Cycling Ergonomics: The Key to Comfortable, Injury-Free Riding

Riding a bike is great exercise. and it has become the preferred commuting method for more and more people. But cycling doesn’t look the same for everyone. There are different types of bikes, different types of bodies and different riding styles.

That brings us to cycling ergonomics. You’ve probably heard this term used in reference to office chairs and computer desks, but it’s equally relevant to bicycles. It shouldn’t hurt to ride and it certainly shouldn’t cause injury. Getting ergonomics right can prevent these things.

What are cycling ergonomics?

Cycling ergonomics is the applied science of designing bicycles and arranging their parts so that rider and bicycle interact most efficiently and safely. It’s matching the style and setup of your bike to your body and your riding style.

Two women on relaxed cruiser bikes
Cycling ergonomics is all about matching your bike to your body type and riding style, so you can ride comfortably and without injury.

One example would be getting the seat and handlebars in the right place. But it doesn’t stop there. If you consider Merriam-Webster’s broader definition of ergonomics—”designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely”—then those “things” could also include your clothing and other accessories.

Why are cycling ergonomics important?

All these things affect the pressure your ride puts on different areas of your body. If you get things right, you can avoid most injuries.

Most of us get our first bikes as children. Once it is put together and we’ve learned not to tip over, we’re usually off and riding on a bike that is pretty much “one size fits all.” But as people get older and become more serious riders, they become less pliable. Getting a bike fit specifically for you becomes increasingly important.

Your posture and position on the bike should be correct from both sides as well as from the front and back of the bike. This will make your ride as comfortable as possible and ensure you remain comfortable when you get off the bike.

Common overuse injuries from cycling

  • Knee injuries used to be the most common for cyclists, but with proper ergonomics those injuries have fallen off considerably. When they do happen, the pain is usually in the front of the knee and is called patellofemoral pain syndrome. It’s the same type of injury that runners experience. They happen largely because the quadriceps and hamstrings are not properly prepared or because bike positioning is not set up to handle lateral stress.
  • Back injuries have become the biggest culprit. Sitting incorrectly in the saddle is a major cause of this. When injuries happen, people often try to compensate so they can keep riding.
  • Saddle sores are uncomfortable to even think about, let alone experience. Sometimes they happen near a hair follicle that gets irritated due to friction. They are a lot like a painful pimple. Others become full-on ulcers and are not unlike bedsores. In these cases, riding technique and bike fit may need to be adjusted to allow for less pressure in the area.
  • Neck injuries are caused by having too much tension from riding in an aggressive position. Putting yourself in a conservative upright position can help these heal, along with physical therapy off the bike.

Is cycling every day too much?

Bike riding is a highly approachable form of exercise, but people vary in their dedication to it. Some only want to go on leisurely rides with family on the weekend. Others commit to cycling groups and compete in races. Some take off for a moderate ride almost every day.

If you want to get on the bike every day, it’s important to take precautions in order to prevent soft tissue injuries. This means bringing yourself and your bike in for periodic bike fit appointments, rather than just having a one-time fit. It also means exercising when you’re off the bike. For example, developing core strength by doing planks and side-plank exercises will help you maintain the positioning you need when you’re on your bike.

How to make sure your bike fits right

Even when you got your first bike, there’s a good chance an amateur “bike fit” was carried out. The sales associate made sure you could reach the pedals and didn’t have to lean too far to steer.

As you grow, it becomes even more important to pay attention to the various angles and positions your body will assume when you’re riding. Too often people ride with the saddle in the wrong position or at the wrong height, with handlebars that are too short or too long, or pedals that are not aligned properly.

Teenage boy hunched over on a bike that is too big for him
A bike that is ill-fitted to the rider will put the body in awkward positions and lead to discomfort or injury.

A bike that’s set up properly will support your body and allow flexibility for various muscles, including the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, and quadriceps, which are most responsible for keeping the bicycle in motion. Being in shape matters too, but if things are set up correctly from the beginning, many injuries can be avoided. That means you get to keep riding and building your strength.

General consensus says your fit should be good enough that you would be comfortable riding for an hour without discomfort, during or after your ride. If you don’t feel good, it’s time for some adjustment. A professional bike shop can help you with this or direct you toward a professional bike fitter who can. These professionals will make your bike fit you, rather than forcing you to make physical adjustments to fit your bike.

Choosing the right frame size

Finding the right size bike frame is essential, and it’s obviously going to vary from person to person.

The two biggest factors are the size of the rider, and the style of the bike.

A road bike frame, for example, will be larger than a mountain bike frame. A city bike will fall somewhere in between.

While a test ride at your local bike shop is always your best bet for nailing the right frame size, we realize many people are buying bikes online these days. So, here is some guidance for measuring yourself for a bike frame:

First, stand with your feet about the same distance apart as they would be if they were on bike pedals. Then measure your inseam—the distance along the inside of your leg from the ground/floor to your crotch.

You bike frame size for various bike styles should be:

  • Road bike: 70% of inseam
  • Mountain bike: 66% of inseam
  • City bike: 68.5% of inseam

The bike frame is measured from the crank (the axle around which you pedal) to where the seat post emerges from the top of the frame.

Photo of a bike with arrows showing where you would measure to determine the frame size
A bike frame measurement typically refers to the distance between the two arrows in this picture.

Other bike fitting considerations

During a bike fitting, close attention should be paid to four basic areas:

1. Seat height and saddle position

The correct seat height can be determined by getting on the bike and balancing yourself against a wall with your hand while placing your heels on the pedals. Pedal backwards. You want your legs to be just about straight when they reach the bottom of the pedal stroke.

Of course, when you’re actually pedaling your knee will have a slight bend when your foot reaches the bottom. The ideal knee-to-pedal angle here is 35 degrees. This should reduce knee stress.

The knee-to-pedal angle can vary slightly, depending on your riding style. Road cyclists are often are more comfortable with a slightly smaller angle of around 25 degrees (a slightly straighter leg), while recreational cyclists are good with a slightly wider angle (more bend).

As for saddle position, the first step in proper saddle adjustment is to make sure the seat is level. If it leans forward too much, your lower back, arms, and hands feel too much pressure. Lean too far the other way, your lower back and seat will be strained.

A closeup of a bicycle seat
Correct seat height and saddle position are fundamental for getting the right fit.

The saddle should not be positioned too close to the handlebars, as that will stress the mid-back area and arms. Too much distance strains the neck and lower back.

If you find that pressure from the saddle is causing soreness or numbness in your groin area even after you have gotten used to your seat, consider switching to a bike seat with a hole in it.

2. Handlebar height and position

Getting the handlebar height and position right will help keep your hands, shoulders, back, and neck comfortable as you ride. If you are on the taller side, your handlebars will be most comfortable on the lower side. The handlebars should be up a bit higher if you are shorter. When they are set correctly, they should create a 90-degree angle between your shoulders and torso.

A man grips handlebars as he rides a bike
Getting the handlebars in a comfortable position goes a long way.

3. Foot-to-pedal positioning

How you place your foot on the pedal is important. You want to feel solid and in control, so the ball of your foot should be right over the pedal spindle. If possible this should be paired with a stiff sole shoe.

How cycling ergonomics differ for men and women

Both men and women enjoy cycling, but they can face different challenges in getting the proper bike fit. Bicycle manufacturers like Liv cater to women cyclists. Their bikes have the features expected from men’s bikes, but they’re made smaller and created with women in mind. In order to provide women with the right balance and a comfortable ride, special attention is placed on proper weight distribution, arm and finger lengths, and lever space.

A man and a woman cycle together
The geometry of bikes made for men and women will differ slightly.

The frames of women-specific bikes are dropped to accommodate women’s pelvic placement. They also allow for easier reach to produce a more comfortable ride.

Riding technique

Proper ergonomics will depend largely on identifying how you ride your bike and making your bike honor your methods. Your technique may be different if you are on a racing bike, versus a cruiser, versus various types of exercise bikes. It is important to discuss with your bike fitter your cycling goals, and be willing to get refitted as your strength changes and you start to face new challenges on your bike.

What is the correct posture for cycling?

Regardless of your riding style, position your head upwards, while allowing some slack in your hands, elbows, and shoulders. Doing this will not only prevent various soft tissue injuries but will also allow you to have better control of your bike and lessen your risk of a crash.

Keep your feet flat on the pedals and have a good grip on the handlebars as you ride, but shift your hand position every few minutes as you adjust to different hills or terrain.

Find the right pace. Not every cyclist is destined for the Tour de France or a 10-mile commute.

A Navy Seal on a triathlon bike
Ergonomics are huge for serious cyclists, who must have a properly fitted bike for maximum power and favorable aerodynamics.

Heading to the doctor before embarking on a cycling regimen, or any exercise program, is always a good idea. With a little blood work and a checkup you can make sure you are not pushing yourself to do more than what your heart can handle. Aim for comfort rather than adopting a “no pain, no gain” philosophy.

Is it better to stand or sit while cycling?

Serious riders often face a choice about whether to stay seated while riding, or to stand. It comes down to power and efficiency.

Standing allows for faster acceleration, but it is also more likely to wear you out of it’s done excessively. It can sometimes provide a nice break from being in the seated position. Standing can also help with getting a big blast of speed in order to pass someone, conquer a hill, or fight the wind.

For casual cycling, it will likely be more enjoyable to stay seated most of the time, especially if your bike fit is set up properly.

How your clothing can help

When you’re cycling, your body needs proper support. Bike shorts, helmets, gloves, and shoes can help provide this. Consider your comfort first when you try on new cycling gear, rather than looking at these items through a fashion lens.

Your accessories matter, too. Backpacks are better than messenger bags, for example, because they keep the weight symmetrical rather than off to one side, which over time can mess with the alignment of your back. If you do prefer a messenger bag, choose one like the Kulie UrbanTourist that can mount on your front handlebars while you ride.

Cycling is the most fun and gives you the most benefits when it is comfortable. Plus, comfort will make you want to do it more often.