Sep 4, 2020
Health & Fitness

Managing Hip Pain While Cycling

Managing Hip Pain While Cycling

My clients that are cyclists often report persistent - sometimes even debilitating - hip flexor pain before, during, and after cycling. And, while riding a bike may have a lower impact on your lower leg, it can lead to back, hip, and knee pain.

Hip flexor pain with pedal clips while cycling

When you’re cycling and using pedal clips, your hip flexors are staying continually engaged with every revolution of the pedal. While one leg is pushing down, the other is pulling up, all the while asking for posture and stability in the core. This keeps the hip flexors (iliacus and psoas) working very hard in a shortened position. Muscles don’t like to be in a short position, they cannot generate the same amount of force and they tend to shorten and tighten over time.

This is felt the most at the groin where the hip flexors attach to the inner thigh. It can also translate into glute pain, sciatica, pelvic floor pain, back pain, SI (sacroiliac) pain, or knee and foot issues. Cycling is a very similar movement as pulling your knees up to run or holding a boat pose when doing ab workouts, activating the same muscle group in your lower abdomen.

During this entire time, your hip and core muscles are also remaining contracted to hold your position on the bicycle, balancing you from left to right, forward and backward.

So, that’s why your lower abs probably hurt a lot more than you expected when you first started cycling - and why you may be feeling hip flexor pain when cycling now.

So, if you’re a cyclist, what can you do about the pain - and how can you prevent it from turning into a larger injury?

anatomy illustration of hip flexor muscle used when cycling

Getting to the root of hip pain from cycling

To manage hip pain from cycling, it helps to understand what causes it in the first place.

Endurance sports like running, swimming, and cycling all have a relatively high risk of injury due to the fact that you are requiring your muscles, ligaments, and joints to be in constant motion during extended periods of time. When you’re biking for miles on end, even if you maintain ideal form, the repetitive motions can put enormous strain on your muscles and joints.

Keeping this in mind, there are usually three main culprits for hip pain caused by cycling: overuse, muscle imbalance, and improper bike fit.

And, as you’ll see below, all three of these often cause the same result: tension and tightness in your iliopsoas muscles, which are a pair of muscles that sit side by side and run from your pelvis to your inner thigh. This overuse in a shortened position causes them to revolt with long-standing tension.

This tension is often the cause of not only hip pain, but pain in this region from cycling.

Tight iliopsoas for cyclists

One of the most common causes of hip pain for cyclists is overuse. Each time you pedal, you are engaging your iliopsoas muscles in opposite directions, either stretching them to extend the pedals or contracting them to pull up on the pedals and propel the bike forward.

While your iliopsoas muscles were made to extend and contract, they were not designed for doing this motion continuously for hours at a time and in a shortened position. Muscles don’t function well when they are too short or too long, they are strongest in their optimal length. In addition, the hip flexors work to stabilize your pelvis and spine in a somewhat stable position while your legs move underneath you, requiring even more from this cramped duo.

Without muscular endurance, your hip muscles will not be able to properly support your hip, back, and pelvic ligaments and joints. And, if you are quickly adding miles day after day with little to no recovery time in between, your fatigued hip muscles may be inviting pain and injury to the surrounding tendons, ligaments, and joints they are supposed to be supporting.

Muscular imbalance in the pelvis and psoas

Any time you are extending and contracting your iliopsoas muscles in opposition - such as when one leg is pushing the pedal forward and the other is pulling up from behind - there is an opportunity for an imbalance to form.

This is very common - and not just with cyclists. Most people have one thigh or glute that is dominant or one hip flexor that is tighter than the other.

You may not even notice yourself using one more than the other when walking or sitting in a chair. But, when you are cycling, you could be unknowingly putting more stress on your dominant leg. Your body may try to correct the imbalance after you get off your bike. However, this often results in one leg feeling excessively tight the next day.

The tightness likely began near the top of your pelvis, where your iliopsoas muscles connect to your hip joints. If they are pulling too tightly on your pelvis bone, it will affect the entire mechanics of your spine, pelvis, and hip. The muscles in your thigh may even feel sore and it may even be pulling on your knee joints, causing knee stiffness, and pain.

Improper bike fit and iliopsoas tension

Even if you have great muscular strength and balance in your legs, glutes, and hips, you may still suffer from hip flexor pain. One of the most common causes of hip pain during cycling - and sometimes the cause of muscular imbalance and overuse - is an improper bicycle fit.

When your bike isn’t professionally fitted to your body, it pushes your posture and body angles into unnatural positions.

Your muscles will try to overcompensate for the abnormal positioning. But, this can lead to one or both iliopsoas muscles being contracted too much or being used unevenly.

For example, think about the position of your pedals.

As a general rule, a 90-degree angle is a good range of motion for your hips and knees. So, if you are too compressed on your bike and bringing your knees up past your hip joint, you are overexerting your iliopsoas muscles, again, asking them to work hard for you in a compromised position.

Conversely, having your seat post too high can cause you to reach too far for the pedals, resulting in excessive motion and strain in the pelvis and spine while riding.

So now you know what causes hip pain while cycling, here are a few tell-tale signs your iliopsoas muscles are being overworked.

Common hip flexor issues for cyclists

The four most common hip flexor issues for cyclists include:

1. Snapping hip syndrome in cyclists

Also known as hip flexor tendinopathy, snapping hip syndrome causes a painful clicking in the hips. This “clicking” will usually be accompanied by a feeling of your tendons pinging. Most often, the click will be both a painful feeling and an audible noise, but it can manifest in just an audible form.

This pain is commonly the result of someone who is not naturally flexible overusing their hip flexors - or someone who is naturally flexible pushing their muscles too far. The snapping sensation and sound can be a result of a taut muscle, usually, the iliacus, psoas, or TFL, clicking over a part of the bone that sticks out nearby. This snap can also happen inside the hip joint itself. When there is hip flexor tension, the alignment of how the ball of the hip fits into the socket is off, making the joint click.

2. Hip bursitis in cyclists

Trochanteric bursitis is a common hip ailment that impacts many athletes, not just cyclists. It is a type of chronic pain that is caused by friction and inflammation of the bursae along the outside of your hips.

Each of your hips has two major bursae, which are small fluid-filled sacs designed to help reduce friction in and around your joints. They are there to protect the tissues from wearing down with motion and rubbing. But, when your muscles are imbalanced or overused during exercise, the bursa areas experience uneven strain and excessive friction, which causes inflammation.

If you notice pain on the outside section of your hip that extends to the upper thigh area, you may have hip bursitis.

The pain may begin as a very sharp, intense pain, but over time it could fade into a dull, wide-spread ache. You may even notice some swelling, warmth, or redness in the hip area.

3. Piriformis syndrome in cyclists

Piriformis syndrome impacts the buttock’s piriformis muscle, a muscle that sits directly opposite your hip flexors and iliopsoas muscles. So, when your hip muscles are pulling your pelvic bone forward, the piriformis muscle may contract in an effort to balance the strain. It’s a mean version of tug-of-war.

This then irritates the sciatic nerve, often causing pain to manifest in your hip area. Sciatic pain can be very insidious, starting as numbness or sharp pain in the buttocks, slowly creeping into your hips, lower legs, and even your feet.

4. Hip impingement syndrome in cyclists

Femoroacetabular impingement is one type of hip impingement syndrome. Impingement pinches the tendons, joint capsule, and labrum in the hip joints, usually due to the unique shape of your ball and socket in the hip. This creates a pinch during movement.

This happens often in cyclists because the hip joint is in the flexed position for extended periods of time - and that’s the exact position that pinches.

Repetitive motions like cycling tighten your iliopsoas muscles, causing the joint to be compressed and out of alignment, pinching the joints. This extra stress and inflammation are often all that’s needed for hip impingement to occur.

Hip impingement is noticeable as it can inhibit your range of motion and cause a distinct pain in the front of your groin. At first, the pain in the hip flexor and groin area may feel dull and achy. But, as it worsens, the pain will occur with more subtle movements and can be sharp as well.

How to improve hip health while cycling

Having a doctor or physical therapist diagnose your hip pain is the first step in working towards hip health, and hopefully, pain-free cycling.

While anti-inflammatory and pain medications can help ease some symptoms early on, becoming dependent on medications will usually only treat the symptoms, not the root cause.

I’m much more inclined to help my clients get to the root of the problem and find long-lasting results. Especially because releasing your iliopsoas muscles and keeping them in a happy state while cycling doesn’t have to be difficult.

7 ways to alleviate your cycling hip pain

Here are some tips for regaining pain-free cycling sessions.

1. Use bike gears properly

Knowing how to ride your bike is one of the most basic yet influential aspects of avoiding hip pain while cycling. If you are misusing your gears, you will exert more effort and put more strain on your hips than necessary.

2. Get a bike that fits

Professionally-fitted bikes drastically improve your posture while riding. Knowing how to fit your bike is difficult, so I recommend getting a professional opinion. They will be able to take photos of you sitting on your bike and can explain what the position for optimal riding comfort, performance, and efficiency feels like.

3. Warm-up before cycling

Your leg and hip muscles have a lot to do with your cycling ability and performance. You are pedaling with them, after all.

Just as with other forms of exercise, a proper warm-up prepares your muscles for the hard work ahead. It gets the blood flow going to your joints and ensures that your muscles won’t be as susceptible to tears or twists.

You want to try low-impact exercises that engage your legs, glutes, and core muscles before you ride. Yoga can be a great warm-up option for cycling, as well as lunges or planks.

4. Stretch often

Just as warming up before a ride is important to get your muscles and joints ready, stretching is an integral part of recovery. After any exercise, stretching highly-used muscle groups helps prevent muscle soreness and tension.

However, it’s very important to not mistake tension for a sign to go deeper into your stretch. Be gentle with your iliopsoas muscles and respect the range of motion that your body has.

And remember, there is no rule that you can only stretch after a bike ride. If you experience hip flexor tightness or pain, stretch as often as you want, whether that be before workouts, during workouts, after workouts, or on your off days.

5. Try the Hip Hook

Stretching is often not enough to change the tension holding patterns that may have developed over time. For a full and lasting iliopsoas release, you really need a tool such as the Hip Hook.

The Hip Hook helps you find the exact location of the psoas and iliacus where they connect to your pelvic bone and let you use the weight of your own body to apply the right amount of pressure at the exact angle needed for a release that only a skilled professional can reproduce.

This is an essential step when it comes to relieving pain and tension in the hip flexor region. Without this tool, it’s nearly impossible to release your own iliopsoas muscles, and you may need to seek out a good manual therapist or practitioner to help you.

woman using the Hip Hook hip flexor release tool

6. Use a foam roller

With any muscle soreness, foam rollers come in handy. For large areas like your legs, foam rolling is an excellent way to add the benefits of massage to your cool down or stretching routine.

While a foam roller can’t effectively reach your hip flexors for a full release, you can focus on muscle release above your knees, and on the outside of your leg.

Although it’s tempting to roll out your IT band like everyone else, remember that the IT band is a piece of fascia that should not be rolled. It can’t be “tight,” only the muscles that attach to it can be tight. Instead, focus on the glutes and TFL muscles to fix IT band pain. Tightness in these muscles that attach to the ITB can worsen symptoms of bursitis and cause additional hip pain from cycling.

7. Balance your muscles

An imbalance of muscle strength can be a big issue. Finding time to cross-train and target areas like your hips, legs, and glutes to balance out strength is extremely important.

Exercises like planks, squats, low lunges, bridges, pelvic tilts, and many others are useful. Just be sure that if you are working one muscle area, you exercise the opposing muscle group as well. Additionally, you can get an analysis of how you use your muscles while cycling - often at the same time you are getting fit for your bike. A professional will be able to analyze a heat map of how you are applying pressure in the pedals and whether you tend to favor one leg more than the other.

They can then work with you to help you reach more of a balance.

Find the key to unresolved hip pain

If you are experiencing hip pain while cycling, it doesn't need to become a chronic issue. There are many ways to remedy hip flexor pain, from balancing your muscles to ensuring proper bike fit. But remember, the key to reducing hip flexor pain while cycling is to listen to your body’s limits.

Good form and balance tend to be compromised when you are tired.

And this is when your iliopsoas muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints become more vulnerable.

For more precise steps you can take to solve your hip pain when cycling, check out my book, Tight Hip, Twisted Core - the Key to Unresolved Pain.

Frequently asked questions on hip pain while cycling

Is cycling bad for the hip flexors?

When cycling, the hip flexors are placed into a shortened position and are constantly being used throughout the course of a bike ride. This constant and repetitive action through this reduced range of motion may increase the chance of the hip flexors becoming tighter, especially if these muscles don't adequately recover. Consider adding in some exercises to stretch and release tension in the hip flexors to reduce the likelihood of developing hip pain while cycling.

Why do I get hip pain when cycling?

Cycling places the body into a forward-leaning, seated position for extended periods of time. As you continue to put your body into this position and use the same muscles, there is an increased chance of developing imbalances that ultimately impact the alignment of your body. Over time, this can lead to the surrounding muscles tightening up and creating compression around the hips, and cause pain.

How do I stop my hips from hurting while cycling?

To help improve your hip pain while cycling, it is perhaps most important to consider how you take care of your body when you are NOT cycling. The hip flexors and quads are used consistently and may become overworked and painful over time. Helping these muscles recover by adding in exercises to stretch and release tension in these muscles can help assist with recovery. Additionally, strengthening some of the opposing muscles (like the glutes and hamstrings) can help support a healthy muscle balance and keep the hips feeling strong and healthy.