A cyclist’s sore legs saga

When your legs hurt, it's a long way to the top

When your legs hurt, it’s a long way to the top

This story began about five years ago when I was in my late 70s and a veteran of more than 40 years of aggressive cycling. When walking around, I sometimes felt pain in the muscles of my left thigh.

Because it didn’t register while I was on the bike, I resisted the possibility that cycling was the cause. After all, I kept telling myself, cycling is supposed to be easy on the knees, which is why many older cyclists take up this sport after running, tennis, and racket ball have ruined their knees.

The first time I asked my doctor about the pain, he flopped down on the floor to demonstrate an exercise that would ease the problem. He also recommended using a foam roller to do a self-massage on my living room floor. A year later, he gave me a name—IT band syndrome. By this time, I finally had admitted that it was brought on by cycling.

The next step was to schedule a professional fitting at a bike shop. The fitter videotaped me as I rode on my bike positioned on a trainer. She confirmed saddle height and reach to the bars. The only adjustments she made were to tilt the hoods up about three eights of an inch and move my cleats back about the same distance.

During a winter visit with my cycling son in Florida, there was no cycling but much more walking than I usually do, a sauntering visit to a civil war fort, and fifteen minutes of easy lobbing at their ping pong table. The result was pain in my right knee so intense that it was difficult to do the stairs up to my bedroom.

Internet searches provided a general explanation for the pain in both legs: insufficient muscle strength in my upper body was causing leg muscles to work in ways they are not designed to work, and therefore the pain.

My doctor suggested that he could prescribe steroid shots and a friend proposed acupuncture. I resisted both therapies because I wanted to overcome the cause of the pain rather than treat the symptoms.

A 24-hour fitness center across the street from my home seemed like the solution. My health insurance program provided free access to the center and use of its equipment. I signed up with a personal trainer to learn how to use the machinery in order to reestablish the muscular balance my body lacked. He also showed me some new stretching exercises and techniques for using a roller. With his advice I bought a real foam roller and an exercise stretch band to improve my activities at home and eased up on cycling, but the pain didn’t go away. Instead, it seemed to be getting worse.

Even so, I signed up for my annual week with PAC Tour in Arizona during the last week of February. I cycled five of the six days of the week, with lots of climbing, for distances ranging from 50 to 70 miles per day. Although I felt pain, especially in my right hamstrings and knee, I was stronger and the pain was easier at the end of the week than when I began.

At home again, I walked a block up the street to a studio offering “muscular therapy.” The therapist with whom I talked indicated that she specialized in the syndromes that I was describing. In my first session, she found hot spots all over both legs and into my hips, some of them I had not even been aware of until her hands led to spasms of sensitivity and pain.

During four hour-long sessions, we talked extensively about how the muscular systems are inter-connected. Although she didn’t offer suggestions for cycling, she confirmed the value of foam rolling and self massage when I was sitting or lying down, either in bed or on the floor.

On the first Saturday of May I rode 60 miles on the annual Ride Around Clark County event sponsored by the Vancouver Bicycle Club. Although plenty sore for a couple of days, I was encouraged by the fact that some of the pain was similar to the day-after distress I have always felt after long, hard rides.

The resolution to my distress, however, began with a book that I came across a couple of days prior to my Arizona trip: Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling’s Winning Edge, by Tom Danielson and Allison Westfahl.

More about what I learned and what’s happening to my legs next time.

2 Responses to A cyclist’s sore legs saga

  1. Elva Anson says:

    My son-in-law, an avid bicycle rider, would have liked this. I couldn’t get past your Email check words. Very frustrating. I am glad you got some answers, Keith. An interesting blog.

  2. Joe Culpepper says:

    Keith, sorry to see that you have continued to have such problems. Guy & I are on our 2 week ride in GA & he has been having similar pain in one leg, so he was very interested in your post. He says hello. I have done some upper body exerckses with hand weight’s for years, with the conviction that arm strength would help my cycling, so your comments about what you’ve learned about muscular balance were very interesting. We are having a great time having completed our self contained loop around part of GA, & we have one more week to go, part of BRAG, so it will be a supported week. Here’s to your getting to the root of your leg pain soon for many more cycling days ahead! Blessings!

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