I guess it’s inevitable that after riding for years, with all levels of cyclists (speed and skill wise), there is not much I haven’t seen. On my last group ride, I thought one cyclist was going to take out almost the entire group. Luckily, there were very attentive cyclists in the group and we avoided a potentially nasty outcome. The day before, I did a 52-miler without incident. Just goes to show you that everyone, as they ride more and more miles (especially in groups) will probably see as much as I have over the past 207,000 miles.
For this post, I am going to tackle the problem of cyclist’s hands, either getting that tingly feeling or flat out numb. I have lost count the times I have seen cyclists shaking their hands; almost like trying to sling off all the water, but it was obvious what what going on. Unfortunately, this happens way too often and can be easily avoided. Yep, I said it. Easily. It almost always comes down to a setup issue. I’ll explain.
As basic as it is, the reason you have problems with tingling or numbness is that your hands are bearing far too much weight than they were ever designed to withstand. It’s that simple. Take the weight off of you hands and the problem immediately goes away. Though the root cause may be simple, the way to approach it and properly correct it (bio-mechanically) is certainly not. There are countless variables that come into play but I am going to focus on the most common approach I have found that has helped countless cyclists over the past 12 years.
I want to specifically spotlight the word BIO-MECHANICAL, because if you get this wrong, then you will only find band-aid approaches that will temporarily resolve the problem. By definition (according to Wikipedia),
Biomechanics in sports can be stated as the muscular, joint and skeletal actions of the body during the execution of a given task, skill and/or technique. Proper understanding of biomechanics relating to sports skill has the greatest implications on: sport’s performance, rehabilitation and injury prevention, along with sport mastery. As noted by Doctor Michael Yessis, one could say that the best athlete is the one that executes his or her skill the best.
OK, now that you are clear as mud on this, trust me when I say everything you do when you ride your bike, has a direct relation to correct bio-mechanics and a direct relation to your level of performance. In other words, there is always a cause-and-effect principle with bio-mechanics. If any part of your body is violating a correct bio-mechanical principle (as it relates to cycling), then your body has NO CHOICE but to compensate for that. If you are set up and ride bio-mechanically, then your body will compensate by operating at its optimum efficiency. If your riding was equated to gas mileage, would you rather ride at 20 mpg or 40 mpg? Of course, you would choose 40 mpg; who wouldn’t?
Remember I mentioned the most common approach that has worked the most? Well, it’s not so much the approach, as it is what is the root cause. You fix the cause and you dramatically, and immediately, change your results. When you are on your bike, the weight of your torso, arms and head have to be supported. The way your body is created, it relies on the core muscles to tackle this job. No, it doesn’t know you are on a bike but it does understand you are tilting your torso at an angle; I refer to this as your spine angle. Any time this scenario is present, you should engage your core muscle groups, which are designed to carry that weight. If you do not engage your core muscles, you body has to compensate. Again, it doesn’t know you are on a bike, it just knows that based on how you are positioned, your only option left is your hands to bear all that weight. Think and visualize how big your core muscles are compared to those in your hands; there’s no comparison.
Hopefully, I haven’t lost you and you are still with me. Hey, I grew up on a cotton farm in rural Tennessee and I was stoked when I got my first pair of overalls, so you can bet I like to keep things simple. Did I just share that? Hey, you better not raz me about it. I’m trusting you!!!!
Now that you know its your core muscles you want to be using and not your hands. In other words, you need to literally transfer all that weight from your hands to your core muscles. Sounds easy, right? Well, honestly, it is but it most certainly is NOT natural. You literally have to train your body to engage those correct muscles. The body tends to be lazy, if you let it, but it instinctually knows that if you put it in the right position, it automatically engages all the right muscles for you to be bio-mechanically correct. Remember, if you don’t train your body correctly, it won’t work correctly. Which leads me to my next biggest point.
ITS NOT NATURAL
Have you ever been a crowded place, say the mall, and ever notice how people walk, stand and/or sit? What we all are use to seeing (and accept as normal) is that cat-arch in people’s backs. What typically catches our attention is that odd-ball who is sitting very erect or walking like this. It just looks odd but these folks are utilizing their core to support their torso weight. Trust me, it didn’t happen automatically either; they consciously worked on it. The same goes for when you are riding your bike. I can guarantee you that there has never been, or will ever be, a person to jump on a road bike and automatically get into a bio-mechanically correct position. It has to be learned. It’s no different than any other sporting movement. Take golf, for example. There are countless teaching methods and approaches to the golf swing but I can assure you that to have a bio-mechanically correct swing, you have to consciously work at it; it will never be automatically natural.
ACCORDING TO THE BIKE
Bottom line, you can only flex your back in two positions: convex or concave. Concave is the bio-mechanical correct way to stand, walk and sit. Convex is the ‘cat-arch’ position. Next time you are on a group ride, I want you to notice
which ‘arch’ position the majority of cyclists are riding in. I bet almost 100% of them will be riding with that convexcat-arch position. The other things you will probably notice are a lot of very straight arms, as well as their shoulders jacked up into their neck line (see convex image). You gotta ask yourself, “Does that really look comfortable at all?” I hope you answer a big fat NO. The arms and shoulder ‘thing’ are also a result of their bodies having to compensate for not using their core muscles. Again, you fix the ’cause’ and all these things goes away.
For the bike, the fundamental component to resolving all of these issues is having the correct cockpit length. This length is the distance from your saddle to your handlebar. In order to tilt your spine angle and keep the full length of your torso, you have to have a cockpit length that is long enough for your torso. If your cockpit length is too short, then you guessed it, your body has to compensate and that means adopting the convex cat-arch position…and all the other out-of-positions that go along with it. If you get the cockpit length wrong, then your body will have no choice to ride in the convex position.
The net result of the wrong cockpit length, is it does not allow you to engage your core muscles. When you are on the bike, your body’s only option is to bear this weight with your hands on the handlebar. Therein lies the most fundamental problem for tingling and numbness in your hands. For every client that has had hands issues, I have found 100% of the time that their cockpit length was way too short. Once we addressed that bio-mechanically, all of their hand issues immediately went away. By the way, so did their very typical stiff neck and shoulder issues, too.
You need to be aware of the typical ‘band-aid’ fixes floating out there in the cycling world for hand issues. The most common approach is to just raise your handlebar height. Yes, this helps to reduce the amount of weight your hands are bearing but it does not address the fundamental root cause; your cockpit length. Hey, if you sit up straight enough, then yes, you will have transferred all your torso weight to your core. But, if you do that, then you will be left with riding your bike sitting straight up in the saddle 100% of the time. Talk about being a human sail in the wind!!! If that is not bad enough, then you also have to realize that you loose almost all your leverage and therefore you have a HUGE power loss, too. Hmmm, how does that sound for a remedy? Yeh, I thought so. I say be aware because I just read on a VERY popular national cycling website, where one of their staff responded to a cyclist’s numbness with this exact approach. He didn’t say sit all the way up, but he did emphatically say the best way to get rid of the problem was to raise the handlebars.
You may not have noticed, but I underlined two words from Wikipedia’s definition by Dr. Yessis: sports performance and injury prevention. When you properly provide the correct space in order to allow you to engage muscles, not only more muscles but also the correct ones, then your body will begin to function at a super efficient level; like the 40 mpg example I mentioned earlier. It takes conscious effort and focus to ride your bike in a truly bio-mechanically correct position but once that becomes your new normal, your ‘Sports Performance’ goes WAY up!!! By the way, this dramatically increased performance comes at no additional cost in the amount of effort you exert. That’s what I call FREE POWER!!!
A second benefit of riding bio-mechanically correct is that your body will be better able to prevent injury. There are a few points to highlight on this topic. First, when you are using the most amount of muscles, then you take the same workload and spread it across ‘more’ muscles, not less. That means that each individual muscle is less ‘taxed’ or exerted and is therefore less likely of being injured or stressed. in other words, when a muscle is isolated, it has a much greater chance for injury. For example, which car engine can go up a hill easier, a 4-cylinder or a 12-cylinder? Second, when more muscles are activated in an activity, and we are talking about cycling here, then the accumulation of all these activated muscles act as sort of a helper or protector for all the others around it. Haven’t you heard the saying about riding in a group, “There is safety in numbers?” Well, it’s the same principle here. Finally, it is sort of along the same line as the previous two but just a different perspective and that has to do with strength. Now that you are using more muscles, all those muscles are being strengthened…individually and together. You dramatically increase your overall strength. There is NO bad result from that!!!
To summarize, if you have hand issues, then you most likely have issues with your cockpit length. You probably also have stiffness, etc. with your shoulders and neck, too. Get the weight off of your hands and on to the muscles that can easily handle that weight; your core muscles. How do you do that? Have the correct cockpit length.
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