When you're training for a triathlon, there are so many moving parts in your weekly routine. Managing your swimming, running and biking regimens can feel like a full time. And, while I know how difficult it is to cram in extra training sessions, I also know that a foot injury will slow down your training. In fact, if you over-do it on pre-race prep, you may end up sidelined completely.
Now, I spend a lot of time talking about running injuries on this blog. It's only natural, since running puts a lot of pressure on your feet. But you also need to realize that biking puts pressure on your feet as well. This is especially true if your feet are working overtime, on the road and on the pedals, as you prep for the next big race.
So, in recognition of all your hard work, today I'm sharing some very important safety tips. I hope they'll help you avoid a bike-related triathlon injury. And I hope that, if your training leads to foot pain of any kind, you'll press pause and come into the office right away. I promise, this is the best way to keep you on track for your training and race goals!
Bike-Related Triathlon Injuries: What you Need to Know
While the biking portion of a triathlon may seem like the least impactful portion of the race, logging miles on your bike can still do a lot of damage (if you aren't careful about your training sessions.) These are the conditions you need to watch out for:
Achilles tendinitis is an inflammation of the Achilles tendon that is quite painful. You can develop this injury because of overuse of the tendon (biking puts a lot of strain on your calves) or because your bike doesn't fit properly—a bike with a too-high seat makes you point your toes downward as you pedal, making your calf muscles contract far too much. To avoid this injury, don’t overdo the distances when you bike, and keep your seat adjusted at a comfortably low height so that your Achilles tendon gets a break between pedals and between rides. Now, I know it can be tough not to practice your long ride distances at regular pre-race intervals, but you can build up stamina in other ways, minimizing the training sessions where you actually bike the full 40K race-day distance.
Shin splints are an irritation on your lower leg that manifests with pain or swelling. Like Achilles tendinitis, bikers develop this injury because of overuse due to muscle imbalances that may make the surrounding muscles and tendons work too hard when you pedal. This injury can also be seen in bikers with collapsed arches or flat feet. To avoid shin splints, always stretch before and after a bike ride and, if flat feet are an issue, consider being fitted for orthotics if you plan on making bike riding a long-term hobby.
Otherwise known as metatarsalgia, this condition is characterized by a painful burning in the ball of your foot. The sudden, burning sensation presents while you're cycling, and may get better when you're off your bike. Now, the problem is usually caused by a combination of a long ride, hot weather and poorly fitting shoes. Because, together, these elements pinch on the nerves in your feet and cause pain that can’t be biked through.
Why is that the only solution? Basically, your hot foot pain comes from the nerves that feed your toes. Those nerves are vulnerable, because they pass through the small space between your foot bones and the ball of your foot. And that's almost exactly where your cleats put pressure on your feet. Making things worse? Those cleats are stiff and inflexible. And not so breathable, so your feet get hot and swollen inside them. Then, as your feet expand, they push against your inflexible shoes, and that makes the pressure on your nerves even worse. As a result, the longer you ride, or the hotter the weather, the worse your symptoms will get.
Once you've developed hot foot, the only way to stop this problem is to get off your bike, remove your shoes and let your feet cool down. But, before your next ride, you’ll want to take preventative measures on your next ride. And there are easy and minimally invasive measures you can take. First, you can make sure you get the perfect fit on your cleats. But, if your foot shape is unusual, or your biomechanics are off, that may not be enough to prevent hot foot. In such cases, you can add supportive insoles or custom orthotics to your cycling shoes in order to take pressure off your nerves.
Working Indoor Cycling into Your Training
While all of these tips can help protect your feet, some people may find it too painful to bike outdoors for every single training session. If that's the case, you can always try moving some of your training session onto the recumbent bicycle. It helps people with foot problems because, instead of the up-and-down movement of a standard bicycle, recumbent bikes move in an out-and-down motion, reducing the impact on your feet. A stationary bike is also a good choice. If you like the idea of a more intense workout, but want to minimize pressure on the feet, try cycling at a greater intensity but with lower resistance—this combination is better on the feet than the high-intensity, high-resistance combination.
Of course, as we indicated above, proper form will also minimize pain during indoor rides. Your feet should fit snugly in the pedals. When you are at the lowest point of rotation, your knees should be bent slightly and your toes should be level—not pointing up or flexing down.
When you're working towards competitive cycling, on its own or as part of a triathlon, biking delivers some of the highest highs you'll ever experience--as long as you take care of your feet. If you have experienced any biking or other triathlon-related foot injury, contact Houston podiatrist Dr. Andrew Schneider so you can get back to doing the activity you love.