If you’ve ever experienced joint pain, you know it’s no fun. Be it a dull ache or searing pain, it can really put a crimp in your day, particularly workouts. Joint pain can come from many different sources, from simply overdoing it in your exercise routine to improper movement patterns in daily life to more chronic conditions like arthritis. Many of the members of the Rally UHC Cycling squad know the discomfort of joint pain well. So, how do they ease pain caused by overtraining or acute injury — and prevent it from happening again? Here are some of their favorite remedies and tricks.
Take a Break
After a bike ride that leaves a rider like longtime Rally-UHC pro cyclist Ryan Anderson feeling pain in his lower back or knee, his first line of defense is to take a day off. “It’s usually a sign that I need to take some time off the bike and rest,” he explains. You may not need to stop working out altogether, though, notes Michael J. Ross, MD, a sports medicine physician and the author of “Maximum Performance for Cyclists.” Instead, after a day or two, he suggests adding back in some low-impact movement like walking, swimming or easy pedaling. Be sure to check with your doctor before beginning and modifying an exercise program.
Add Heat or Ice
Both heating pads and ice packs may help relieve joint pain when applied to the spot that’s hurting. Svein Tuft just ended a year as the oldest North American professional cyclist racing at the pro-continental level, and he didn’t get to this point in his career just pedaling a bike. One of his favorite feel-good remedies after a long day spent riding up and down mountains? Taking a dip in a cold ocean or the lake near his home in Andorra.
Increase your anti-inflammatory foods
When Anderson, who’s been racing in North America and Europe for years, is putting in long training hours, he makes sure that his diet is dialed in. Of course, protein, fat, and carbohydrates play a key role, but when he’s starting to feel sore, he says he also ups his anti-inflammatory food intake. That means leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and fatty fish like salmon.
“Eating healthy in general will do a lot of great things for your body, including helping to lower inflammation,” says Kelby Bethard, Rally-UHC Cycling’s team doctor. “I always advocate for as natural a diet as possible: Instead of taking fish oil, eat a fish! Eating to decrease inflammation won’t be as potent as taking an anti-inflammatory, but you also won’t have any of the negative side effects.” When you’re training at such a high level, every little bit helps, and if your diet can bring down inflammation, your joints will thank you.
Even non-athletes can benefit from anti-inflammatory food: A 2015 study showed that a whole-foods, plant-based diet rich in nutrients actually helped reduce pain and improved functioning in patients with arthritis.
Consider Over-the-Counter Anti-Inflammatories
“Taking an anti-inflammatory is great short term, but not something you want to do long term. Taking one every time you ride because you’re in pain may cause more damage to the joint, and could be hurting your internal organs as well,” says Ross. He adds that you should seek medical help if you’ve been taking an NSAID for several days in a row for joint pain, because if it’s becoming a daily need, a doctor should assess if there’s a specific injury that could be treated or a different medication you should try. (NSAIDs are intended for short term use and can cause GI distress and other medical issues including dizziness or even heart problems, so it’s important to use them as directed and not overuse them for extended periods, or during exercise.)
Look for the root cause
On the bike, Murphy says that when he feels the same pain for more than a couple of days, he starts to investigate the cause, often relying on a physical therapist to help him find the exact problem spot. “I want to know if it’s something I can fix with a change in my bike fit or by using another muscle group more effectively,” he says. If you’re having the same joint pain every time you lift a certain weight, strike a certain pose in yoga or hit an uphill on a run, Ross adds that it might be time to take a step back and assess what’s wrong — a doctor can help rule out a medical cause like arthritis, and can suggest a next step, like working with a physical therapist. Often it’s a mechanical issue, and tweaking your bike fit or how you’re performing certain strength-training exercises can make a big difference.
The key to dealing with joint pain is actually in avoiding joint pain, says racer Kyle Murphy, who finishes most of his training rides with an excessively steep hill to his home in Vermont. Most big training blocks and race seasons leave him feeling sore, but he says spending a few minutes stretching every day avoids pain in most of his “hot spots” — primarily the muscles around his knees, where he’s had the most problems over the years.
The kneecap is a common pain point for cyclists, says Ross. But like most joint pain caused by riding, it’s rarely the kneecap itself that’s to blame. “You need to look further up the chain — tightness in the low back, hips or hamstrings can all lead to knee pain,” he says. “Because of this, after rides while the muscles are still warm, Murphy can be found using a foam roller or doing some simple stretches to help keep those muscles and joints limber.
Add multidimensional movement
Tuft might be a pro cyclist but he’s a big fan of adding in other movements throughout his day: That might mean a few minutes of yoga, running, strength-training or hiking before or after training sessions. “I think it’s so important to get outside and get moving, not just obsessing about the bike,” he says — and he’s avoided a lot of injuries with that philosophy. Cross-training has proved to prevent overuse injuries and give worn-out muscles a break by switching things up. Whether you’re a cyclist, a runner, a swimmer or have any one-sport focus, make sure you alternate your movement patterns with other low-impact sports occasionally.
Know your warning signs
“A lot of times, people will feel pain at the beginning of a ride or run, but they’ll push through it and it will go away,” says Ross. “But at the end of the session, the pain flares right back up. If it persists beyond a day, it’s time to seek professional help.” It’s tempting to ignore pain if it seems to fade in and out, but if it keeps happening, there’s likely something mechanical that you can address to alleviate it. He adds that help may come in the form of a bike fit, a visit to the physical therapist, or an appointment with your doctor. He recommends starting with your doctor to rule out any medical problems before considering something mechanical like bike fit or working on your running form.
Enlist pro help
Joint pain can be caused by a whole host of things, from chronic inflammation to arthritis to a bad bike fit. So before you hang your bike in the garage and give up on riding or stop any other sport that you love, check in with a medical professional — most chronic conditions, including arthritis, can actually be improved by regular exercise. “There might be certain sports that you can’t do, like marathon running, as you get older and are dealing with arthritis,” says Rally UHC Cycling’s team doctor Kelby Bethards. “But there will be exercises that you can do that will make sense for you — talk to a doctor and a physical therapist to come up with a plan that keeps you active, because the benefits of exercise are worth it.”
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