How to Balance Arthritis and Cycling

Four years ago, I bought a bike. Sounds simple enough. Although I hadn’t ridden on a real bike in decades, it seemed like a fun way to be more active. With knees plagued by osteoarthritis, I had been using an indoor exercise bike to build strength and lose weight. But after spending countless hours staring at storage shelves while riding inside, I decided that it would be nice to go outside and ride in the sunshine.

One of the things I was most worried about when shopping for a bicycle was how would my wrists like it. Would they hate the idea and scream bloody RA murder? Or would they be nonchalant and take any grip I offered them in stride?

Different categories of bikes for RA

In general, most bikes can be classified into one of three very broad categories: road bikes, mountain bikes, or comfort/fitness bikes. Of course, there are additional types of bikes, including recumbent bikes, tandem bikes, tricycles, and electronic-bikes. The variation and specialization options can be overwhelming. I actually found one website that listed 18 different types of bikes, while another listed 37 subtypes of 18 different bikes.

Choosing a bike based on my arthritic concerns

When I went shopping at a couple of local bike shops, I was upfront with salespersons in describing my arthritic concerns. It was suggested that I consider a bike with an upright sitting position to reduce weight leaning on the wrists, flat handlebars that would make reaching the gear shifters and brakes easier, ergonomic grips to support the wrists, front tire suspension to absorb the force of bumps, and wider tires for a smoother ride.

I chose a bike with each of these features plus hydraulic disc brakes and 24 gear combinations which are helpful in getting up the local hills. As I relearned how to ride on my newly purchased hybrid bike, each of these features was helpful in getting me started on a new adventure.

Things RA patients should consider

First of all, I’ve learned that just about every component can be customized, adjusted, switched out, or upgraded on any bike.

Bike weight, shape, and ease of transport

The weight of the bike can be important if you need to lift it to mount on a car rack. Bikes with a slanted crossbar or a step-through frame may need an extra frame adapter to mount on a car rack. Recumbent or semi-recumbent bikes or trikes may be more comfortable to ride for some folks, but they can be very heavy (weighing between 35 to 88 lbs) and difficult to mount on a rack as well.

Ergonomic handlebars

The handlebars on my hybrid bike go straight across (flat bar) and the grips are shaped with ergonomic support for the palms. While I like my handlebars, there are times that I wish I could hold my arms in a position where my palms face each other rather than down toward the ground.

Having the option to change the grip angle would be welcome. Handlebar grips can be swapped out ones that have both ergonomic palm supports and tips that bend upward for a nice sideways grip. I’m thinking of upgrading to one of these.

Bike saddles and shorts

Saddle or seat comfort is very important; but softer, bigger, and cushier is not always better. Bike saddles that are too wide can cause thigh chafing. Saddles that are too narrow can actually fail to support you and instead put pressure on all your soft, sensitive parts in the groin. When you go shopping, you may want to look into bike saddles that are gender-specific.

Saddle position is very important when it comes to the comfort and protection of the joints. Seat position affects the amount of bodyweight your wrists have to support, the curve of your spine, and the pressure and position of your knees. Adjustments can be made to raise or lower your seat, change the tilt of the saddle, and move it forward or backward. Or you can completely change your seat to one of a gazillion options on the market. Talk to someone at the local bike shop for advice.

Additionally, finding a good pair of padded bike shorts that fit well can be very helpful in provided extra support and comfort. There is a wide variety of options regarding shape and thickness of padding, or chamois. I personally like Terry touring shorts with thicker padding specially-made for women.

Bike shoes and pedals

Bike shoes are great for giving you firm support and more power while pedaling. I placed a pair of older orthotics in my bike shoes to support my feet. I personally use “mountain bike” cycling shoes with a stiffer sole and flat pedals on my bike. That way I have more freedom to slightly adjust my foot position.

More serious cyclists may want to use “clipless” shoes and pedals. Despite the terminology, they actually do CLIP your shoes to special pedals and require you to unclip when you need to stop. The cleat that attaches to the bottom of your shoes comes packaged with the specialized pedals. When I asked women from a local bike group, it was confirmed that clipping and unclipping requires a twisting movement in the knees that sounds potentially painful for knees affected by osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

Riding positions

How you sit on the bike can make a huge difference as to how much pressure or torque is placed on different parts of your body. The size of bike you choose is based on your inseam and the type of bike. I was initially worried about my hands, but it became apparent that I needed to zero in on seat position.

If your saddle is too far back, it can alter your center of gravity and put more pressure on the hands. If your saddle is too high, your hips may rock back and forth and the back of your knees may feel the extra strain. If your saddle is too low, it can overstretch the ligaments in the front of your knee and cause pain and injury

Adjust your bike based on your needs

No matter what type of features you are looking for on your bicycle, it is important to make small adjustments to make the bike fit you rather than you straining to make yourself fit the bike.

Think about the type of riding you might do. Do you live in an area with lots of hills? You might want a lighter weight bike with lots of gear options or even electronic assist pedaling to help you up those hills. Do you want to ride on trails with crushed gravel or a variety of surfaces? You may want a hybrid bike with grippier and wider tires. Do you want to stick to well-paved roads and aim for speed? You may want a road bike. Do you want to literally layback a bit while riding? You may want to choose a recumbent bike.

Remember to stay active,

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