Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cycling With Your Legs



A few months ago I underwent some minor surgery in the abdominal area. In the aftermath I was on two weeks mandatory rest from bicycles entirely. Then two more weeks of riding upright bicycles only. After that, the cycling ban was lifted, albeit with a warning not to strain my pelvic or abdominal muscles.

"Well, that should be fine," I thought, "I mostly cycle with my legs after all." And for the first time in a month I set off on my roadbike.

Of course, 'cycling with my legs' was easier said than done! And very quickly I became aware of just how much I relied on muscles other than those in my legs when riding a roadbike. In particular, having to go easy on my abdominal and pelvic regions, felt - not inappropriately - as if the floor had dropped away beneath me, leaving a vague and murky hollowness.

When I tried to accelerate, it felt as if my legs had been disconnected from their primary power supply and were now expected to run in some weird and clearly inferior energy-save mode.

Climbing uphill felt like running on a dead battery whose smooth and fully-charged functioning I had previously taken for granted. Powerless. Drained.

In both of these scenarios, in fact I quickly realised I did not even know how to engage my legs without the use of these other, off-limits muscles.

The expectation to power the bike with my legs now seemed entirely unrealistic. They were motorised tools and I'd taken away the motor. Now what?

Fortunately, the body does adapt. Day after day my legs grew more 'self-sufficient' for lack of a better term. It was almost as if they developed their own backup mini-motors, upon realising that no help was forthcoming.

Then my bum and lower back came to the rescue. Even my arms and shoulders got in on the action, hardening from the effort of holding up my torso over the bars with limited abdominal help.

It all felt very strange indeed: first like running on empty; then like tapping into alternative sources of energy. But it sustained me through months of cycling, as follow-up procedures left my abs in a state of perpetual convalescence.

In the course of those months I wasn't exactly an invalid. I rode a century sportive, and went on weekly hilly metric-century trips with my husband. I had a great time cycling with my legs! Still, I did not feel like myself on the bike. Most of all I missed that feeling of pulling at my core to propel myself upward. And the strangest thing is, I had not even been aware of that feeling until I lost access to it.

When we think of the bicycle, what immediately comes to mind is pedaling. And it's easy to forget there is so much more to it. Now, more than ever I appreciate what a marvelously full body experience cycling truly is.

Last week was the first time I got on the bike with my abs and pelvic core fully back in service. I went for a 25 mile spin and I did try to take it easy on those now out of practice muscles! Still, the next morning, my middle was so sore I nearly screamed when I sat up in bed. A week later, I am still feeling the growing pains. But they are pains I gladly welcome. And my legs are happy to have their motor back.



29 comments:

  1. I always find it amusing how experienced cyclists, in particular, talk about a 60 mile ride as no big deal, something to be done when you're recovering from surgery or, say, at the tail end of the flu. And, of course, they would never consider themselves athletes or even particularly athletic. Just normal stuff. A touch of fever, so I'll keep it down to five hours on hilly terrain. No big deal.

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  2. Racers rarely have attractive bodies. No waist. Hips, chest, waist end up all the same. In most cases there is enormous strength with no definition. Like tree trunks. Even those riders who are very slender and have ordinary looking legs have thick midsections. In these latter times there is a contingent with magazine cover physiques from the weight room and, erm, supplements. Pay no mind to them. Get a good strong core and keep thinking about pedal action.

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  3. The Mayo Clinic has 10 core exercises that strengthen the core.
    I use them during the winter for better climbing results and long rides in the saddle in the spring.
    http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/multimedia/core-strength/sls-20076330

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    1. Thanks for the link. I am terrible at sticking with any sort of exercise routine! But fortunately the bike itself seems to be getting that stuff back in shape fairly quickly, now that I can use those muscle groups again. I'm hoping in another month I will be back to normal.

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    2. I've not found cycling to be a good core or upper body exercise. After back injury and surgery cycling actually aggravated the back and sciatic issue. Core exercises had to be added to keep me riding. Agree on indoor exercise routines, that's just a chore and not fun. My cross-training now combines cycling and rowing, both outdoor activities and both the type where you can't just stop whenever you feel like it and go lounge on the couch.
      Sometimes a bike goes onto the rowboat to make a full loop when waterway meets trail or road:
      https://www.flickr.com/photos/ricks_boats/5819254113/in/album-72157626932636672/

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  4. Now that is an interesting bike your partner is riding! Perhaps an update on his collection is in order?

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    1. Oy, don't ask. In addition to the Honey Race Day, he now has two '80s Italian bikes (including the one in the photo) and, most recently has acquired an 8 year old carbon frameset which is now being built up. I will post a show-and-tell on some of these soon.

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    2. You can add "Road Bike farmer" to your Eire CV. ;)

      Glad you are on the mend. I am curious as to how you kept from automatically engaging those abdominal & pelvic muscles when you returned to road biking. It must have been trying to keep mindful until it too became a habit.

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    3. Am I incorrect in thinking he also has a Honey cyclocross bike and an older Raleigh road bike? You guys have a lot of bikes!!

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    4. The Honey CX now has a new owner. And the Raleigh Rapide is ...erm... indisposed. But yes, we have a lot of bikes in various states of assembly, including bikes I have on loan for consulting jobs and reviews, and random ancient bikes that people bring me. Occupational hazard.

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  5. Funny to read this as I am in the exact opposite situation. Three months ago I had surgery on both legs and although I can now ride again it is not the same. My legs are still very weak and it was hard going until I learned how to better engage my core. Now a combination of yoga, pilates and weight training are part of my weekly routine. Cycling _is_ a full body experience and thank you for sharing yours.

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  6. I only ride upright bikes and I have nothing more than very basic fitness, but what I do know is that one long ride battling headwinds is enough for me to feel it in my abdomen and lower back later that day or the day after - nothing major, but I'm made aware that all those not-thought-about muscles have been called upon. Cycling, even pootling along,is an excellent all over workout!

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  7. Push down on the pedal. You expect the pedal to go down. Why does the rider not go up? Some riders do go up a bit and bounce in the saddle. Even riders of modest ability will push down with force greater than body weight. What keeps the rider in the saddle is core strength resisting upward movement while the pedal goes down.

    Now point the bike uphill. Soon you will be pulling with your hands and arms. This is because on hills there is more forward push on the pedal. If you weren't pulling with your arms your butt would go straight backwards off the saddle. Of course a lot of core strength is required to effectively transfer that arm pull to saddle stability and power. Pulling backwards through the bottom of pedal stroke would pull the rider off the saddle towards the bars. This motion is resisted passively by the arch of hips, spine, shoulders, arms, hands but still requires a lot of core strength to keep that arch from collapsing.

    Now lift the pedal. Resistance for this motion is provided by the saddle. Entirely passive for the rider. A moment of rest. Musculature for an upward lift is not nearly as strong as the muscles for pushing down. But it is the most efficient pedal motion.

    All the above assumes hips sitting level and locked in position. For riders with rocking hips and a spine describing reversing S-curves the force vectors get complicated quickly. And it hurts.

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  8. That is a nice picture. I've always felt the body movements of cycling are sort of awkward-looking compared with those of some other sports. Spinning your feet in circles a time or two a second while hanging suspended a few inches above the ground is inherently goofy, a little. But a rider standing up with hands in the drops looks like a runner launching from the starting blocks. It's graceful.

    Walter

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    1. I agree, standing up cycling has a look of power and elegance and in addition I think creates less stress on the body, it certainly prevents saddle 'fatigue' which appears to be such a dilemna for some riders judging by the amount of discussion it attracts - get out of the saddle, problem solved. I spend at least half of my time cycling standing up, it is a more dynamic position and most of all, it's fun.

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    2. If sitting on the bike is so horribly stressful, if sitting is lacking in grace or comfort, you have not learned how to sit on a bike.
      Every cyclist deserves grace and ease. There is no technical impediment to achieving as much.

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    3. Anon. 10:51: My remarks were not an attack on the practice of sitting on bikes! I do nearly all my riding sitting down, myself. I climb by spinning in low gears. I rarely sprint. Sometimes I get up to accelerate away from a stoplight, say. That's about it. I was just commenting on a body motion that looks nice.

      I could say: "If you think what I wrote meant sitting on a bike is horrible, you have not learned how to read." But that would be a bit much, wouldn't it?

      Walter

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    4. I have no issues sitting on a bike, I note that it appears to be an issue for many riders. I will often ride in a standing positon because I enjoy it and it provides variety when cycling.

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    5. Here is 1:09 of grace and beauty on bicycles.
      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=RoIUL5QHNXA

      The men in that film clip are my friends. They taught me how to sit on a bicycle. I met those men fifty years ago and I am still learning how to sit on a bicycle. Every ride something is learned.

      At about 0:50 begins a display of out of saddle riding. Looks nothing like a runner at all.

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  9. Position on the bicycles, with the neck arching back, can strain the neck and upper back, especially when the bicycle is equipped with aerodynamic bars

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  10. Any time I take a break from cycling for injury, my style is not the same after return. The body changes and good-bad there is always growing!

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  11. The body is quite an amazing system of mass and structure, throw in the mind and it's even more fascinating as an entity! Every injury I've had, with any activity, has produced a series of compensations which were often problematic when on the road to recovery. Thankfully, the bicycle is a easy machine to recover on as opposed to running or back injuries where every movement is somehow echoed in pain or discomfort. After ACL surgery it took seven months of effort and awareness to find a new balance of strength and confidence in even the simplest of activities. I so took for granted how necessary all those muscles are in order to move. As a younger person I spent time posing for artists and grew very strong and especially aware of muscles and nerves and balance. They body is amazing. Take care.

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    1. Surgery has not been standard of care for ACL breaks for over twenty years. Surgery should be reserved for those who are complete couch potatoes or those who cannot or will not participate in therapy.

      Competitive downhill skiers are mostly without either ACL. Return to competition after an ACL rupture is usually about two months. Even with a surgically repaired tendon it is good practice to do the physical therapy. Simplest therapy ever, I could show you in ten minutes. Or just look it up online. And next time see a sports orthopedist, they don't cut. Don't go back to the surgeon who cut you.

      I tore my ACL twenty-two years ago. No surgery. Two office calls. Maintenance exercises are ten minutes once a month. Or less.

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    2. You are fortunate and made the right decision. I've talked to people who chose not to have their knee repaired after a tear and others who opted for a repair/rebuild. I'm no couch potato, nor were friends who have gone through this and opted for repairs as well. The tears to my ACL, MCL, and LCL made it impossible to continue at the level of activity I had enjoyed. Playing competitive ultimate frisbee, climbing and hiking, pick-up basketball games with my kids, and of course traveling by bicycle. Having no ACL, when the quality of repair with today's surgery is so good, made the choice worth it. It's been fourteen months and I'm back on my old frisbee team and just completed a three day hike on over unstable mountain terrain w/o concerns. Maintenance exercises are daily, just because they've always been ;)

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    3. Sounds like you scored a trifecta. And managed a good recovery.

      I'll give you the good news. Cycling builds collateral strength in the knee. After my complete ACL tear it was a full four years before the knee was unstable. My orthopedist was stunned it was possible to be fully functional that long with that injury. Also surprised that the fall and twist I described had spared the other ligaments. I've had followup care with the same doc because of other injuries, not because the knee has ever been a problem. He's still impressed with the collateral strength in my knees. What anyone reading this blog does every ride is one of the best things you could do to protect your knees.

      Cycling also builds massively strong feet. No one ever thinks about that. A great foundation for any other activity.

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    4. Massively strong feet? I thought this post was about cycling with one's legs ;) This is interesting because I've done so many activities where my toes having to dig in for support and balance were part of the deal. I found myself missing that with regard to cycling since my toes seemed to be silent. I do a lot of barefoot walking but maybe I should just cycle instead?

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  12. You don't need any "core" strength at all if you just develop sufficient "Gluteal Clench". A good firm grip on the saddle with the buttocks will provide anything you could possibly need.

    I swear to Lob, I know folks Godzilla himself couldn't shake off the bike once they "settle in"...

    Grippy McDizzy

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  13. Among his other talents, Grippy "Sagebrush Sam" McDizzy is the author of the famed country-western ballad "Blood On The Saddle".

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  14. I usually Cycle with my Lips, but it hurts...Chapstick???

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