Training Tips for Women #1: Proper Bike Fit

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By Deb Preller, M.D.

Now that spring has arrived and we have daylight in the evenings, many of you are starting to train for the big event in August. Training and preparing now will make a huge difference for your endurance over the next several months.

One of the first things you should do is make sure you have a proper bike fit. The best time to do this is BEFORE you develop a nagging ache or pain. A good physical therapist who specializes in bike fits is a great investment. (At the end of this article I will include the names of a couple in the greater Seattle area who have special interest and expertise in fitting women to their bikes.)  Keep in mind that some medical insurance plans will cover the bike fit, especially if you already have a muscle or joint issue.

The following tips are not all-inclusive and are simply things that I have found can be overlooked when someone buys a new bike or takes their bike to the local 6’2” college student wrenching at their local bike shop who may never have thought about all the things that might be too big or too stretched out for someone 5’2”. This information is designed to get you started and point out some specific things to think about when checking that you have a good bike fit. It is not step by step instruction on how to perform each step as there are many sites online that provide this information.

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Here are the top three things I have found get overlooked in fitting smaller riders. They involve the three contact points with your bike: hands, feet and bottom.

1.  Brakes:  Many women have smaller hands and/or shorter reach than men. There are several ways to make it easier to reach the brake lever. The easiest is to set the brake lever so it does not “retract” completely. There is an adjustment on most brake/shift levers that keeps it from completely retracting or disengaging. This adjustment makes the initial reach shorter and works very well for people with smaller hands.

Another more complicated way to accommodate smaller hands is to rotate the lever slightly forward on the bar. By rotating the brake and shifting apparatus forward on the bar, you can shorten the distance between the bar and the brake such that you can actually rest your index finger on the brake while in the drops or on the hoods. They also make bars with shorter and shallower reach. These sometimes work well for people who feel too stretched out on the hoods or who are uncomfortable in the drops. Riding in the drops becomes the safest position for descending and riding in a fast pace line if you can reach your brakes and gears.

2.  Pedals: Smaller riders need shorter crank arms. (The crank arm attaches the pedal to the bottom bracket of the bike). Most bikes come with 170-172.5 crank arm length, even women’s specific sizes or xs standard sizes. Unfortunately, most people under 5’7” need a 165 mm crank arm.  Using a crank arm that is too long means that your knees and hips have to go through an exaggerated range of motion every pedal stroke, thus flexing and extending 60-100x/min for many hours.  This often results in people telling you your saddle is too high or too low because your hips are rocking. The problem with simply changing your saddle height is that your legs will always be reaching too far if your saddle is raised resulting in hip rock; your knees will be flexing/bending too far if your saddle is lowered, resulting in patellar tendon issues and knee pain. Trying to fit someone without using appropriate length cranks means the rider will never have their saddle at the correct height.

It is also crucial that your cleats be set so they allow your knees to point forward in a neutral position during the entire pedal stroke. It is easiest to see this by riding on a trainer looking ahead into a mirror. If your cleat is toed in or out, your knee will have to compensate and this can result in knee issues as well as IT band pain and muscle cramps. You want to make sure your cleat is under the metatarsals (ball of your foot), unless you develop hot spots, which you will recognize if you do! In that case, you may need to move the cleat fore or aft.

3.  Saddle: Saddles (or seats) are notoriously uncomfortable.  A comfortable saddle is hard to come by.  A few things I have discovered…

  • More padding is often more comfortable for the first hour or two then is far more likely to rub something wrong.
  • Women’s hips are designed to allow a very large head to pass through the pelvic floor, not for sitting on a pointy piece of metal or carbon for six hours. Men’s saddles rarely are designed with child-bearing in mind. Fortunately, many manufacturers have figured this out and make saddles that come in different widths. For example, the Specialized women’s saddles come in three different widths for different shaped pelvic outlets. Many of the local bike shops have saddle-fitting kits that allow you to sit on a saddle and figure out if it hits your ischium (sit bones) properly. These bones are designed to tolerate normal body weight pressure for long periods of time. If you saddle is the proper width, the majority of your weight will rest on the proper part of these bones and you will be able to tolerate your saddle for much longer.
  • Chamois butter is really helpful, especially while you and your sensitive parts are getting accustomed to your saddle. You can buy this in any bike shop and apply it generously to your bike shorts and your perineum, including the proximal inner thigh. This helps prevent chafing and saddle sores.
  • On a road bike, you typically want your saddle level and parallel with the ground for maximum comfort. Often times, people have their saddle too far back, especially if they have short thighs. Your knee needs to be centered over your bottom bracket to prevent undo stress on your patellar tendon and to maximize your efficiency in your pedals stroke. You want your power to go into propelling you forward, not pushing you back on your saddle. Use a plumb line to ensure your knee is lined up properly. This needs to be adjusted in combination with your fore/aft position on your cleats.

Finally, one myth that bike fitters often believe is that women have longer legs and shorter torsos than men. This proportion is true for many women but not the majority. It is important to keep this in mind when trying to pick a bike frame. Just because you are 5’8” does not mean you will need a 53 cm frame. If you have a long torso, you may need a 49 cm frame. It is often easier to have a frame that is a bit too small for you and adjust things by raising the saddle and using a longer stem than to stretch yourself out on a long bike frame as you won’t have as much flexibility to adjust for arm, thigh and torso length.
The bottom line…make sure your bike is properly fitted for your body NOW to ensure you have the best Obliteride experience possible.

Following are local physical therapists who cycle competitively and have experience with bike fits.

  • Lea Stralka,  Physical Therapist at Pro Sports Club (you don’t have to be a member to see a PT there)
  • Beth Griffith, Physical Therapist in private practice in Seattle

About Dr. Deb Preller

Dr. Preller practices at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, Wash. Her achievements on the bike include the Washington state road women’s category 1-2 champion in 2006; gold and silver medals at Master’s National track racing in 2005 and 2006; Master’s World’s silver medalist in track racing in 2005; and Master’s World’s silver medalists in road racing in 2006. Dr. Preller currently co-manages the Fischer Plumbing Women’s cycling team.

The legal stuff: The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. 

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