When you’re putting in a lot of miles or hours in the saddle, whether outdoors or on an exercise bike, you might find that you’re dealing with various aches and pains.
One of the most common complaints is hip pain cycling issues.
In this guide, we will discuss common causes of cycling hip pain and hip flexor pain cycling, as well as ways to reduce the risk of hip pain biking.
We will discuss:
- Is Cycling Good or Bad for Hips?
- Causes of Hip Pain Cycling
- Fixing Saddle Issues that Cause Hip Pain Cycling
Let’s get started!
Is Cycling Good or Bad for Hips?
Although some cyclists do complain of hip pain biking, in general, cycling should not cause hip pain.
Cycling is a low-impact exercise, which actually makes biking a great form of exercise for people with joint problems.
Depending on the type of bike that you use, cycling may even improve the health of your hips. For example, studies have found that riding a recumbent exercise bike can increase range of motion in the hips in older adults and improve hip function.
With that said, depending on your cycling form, how much cycling you are doing, your overall strength and presence of any muscle imbalance is, and the fit of your bike relative to your body, you may experience hip pain cycling.
Causes of Hip Pain Cycling
Here are some of the common causes of hip pain cycling:
One of the most common causes of hip pain cycling is riding with a saddle that doesn’t fit you properly or that is positioned in a way that irritates your anatomy.
Getting the proper saddle fit can be quite difficult, but is extremely important, particularly for a cyclist who will be riding for extended periods of time. Saddle issues are also a common cause of hip pain biking on an exercise bike or indoor cycling bike.
Depending on the geometry of your saddle, your cycling posture, and your own personal anatomy, the bike seat often puts quite a bit of pressure on your ischial tuberosities. These are the “sit bones“ at the bottom of your pelvis.
If you do not have a lot of “padding“ naturally on your bum (for example, if you have very little body fat in your butt or small gluteal muscles), the ischial tuberosities can become tender.
Essentially, the targeted point pressure on this portion of the bone can become quite painful if you do not have properly padded bike shorts or your own natural padding.
Additionally, if you are biking outdoors and do not have good suspension on your bike yet you are going over all sorts of bumps, your ischial tuberosities can take quite a beating, and you may even get a localized bone bruise.
Moreover, this point in the pelvis serves as the attachment point for several different soft tissues in the butt and hip region.
Pressure on this area can compress the gluteal muscles, as well as the insertion points for the hamstring tendons and smaller muscles that rotate the hips.
Repetitive jostling of your bum on the seat for prolonged compression by sitting on these tenderness insertions and muscle bellies can cause inflammation in the tendons and muscles, leading to hip pain cycling, reduced mobility, and compromised function of the muscles.
There are also various nerves and vasculature that run through this region of the sit bones that can get compressed and cause hip pain biking.
Tight Hip Flexors
The term “hip pain” is quite broad, and cyclists who complain of hip pain cycling may experience pain at the side of the hip, front of the hip, back of the hip, or hip and pelvis region in general.
However, the most common specific complaint is hip flexor pain cycling.
The hip flexors are a group of muscles that run along the very front of your hip, connecting the trunk to the top of the leg. These muscles help bring your leg up or forward.
For example, hip flexion occurs in cycling when your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke and then your knee and hip bend to bring the pedal back around to the top position.
The strongest and most powerful hip flexor is the iliopsoas group, but other muscles are also involved in hip flexion such as the sartorius and the quads.
There are two primary reasons that you might experience hip flexor pain cycling.
First, the hip flexors tend to be relatively tight and weak in cyclists as well as everyday individuals.
Prolonged sitting, whether at a desk or on the saddle of your bike, places the hip flexors in a shortened position, meaning that they do not get to stretch out enough.
Even when you are cycling, because there is some degree of knee and hip flexion at the bottom of the pedal stroke (your leg isn’t fully locked out), your hip flexors never get to fully stretch out through their entire range of motion.
This limited range of motion is even more dramatic sitting in a chair during the day. As such, prolonged sitting and extensive riding can cause chronic tightness in the hip flexor muscles.
This, in and of itself, can pause hip flexor pain cycling.
For example, if you sit at your desk most of the day and then hop on your bike or jump on your exercise bike at home and immediately start riding, your hip flexors are being stretched a lot more than they were all day.
If you do not properly warm up, you may pull a hip flexor muscle, or you may continue to feel a stretching, pinching, or pulling feeling every time you push the pedals down.
Adding to this issue is the fact that the hip flexors tend to get weak, particularly at the end ranges of motion, again due to sitting too long.
This puts them in a vulnerable position for injuries while you are riding.
The risk of injuring your hip flexors cycling is exacerbated by the fact that the cycling technique that many beginners use is a hip flexor-dominant pedal stroke.
This means that there is excessive reliance on the hip flexors for power on the upstroke portion of the pedal stroke.
Pulling up too hard by using your hip flexors can cause strain and injury to these weak muscles.
Hip flexor pain cycling can also refer to pain in the glutes, or piriformis muscle, which can cause pain every time you push the pedal down.
More importantly, hip flexor tightness can cause more generalized hip pain cycling over time. This is because reduced mobility in the hip flexors can lead to the development of muscle imbalances and an inequitable workload partitioning.
Other muscles can get overworked, leading to tendonitis at their attachment points.
For example, the glutes can become overstretched, and the hamstring tendons, which attach at the base of the sit bones can get irritated from being overworked and overstretched.
Fixing Saddle Issues that Cause Hip Pain Cycling
The width of the saddle is usually the largest determinant for how comfortable the seat will be and the relative risk of the bike seat causing hip pain cycling.
Typically, you want the ischial tuberosities to be in contact with the seat to bear the brunt of your weight as you ride.
The soft tissues, such as the muscles, tendons, nerves, and vasculature should be offloaded as much as possible. These tissues are much more sensitive and not designed to support your weight or be compressed for extended periods of time.
Saddle pressure mapping is far and away the most accurate and effective way to assess your weight distribution on the saddle and the resultant pressure on various parts of your anatomy.
However, this is a luxury that most cyclists will not have access to. In the absence of this type of data, you can try to measure your pelvic structure at home to find the right saddle width.
For example, you can take a piece of soft cardboard and place it on the floor. Then, you can set yourself down firmly on the cardboard so that your sit bones make a visible indentation. Then, carefully get up off of the cardboard, trying not to make other marks or pressure points.
Next, measure the distance between the inner edges of the indentations of your sit bones. The distance between your sit bone measurements should be a minimum of 10-15 mm narrower than the width of the saddle you are looking to buy.
If you don’t have cardboard, you can also use aluminum foil.
However, it is highly recommended that you visit your local bike shop in order to get properly fitted.
Lastly, working on your hip mobility by stretching and foam rolling your hip flexors and warming up before your rides can cut down on hip flexor pain cycling.
Strength training exercises that supplement your rides can also help correct and prevent muscle imbalances that may otherwise contribute to hip pain.