain, consider yourself guilty until proven innocent and have someone take a look.

  1. Other warning signs may precede or combine with pain

I love car analogies, and in this instance your body can illuminate warning lights on your dashboard before you ‘really’ notice an injury (pain). It’s what we in the sports-medical field call sub-clinical symptoms. The two sub-clinical symptoms that are the most common in sports injuries are swelling and spasm. Let’s discuss swelling first. If an area develops swelling, it’s a sign that there’s an inflammatory process underway, usually in response to an injury. In cyclists, the knees are the most commonly injured area and often swell, so keep an eye on your knees in particular.

Spasm is another warning light. Many people correctly associate muscle spasm with overuse, dehydration, and electrolyte abnormalities. However muscles can also spasm in response to injury – both locally when muscle/soft tissue has been damaged, or around a joint or region as a way of ‘splinting’ an injured area such as the lower back. If a spasm occurs that is specific, say to one hamstring muscle or one side of your lower back it’s time to take yourself to the mechanic for a check-up.

I discussed these points and others with endurance and cycling physiotherapist Andrew Wynd from the Balwyn Sports and Physiotherapy Centre on a Premax Facebook Live session. Please give us a like while you’re watching!

Train hard and push your boundaries, but listen to what your body is telling you. Respect pain and any warning signals that may develop.

Photo Credit: Cycling Australia 

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