By Joseph Beckerley- Performance Strength Lab
While elite cyclists may have cardiovascular fitness that makes their cardiologist cry tears of joy, and walk around at a lower body fat percentage than most other elite athletes – underneath the minimal body fat and thriving heart are comparatively frail bones. Bike riding is often praised for being low impact – for putting minimal pressure on your joints and bones. But because cycling is so low impact, cyclists’ bones are never challenged to adapt. Bones work much like muscles. Unless they are forced to move heavy weight and become stronger, they stay as they are. Low bodyweight is also a double-edged sword – while it puts cyclists at much lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, strokes and even cancer – it also means that on a day to day basis, your bones are simply not challenged by carrying much weight.
Researchers have consistently found that cyclists are prone to having weaker bones (low bone mineral density). And low bone density is a no joke. Low bone density can mean that rather than walking away from a bike crash, you find yourself with a fracture. When low bone density progresses to osteoporosis, a brittle bone disease, it can result in serious disfigurement from spine fractures, a loss of mobility, and ultimately a loss of independence.
A study from the University of Oklahoma evaluated the bone mass of competitive club and professional male road cyclists. This study found that the majority of cyclists had lower bone density in the spine, when compared to non-cyclists. A quarter of the cyclists had bone density scores classified as osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis. Nine percent of these competitive cyclists already had osteoporosis.
Another study by the University of Colorado followed fourteen competitive male cyclists for one-year, monitoring changes in their bone density. Bone mass was found to significantly decrease throughout the season. Significant decreases were found in the lumbar spine, neck, femur and hip. Even three months into the off-season, bone mass remained below starting levels - suggesting progressive bone loss season to season.
Why are cyclists at risk for bone density health problems? Your body is continuously renovating your skeleton. Old bone tissue is absorbed and replaced with calcium that helps form new bone. Physical activity that includes impact and vibration, such as strength training, stresses the tissue and triggers the rebuilding process. Because cycling is low impact on your skeletal system it does not create this effect. The more you ride and the less your cross-train the greater risk you have of losing bone mass.
What can you do to maximize your bone strength? The School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University tracked changes in bone density over a 7-year period in competitive male cyclists, and non-athletes. Among all study participants, those who reported participating in weight training programs or impact exercise either did not lose bone density or had loss significant less bone density.
Clearly, with so many male cyclists having low bone density, combined with the high risk for fracture from falls associated with cycling, bone density warrants attention. Coaches and health professionals interacting with cyclists need to promote alternative exercise such as weight training and plyometric exercises as a complement to cycling.
Get tested. If you avoid strength training and exclusively engage in endurance sports, consider asking your doctor about getting tested.
Keep your calcium intake high. While low bone density in cyclists is not due to disproportionately low levels of calcium, keeping calcium intake high does protect your bones. We all know yogurt, milks and cheeses can help with calcium – but you can get equal amounts of calcium from dairy-free options like collards, beans, peas and salmon.
Start a Strength Training Program. Many studies have proven that resistance training is a very effective way to increase your bone strength, so lift some weights! Since bone density is most compromised in the lower spine, neck, and femur – make sure you lifting program targets these areas.
Or at a minimum do some running drills. While resistance training is best, for those who deeply hate the gym – you can get some benefit from power activities like sprinting, jumping and bounding.
For a custom strength-training program contact Performance Strength Lab today. Not only will we help ensure you have proper bone health we will also help you improve your cycling performance.
Joe is the owner of Performance Strength Lab, based out of San Diego, California where he offers his expertise in strength and conditioning, nutrition and training for endurance events. Joe holds a bachelors degree in Instructional Technology, is a certified Ironman Coach, CPT, Fitness Nutrition Specialist and Sports Performance Coach for USAW. Visit performancestrengthlab.com or contact him directly at email@example.com
School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, San Diego State University, San Diego, California, USA.
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Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Feb;41(2):290-6. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318185493e.
Bone density comparisons in male competitive road cyclists and untrained controls.
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Keywords: cycling; cycling training; cycling coach; bone health; nutrition; strength training; endurance performance; power; cycling economy; concurrent training; endurance athlete; resistance training; San Diego Ca.; Santee Ca.