Swollen feet, pains, cramps, hoods vs. drops, pain vs. suffering … ready set – GO!
1. What’s with my swollen feet?
During a normal group ride, do you loosen the straps on your cycling shoes because your “feet are swelling?” This happens to many cyclists. Talking with them on this topic, they really don’t give it a second thought and mistake foot swelling as a normal part of cycling. To fix this problem, they may loosen the BOA straps on their cleats. BOA is the latest in “shoestrings” whereby turning a ratcheting knob will increase the tension of the shoe instead of tying a shoestring or using a hook-and-loop (Velcro) fastener.
What leads to swelling?
Prior to starting a ride, cyclists will sit, have a coffee, chat a little, while all the while gravity is pulling blood flow into their feet. Then, when starting the ride, the leg muscles start engaging where they need blood to carry oxygen to help fuel their movements. Even though the cyclist is sitting on their saddle with their legs moving, gravity is still at work pulling blood into their feet. Additionally, a low-volume, tight-fitting cycling shoe may lead to even more swelling.
Enter the calf
Everyone has a set of calf muscles with 7 muscles in each calf, but the two that are most known are the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius is the most visible muscle and gives your calf most of its shape. Along with the gastrocnemius, the soleus forms half of the calf muscle.
The purpose(s) of the calf muscles are 4-fold, (a) plantarflex your ankle, (b) help curl your toes, (c) help bend your knees and, the main purpose for this article (d) pump blood from the foot and lower leg back up and into the circulatory system. A calf that is working effectively will pump the ‘pooled’ blood from the foot back up into the heart. The term for this is called the calf muscle pump. If your feet are swelling, then your calves are probably not working effectively and it’s time to address this problem.
As stated before, a bike/cleat/shoe fit is needed to place your feet in the right relation to the pedals so that you will be able to engage the calf correctly. You will know when you are in the correct position when you are tightening your shoes instead of loosening them.
2. Why am I getting calf cramps?
Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night by a painful cramp in the calf? That sudden level 10 pain shooting through your lower leg lasting for 1-3 minutes. Nothing you do makes it go away. Ever thought why?
During a bike fit interview, I always ask “do you get painful calf-cramps at night?” About 25% of my clients say yes. Turning their shoes over I can tell why. The cause of this searing pain is the mis-placement of the cleat. I spend about an hour of a 2.5-hour bike fit on adjusting the cleats and making sure they are in the absolute perfect position. It is of utmost importance for the cleats to be in the right position because the foot is the only part of your body that is mechanically locked to the bicycle. All other touch-points (glutes on the saddle and hands on the handlebars) can move, therefore, placement of the cleat is a critical component of a bike fit. To ensure that this is perfect, I have created double-check and even triple check processes during bike fits.
3. Why do most crit racers race on the hoods not the drops?
Another important question that recently came up is “why do most crit racers race on the hoods and not in the drops?” There are significantly important reasons for riding in the drops, three of the most important reasons being (a) safety, because you can’t hook bars while in the drops, (b) more solid handling and control when bumped, and (c) better aerodynamics.
The two main reasons so many racers race on the hoods is because (a) lack of hamstring flexibility and (b) that is where they were fit to. To become more flexible, you can start a stretching routine and/or attend yoga classes. For the bike fit portion, I highly recommend that you discuss this with your bike fitter. Ask to be fit so that you are comfortable in the drops. From this point forward, you should always ride, train and race in the drops.
To put this into context, refer to the two Giant TCR bicycles in the photos above. The person who owns the bicycle pictured on the top has obviously been fitted to the hoods. The bicycle pictured on the bottom, is a corrected bike fit and the red horizontal line delineates where the hoods were placed before the fit. To accomplish this, I raised and added a longer stem so that when the cyclist grabs the drops, their hands are in the exact same X, Y position as when originally on the hoods.
This frame appears to be a Giant M/L, but I would recommend an XL for this cyclist because the frame is too small. Sadly, it often happens that by the time someone usually comes in for a bike fit, they have already purchased the wrong size frame (and are experiencing knee and back pain). This is why I like to work with bike shops who send me clients to do a bike sizing first. That way, the client is on the right-size frame to begin with, which is the most important step in the process.
4. Why am I getting knee pain after a ride?
I can’t stress enough the importance of taking care of your knees. This can only be accomplished by a bike fit to determine the correct crank arm length. I am seeing more and more cyclists who are experiencing knee pain, begging for relief so that they can continue to ride their bicycle. I have had clients tell me that they have gone to several other fitters and if I can’t help them, they are going to give up on cycling. I have also had clients with a previous injury that have little to no ACL left that want to continue to bicycle.
Usually clients coming to see me suffering with knee pain have finally gotten to the threshold point that they can’t take the pain any more. In fact, I am currently working with a 23-year-old ex-domestic pro that has tremendous knee pain. Don’t wait until you get to this point. Do yourself a favor and get a bike fit so that the fitter can help you. In most every case, I have been able to mitigate or completely rid my clients of their knee pain. For those few that still need more relief, I work with several physical therapists who can take the ball and run with it. Regardless, the clients are much happier since they are still able to enjoy the sport they love.
5. What’s the difference between pain vs suffering as applied to cycling?
The reason I bring this up is that a lot of cyclists get these confused. It’s no fault of theirs since articles I have researched interchange these as well. I searched for “pain vs suffering in cycling.” As a coach and personal trainer, here’s my take on this.
SUFFERING: When you are pushing on the pedals so hard that your legs are starting to cramp and you are breathing so hard that your lungs feel like they are coming through your chest. When you are doing hill repeats and you heart rate is at a sustained maximum, that’s suffering. In fact, the US Navy SEALs have a saying, “When your mind says stop, your body still has 40% left.” Think about that next time you want to back off.
PAIN: You never want to experience pain. Pain is when it hurts to pedal even at a low power output. For cyclists, pain is usually experienced in the joints, typically knees, and pain can be greatly reduced or negated by a crankarm length analysis. Pain will usually continue even when off the bike. If you experience pain, get off the bike and get it checked out by your doctor, physical therapist, and bike fitter.