Addressing Asymmetry: Improving Movement On and Off the Bike
Many of us have experienced the sensation of being imbalanced, pedaling more with one leg, or feeling delayed onset muscle soreness more on one side than the other. Nearly all of us have experienced niggling knee, back, or neck pains, tight iliotibial (IT) bands or hip flexors. Worse yet, some of us find ourselves lopsided on the bike - a cocked shoulder, feet or knees jutting to one side while pedaling, or hips askew on the saddle. On-the-bike asymmetry, specifically muscular imbalance, limited range of motion, and/or pelvic asymmetry can lead to a cascade of other problems like joint pain, saddle sores, crookedness on the bike, and worst of all, interrupted seasons or careers. This article will address three areas of consideration:
1) Daily Core Work/Functional Movements
2) Seeking Consultation
3) Mindfulness on and off the bike
Although sample sizes for cycling-specific studies investigating asymmetry have been small, research has suggested that trained and untrained cyclists exhibit bilateral differences (measured at the crank or pedal) for cycling power ranging from 5% to 20% (Carpes et al., 2010; Carpes et al., 2007a; Daly and Cavanagh, 1976; and Sargeant and Davies, 1977). It is reasonably safe to assume that we all have some asymmetry in power distribution. For some of us though, asymmetrical loading and the resulting twisting and overcompensation can have a debilitating impact on our cycling.
As cyclists who love equipment, we want there to be a solution with new saddles, minute laser-measured fit adjustments, new stems or handlebars, shoe or cleat shimming, or expensive shorts to prevent saddle-sores. Once you’ve been fit by someone you trust, if you are still having niggling issues, discomfort or reoccurring overuse injuries – it is then that core stability, range of motion, and muscular imbalances need to be assessed and remediated. There is no panacea, only consistent hard work.
Ideally, address your imbalances before they become a problem, before you have to pay to utilize professional expertise or suffer injury. The majority of us can improve our foundational strength without access to gym machines or expensive equipment. A program of self-massage (with a foam roller or PVC) combined with 10-15 minutes per day of focused, core-engaging, strengthening movements is a great start:
1) Squats (3 sets of 8)
2) Push-ups (3 sets of 10-15)
3) Lunges (3 sets of 8, alternating sides)
4) Planks (build up to 3 x 60 seconds each - front and sides)
Using good form and focusing on quality over quantity, with these basic movements, you can increase range of motion, core and trunk strength, practice equal lateral loading, and remediate overly tight or dysfunctional areas. Learn these basic movements using your own body weight for resistance. Progress to resistance bands as an intermediate step before graduating to dumbbells, kettle bells, or gym machines. The focus of your work as a cyclist is to build a strong foundation from which to pedal from, not gain bulk.
Additional resistance and functional movement training during the off season and base period for road racers, and a continuous, phased routine of strengthening for off-road cyclists (including ‘cross) can be considered for athletes looking to gain an additional edge. Do your research and spend wisely on professional consultation.
If your asymmetries have progressed farther than what you can address on your own or you are looking to increase your performance, consider enlisting an expert. Many professions that study physiology, kinesiology, body work, and targeted remediation are available. Engage your Cycle-Smart Coach to gain referrals for the professionals in your area.
The cost of care for massage, gym membership, physical therapy, personal training, and/or chiropractic care can seem prohibitive at a glance. If you have health insurance, check to see if these consultations are covered. When you schedule a visit with a professional, maximize the value of each session by preparing questions and taking notes. Request that they provide you with a written plan for your personalized remediation (i.e. your homework). Utilize these experts as consultants and plan longer programs with them as your finances allow. Their value will be realized with longevity and increased performance, and may exceed the new bike equipment that you can buy.
For the average cyclist, your lifestyle - countless hours spent at a desk or in a car - have a larger impact on asymmetry than time on the bike. Engage your core and practice good posture throughout the day. If you’re in an office, move hourly and consider a standing desk to relieve the stresses of sitting for long periods of time. If you’re experiencing weakness or a lack of engagement (firing) on your non-dominant side, engage this side more. Switch the computer mouse, pour the hot water for your coffee or tea, or brush your teeth with the opposite hand that you’re accustomed to. If you drive to work or to a race, switch hands on the steering wheel and keep your feet squarely planted with your core engaged.
Practicing self-awareness and mindfulness on the bike can contribute to remediation. Ask a riding partner to point out any visible asymmetry and then practice what it feels like to pedal in a balanced fashion.
Finally, accept that perfection may not be possible. You may be twisted, over-reliant, or maladapted to utilizing one side of your body more than the other, but it’s also a sign of strength that you’ve gotten this far in cycling. There is some suggestion in the literature that asymmetry may not negatively impact performance. In other words, asymmetry itself may not be the limiter, but it can manifest into one over time. We don’t need a perfectly balanced pedal stroke, but we need to find a better balance in our sport and avoid further harm via overuse injury.
Carpes, F.P., Mota, C.B., Faria, I.E. (2010). On the bilateral asymmetry during running and cycling - a review considering leg preference. Physical Therapy in Sport. 11(4), 136-42.
Carpes, F.P., Rosatto, M., Faria, I.E., Mota, C.B. (2007). Bilateral pedaling asymmetry during a simulated 40-km cycling time-trial. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 47(1), 51–57.
Daly, D.J., Cavanagh, P.R. (1976). Asymmetry in bicycle ergometer pedaling. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 8(3), 204–208.
Sargeant, A.J, Davies, C.T.M. (1977). Forces applied to the cranks of a bicycle ergometer during one and two-legged pedaling. Journal of Applied Physiology, 42, 514–518.