Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cycling Swell

“Why is it I feel so disgusting after cycling? And just look at these, how swollen they are!”

Putting down her emptied water bottle, the woman sticks out her wrists to demonstrate. The flesh is puffy above her gloves, folding over muffin-top style. Mine look similar, as do my ankles over the edges of my socks. For a few minutes the group of us sits there, comparing unattractively swollen body parts.

There is an expectation that cycling will make us sleek and lean, instantaneously. But, in particular when riding long distances, many are alarmed to find themselves bloated and swollen instead. The first time it happened to me in a noticeable way, I went on the internet and found a dazzling array of explanations. It happens from not drinking enough water. It happens from drinking too much water. It happens from overconsumption of calories from energy drinks and snacks. It happens from consuming too few calories. It happens if you eat too many carbs or not enough carbs. It may or may nor happen more if you are a woman. It is due to water retention and will lead to temporary weight gain, followed by weight loss. It is due to cortisol production and will lead to real weight gain, accompanied by other problems. "There is no cause for concern," said the highly qualified doctor of Cyclist A on Forum X when consulted about the symptoms. "There is cause for concern, and you must cut down on cycling," said the equally qualified doctor of Cyclist B on Forum Y. Well then, there's that explained!

Monitoring myself over the past few years on the bike, I see two types of processes at work. One is the temporary bloating I get in the course of a single ride. This tends to happen on rides longer than, say, 50 miles. And it seems absolutely unrelated to the amount of water or calories I consume. Either way, I will get a little puffy, a little bloated - noticeable mainly in the face, ankles and wrists. And, a few hours after the ride is over, it will all go away. The swelling will diminish, then disappear; my skin's tautness will return.

The other is a longer-term process that seems to happen when I do a lot of cycling all at once following a period of taking it easy. After a couple of weeks of doing the miles in earnest the first thing I notice is that my legs get big - so big that I have trouble getting my jeans on. The first year this happened I mistook it for very rapid muscle development. But now I know it is a temporary effect - more like a swelling from the shock of those muscle groups being overworked. In the first instance, my legs bulge out. But if I keep cycling at the same frequency and intensity, their size will eventually diminish. Gradually the swelling will subside and give way to actual muscle tone - hard, sleek and well defined, rather than puffy or bulging. And my jeans will fit again. Last summer this happened over a 2 months period.

Very possibly there is more than one single cause behind the cycling swell. But in any case, it is apparently not unusual. This spring I've just entered the "can't get my jeans on stage" and look forward to getting it over with!

33 comments:

  1. I'd suggest reading "Waterlogged" as well as considering a low carb/high fat/ anti-inflammatory diet.

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  2. Your body knows where the fluids need to flow for cooling, for electrolyte balance, for blood and kidney functional support, for healing, for fueling, and other reasons we probably don't know about. I may not know the exact cause, but I listen to what my body is telling me in my specific situation: something is different, I don't need this fluid here in these swelling places when you sit at your desk all day, but when you ride many miles I do need it, so perhaps you should consider sitting less and riding more to establish a new-normal for fluid allocations.

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  3. Love your articles...Just a side note though; which jersey set are you wearing? I love it!

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    1. Giordana Silverline bib shorts c2012 (the legbands are a different colour on the newer model, so they won't look quite like that) and Cafe du Cycliste Suzanne jersey. The shorts are my own, the jersey sent to me for review.

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  4. I'm surprised you actually use the internet for answers to questions.

    This swelling thing doesn't happen to me on the bike but for the legs when out of shape. Happens when out of shape weight lifting.

    Conclusion: it happens when out of shape.

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  5. my theory would be the swelling is related to the inflammation caused by the new muscle breakdown. a sign of inflammation is swelling as fluid is sent to the damaged tissue to repair it. it would also explain all the different "do this, don't do that" as your body is trying to find homeostasis, which will be different for each person and their level of fitness at the time this is happening.

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  6. 50x11 uphill is going to cause some inflammation. Chasing that sort of feat with Guinness is likely to cause a bit of edema. No surprise.

    If "hard, sleek and well defined" is where you want to go please admit that what you are doing is called training and go about it in some rational fashion. The training plan thus far, as viewed from the blog, is photographic rambles full of stops, pootling about in microgears, then attempting staggering and heroic stunts. Of course your body complains.

    "A lot of cycling all at once...". Please listen to yourself. That is the full diagnosis between the quotation marks. Athletes in other sports do this thing called warming up. Cyclists mostly do not. Tour de France pros warm up 100km and even 150km to prep for a time trial. The average amateur race or club ride sees total aggression in the first nanosecond. The only riders I've ever known who are absolutists about warmup are pros and retired pros. Do the warmup. Try ten miles of purely floating the pedals before anything intense. If the muscles show any reluctance after a ten mile warmup maybe today's ride is nothing but warmup. Everyone tries to do more intensity than can be assimilated. Intensity is fun sometimes, it always comes with a price.

    At the end of the ride cool down. While the pedals are still moving. After the ride, massage.

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    1. I spin in a low gear at a high cadence, I drink beer on occasion, I do warm-up rides before effortful ones, and I cool down.

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    2. I can only comment on the information and prompts contained in the blogposts. I'm looking for sources of inflammation. Some sources are staring me in the face so I comment. "A lot of cycling all at once..."

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  7. My rides have been short but vigorous. 15 - 30 miles, 11 - 15 mile commutes with added weight. Still, my left knee which was broken once when I was 12 and is usually a little puffy gets normal looking. My right knee gets better defined. Ankles and calves are thin (if only the rest would follow suit!!). I am 235 pounds at 6 feet right now. I notice, even for a consistent routine, the weight loss follows in fits and starts. I have developed a 'tolerance' for my weekday commute. I am trying to go easy in the morning and vigorous on the way home but due to my late nature, I am racing the stinking clock in the morning (Cat 6 as "Snob" says) and then being sedentary most of the day, then being kind of beat and taking a while to get going whilst returning home. I end up tacking on a few more miles to compensate. The steady rides in Prospect Park help immensely with my air capacity, endurance, fatigue level and weight.
    One of my big sins is I do not stretch. I try to be conscious to warm up in the cold mornings. The way the lights are timed going home I get warm up time. I tell myself to stay slow for a while. Just enjoy the scenery and warm up.

    I should stretch. I was wondering if you should give yourself / get a leg / back massage every now and then. Is it lymphatic fluid retention? Maybe some time with a roller wheel device to work out the acid / toxins / retained water out of the legs? Elevate the legs? Ice? Is it the beer? hahaha

    When I beat myself up with a decent ride with hills I can feel the whole blood sugar thing, or maybe I'm just beat.

    I just want to keep pace with my friends in the Park and take my heavy rando on some long rides.

    Cheers!!

    vsk

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  8. I read that great book about the Race Across America and everyone had edema swelling, there were photos of hands swollen like puppet hands, a woman rider in particular had a tough time with it. Post cycling, put your feet above heart level for awhile.

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  9. I'm sorry but I don't get the connection between feeling disgusting and swelling. I've thrown up during rides, been drop dead exhausted and dehydrated, but never really looked at my limbs and thought 'this is disgusting'....is this an emotional thing, and aesthetic thing, or a physical thing?

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    1. The feeling of bloat is physically unpleasant. I didn't make the comment, but imagine that's what she meant.

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  10. I would say it's fluid retention due to the muscle repair and building process. Also, muscles store water with the glycogen required to make them work harder and perhaps they become more efficient at this as you get fitter.

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  11. Been there!... Panicked, searched online, panicked even more, went to the doctor… Was told to drinks lots and not to worry…. That made no difference as far as I could see, but the swelling happens less now that I am in better shape.

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  12. IMO, weight gain or cycling swell are not good signs. There is one exception: rising strenght with muscles which can provides more weight.
    I agree with doctor of cyclist B: cut down on cycling.
    Zuzka mini workout with kettlebel is interesting: www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0WokbFgRR4&list=PLYcX6uov3LuMqes_Y33yaqfYr6wxoeOf2
    Every morning and doing exercice on fast? Why not but I prefer afternoon...

    L.

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  13. A cyclist in training doesn't dangle the legs unsupported as shown in the photo. Put your legs up. When indoors and it would be uncouth to have your feet on the furniture at minimum keep your feet supported by the floor.

    Massage, even minor amateur self-massage, works. As an example my grandmother spent nearly her whole life with swollen ankles. She worked on her feet at her grocery store and her feet and ankle were swollen. At age 94 the pain went up a level. She was never someone who was going to use meds except in extremis. I started rubbing her feet and ankles. After a lifetime it took two weeks to give her trim ankles. I am not a massage professional and nonagenarian tissue thin skin won't take too much. She died at 98 with trim girlish ankles. Your legs will be more responsive than her feet.

    Five minutes self-massage after the ride. On the bed legs up. Long strokes moving that swell towards the heart. That swelling is full of metabolic products, when you get it into your bloodstream you will feel tired and may fall straight asleep. The nap effect is very positive, take it easy if you have to be somewhere. If you cut the massage short because you just can't fall asleep right now then do much more extensive work later..

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  14. Not a big deal, I think--it's just vascular dilation in the muscles, which also require more water for repair and maintenance than at rest. I actually LOSE weight during the winter when I am barely riding; in the spring, it and the "puffiness" begins coming back as I'm more active.

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  15. This is not unique to cycling, maybe it should be called the workout swell. Ice helps.

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  16. So glad to read someone else suffers this! I have never perused the net for answers though. I get puffy after rides of around 2 hours +. Normally manifests itself in the morning - especially evident with 'hamster' cheeks!!
    (that's facial cheeks!) and definitely in my thighs.
    P.S. I too have entered the 'can't get jeans on phase' - hopefully that will clear soon. Makes you feel just plain rubbish!!

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  17. I have never puffed up like that, myself. Wrong kind of physiognomy, I guess. I'd think that the concept of repair fluids being sent to stressed muscle fibers sounds about right. It is probably about conditioning.

    The massage idea sounds like it is worth another try; I know you have used foam rollers in the past.

    Maybe time to see if you can get that
    "Keirin Jeans" idea off the ground...

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  18. I suspect I, too, have some sort of swelling after a vigorous activity but don't really notice it so much. My son just came in the door, limping, and I asked what was up. He said he had a tumble on his bike with flip flops on and tore up his toe. I asked if he might want to visit the doctor and he said, 'no, i'm fine, don't worry.' clearly, he was in pain. I'm like you, analyzing every little thing and wondering what it means. The body monitors itself in remarkable ways.

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  19. Have you thought about going in a pool after you ride? The pressure of the water helps drive fluid out of the interstitial spaces to your heart, then on to your kidneys. You may notice you have to pee after swimming. It is also a nice way to cool off the muscles and relax the joints.

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  20. Puttees! Keep tight and never take em' off. You'll never be bothered by swelling of any kind. Even if you have some, how will you know?

    Glad I could help.

    Spindizzy

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  21. That jersey is so cute! I'm looking for a short sleeve wool jersey and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it is wool?!?

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    1. 100% synthetic. There was a short review of it in Bicycling, but I will try and post a more in depth one here since there seems to be interest.

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  22. Huh! I just always assumed it was a female thing since it seems like there's always some part of me swelling and bloating and puffing up just to go away in a matter of hours leaving me feeling as though I just dropped 10lbs overnight. I kinda find the vicious cycle mildly entertaining.

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  23. Maybe bodies aren't meant to take very long rides without consequences.

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  24. I've never experienced this phenomenon so wouldn't care to speculate. FWIW, my eating habits keep me keto-adapted which means kidneys flush salts rather than retaining it > no water retention.

    On a random note... as something of an Irish music addict... if I did experience this phenomenon and was minded to blog about it, I'd find it really difficult to resist giving the post the title "The Swell Season".

    (I'll get me coat.)

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  26. Are we in parallel universes?

    I've been riding 55 years, rolled 400,000 miles. I've never experienced this, never seen it, never heard of it. I checked with my sweetie, she's been sharing my rides 5 years, she's been cycling 52 years. She's never experienced this, never seen it, never heard of it. One hundred seven years of experience is not determinative of anything. It's not to be sneezed at either. "The cycling swell" doesn't exist in my universe. It's apparently common in this other universe.

    I do five impossible things daily before breakfast. I use the front brake with no problem or concern, ever. I ride the tops. I ride and brake from the hoods w/old school cable routing and can't imagine a problem with that. I ride cantis w/ no issue ever. This last has been proven mathematically impossible even though myself and Katie Compton, Mo Roy, Sven Nys do it and don't think about it. All these impossibilities. I don't exist. I am a wisp of smoke. I am not at this keyboard.

    Me and my sweetie had the same experience. We mounted a bike the first time and the passion never ended. It rains, bikes get stolen, sometimes a mechanic is required, sometimes even a coach is useful. But it has always been simple and easy to ride a bike. It has never been fraught with peril or so damnably complex ordinary mortals can't get there.

    About your swelling. It is not inherent to bikes or to your bike. There is not a demon inside the frame tubes out to get you. You cannot appease the demon with endless mortification of the flesh because there is no demon.

    It could be an organic disorder. It looks a lot like an allergic reaction. And it could be a lot of things. But the text above strongly suggests that it is not and that you don't think so either. Let's put that one aside.

    By elimination all that's left is how you operate the bike. We know that you are a very hard worker. Hard muscular work will cause inflammation. Reliably. Then you recover. If you don't recover something is going on. Perhaps you go out and ride hard again too soon. Perhaps you are riding at a level where massage is not just kinda nice but almost required. Or perhaps every time you sit on the bike you add fresh insults to your protesting body.

    First you sit on the bike. Sitting any way short of perfect creates stress. Sitting on a bike involves many things not comprehended in the Science (Religion) of Positioning. After 55 years I know a few things about how to sit. I do not know it all. The next thing is to address the pedal. Pedalling short of perfection creates dynamic stresses. Addressing the pedal is never discussed anymore. "Pedalling circles" is sort of trivial. It's misleading. Adapting reciprocating bipedal motion to a round chainring is not easy. Top dead center and bottom dead center never go away. I am aware of my pedals every single time I ride a bike and I am far far from mastering all there is to know. I am very clear that faulty pedalling rips up the legs.

    It's possible to ride a bike any which way and enjoy it. Being swollen for months on end is not necessary. Whatever you are doing, try something different. Doing the same thing over and over again will not produce different results.

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    1. There are lots of things that others write about as if they are commonplace, yet have never happened to me. I still exist and so do you. Happy riding.

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  27. Is it possible that you aren't changing position on the bike much? Muscle action is one of the things that moves things around the body. Cycling doesn't engage much above the legs, and even holds some leg and hip muscles in fairly static positions.

    If you aren't shifting from tops to hoods to drops regularly, and standing every now and then, I wonder if this is a symptom of position.

    This doesn't happen to me when cycling, but if I go for a long walk (~10k), my hands do swell up a bit.

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