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Knee ligament injuries can take a huge amount of time to heal. Cycling can help with the healing process if integrated at the right time and done correctly.
Cycling is a low-impact activity that is kind to the knee joint. It helps strengthen the muscles around the knee which helps to cushion the joint as the ligaments heal.
Though your medical professional or physio should definitely take the lead in recommending when you are ready to attempt cycling in your regime, there are many reasons why they are likely to do so.
In this post, I’ll look at the 14 most important reasons why cycling is ideal for those recovering from knee ligament injuries.
1. Cycling Is Non-Weight Bearing
One of the most important reasons that cycling is often suggested as an exercise for rehabilitation following a knee ligament injury is that it is non-weight-bearing.
What does this mean?
Well, a weight-bearing activity is one where the legs support the body weight of the person while they are doing it. Some examples of weight-bearing activities include running or aerobics.
On the other hand, non-weight-bearing activities (as you can probably guess) mean that the legs are not being used to support the body weight. With cycling, your body weight is supported by the saddle.
This takes a lot of stress off your legs and particularly off your knees.
It means that the knees have only one purpose – that is to pedal the bike. They are offering no force in keeping your body balanced and upright.
You can start as gently as you want to with cycling, so this means that only minimal movement and stress are taking place on the knee joint. This is a crucial reason why cycling will often be integrated into your rehabilitation program.
If you’re not sure what other activities are non-weight-bearing, then here is a simple table of popular exercises:
|Seated Resistance Training||X|
2. Cycling Is Low Impact
Another really big one is that cycling is low-impact.
What does this mean?
Well, a low-impact activity is one that is kinder to joints. High-impact activities will mean a repetitive pounding of a particular joint, with continuous jerks and jolts. An example is jogging.
This repetitive trauma over a long period can cause wear and tear.
Cycling, on the other hand, is a low-impact activity. This is especially true if you are cycling either on smooth roads or indoors on a stationary bike.
Cycling on rough terrain will cause some jolting and jarring (just as a warning), so should be attempted later in your recovery cycle.
Cycling is kind to the knee joint. It is not causing any extra strain on the cartilage, ligaments, and muscles, and has many benefits in strengthening the tissues around them.
3. Pedaling Moves To The Natural Mechanics Of The Knee
One of the beauties of cycling is how it aids the natural mechanics of the knee.
The knee is like a smooth piston, slowly bending and unbending.
Also, importantly, the knee never gets too straight or too bent. It only operates smoothly within set parameters. This really helps your knee to avoid further strain, and also to slowly help the healing process in the knee.
4. You Choose The Intensity
One of the biggest benefits of cycling and rehabilitation is that you are entirely in control of the intensity of the activity you engage in.
You can literally start as lightly as you want. You could have the resistance of an indoor bike, and pedal at barely any revolutions per minute.
This is in contrast to many other activities, where this is a minimum intensity required to even attempt the activity. An example of one of those kinds of activities would be jogging, where you have to move at a certain speed to even be running at all (and not walking).
Cycling is also very flexible. You can change the intensity throughout a session. You can also step up a bit through the gears throughout a series of sessions.
It is important to listen to your body. Be aware of any signs of overdoing things, and reign in your activity appropriately.
You are in control!
The following is a great video of a guy in the early stages of recovery from an ACL injury. It shows the first time he gets back on his bike (at about 4 minutes 45):
5. Warm Up Throughout The Activity
Of course, warming up is crucial before any vigorous activity, especially so if you have had an injury.
But an added bonus of cycling is that following your warm-up, you can continue to warm up as your body continues to cycle.
This is linked to the previous idea I stated about your choosing the intensity. Cycling works really well in helping your legs fully relax and warm up, and you can gently increase the intensity if you feel the need.
The synovial fluid in your knee will also warm up throughout the activity. This fluid lubricates your joint, and helps the motion remain fluid.
Activity helps synovial fluid increase in temperature which leads to it flowing more freely and loosening up the joint.
6. Supports The Healing Process Of The Ligaments
One of the big bonuses of cycling is that there is research that it does no further to the ligaments as they are healing while strengthening the muscles around them. (Source)
It is a regulated and structured activity that controls the stress that is exerted on the ligaments. Light exercise of the knee also aids blood flow and helps the general healing process of the ligaments.
7. Promotes Cartilage Health
Cartilage is a tough tissue that covers bones in our joints. It acts as a shock absorber. (Source)
Cycling is ‘cartilage friendly.’ The smooth motion of cycling is not abrasive, or high-impact in any way, meaning the cartilage is sustained and can fully do its job.
8. Strengthens Muscles Around The Knee
A key advantage of cycling for knee rehabilitation is that it strengthens the key muscles around the knee. These then act to cushion the knee joint and give it greater support.
There are four major muscles that are activated by cycling, which are:
- The calves
- The quadriceps
- The glutes
- The hamstrings
Three out of four of these are in close proximity to the knee and support it (only the glutes are further away).
The main two drivers of the pedaling motion are the glutes and the quadriceps.
It is in the quadriceps that most cyclists feel a ‘burn’ if they cycle for long enough or at a high enough intensity.
There has been research that suggests that the quadriceps are a key area that should be strengthened following a ligament injury such as an ACL. (Source) They even argue that it is the key muscle.
9. Builds Muscle In A Controlled Way
Cycling will help you build and tone leg muscle, but it will do it in a controlled way.
If building muscles is your primary goal (which it won’t be when you’re recovering from a leg injury), then weight resistance training is the optimum way of doing it. But lifting weights puts a far greater strain on your knee.
Cycling offers a much less impactful option, but also will strengthen some muscle fiber.
To a degree, cycling and weight resistance training work in the same way. The pedals offer a certain amount of resistance, which is regulated by which gear you put them in.
This resistance will act by causing minor tears in the muscle fibers, helping them grow back bigger and stronger.
Cycling is a low-level muscle builder, but it is one all the same. A piece of research from the American Orthopedic Society suggested that in particular cycling adds muscle fiber to the quadriceps, and is able to do so in cyclists that are recovering from knee injuries without in any way damaging those ligaments further. (Source)
10. Indoor cycling – Respond To Your Body
Often those recovering from knee injuries will try indoor cycling first. Indoor cycling offers many benefits, such as:
- The ride is completely smooth. You are not going to hit any obstacles such as holes in a road, which could cause jolts
- You can set the resistance as low as you want
- There is no need to ride up or down hills
- You can control the room temperature (or at least someone can!) You are unlikely to be using a stationary bike in sub-freezing conditions, for example.
Stationary bikes are designed to be as smooth as possible and offer multiple ways of quickly changing the physical set-up to respond to your body dimensions.
Some of the ways you can alter a stationary bike within a few seconds include:
- Change the height of the seat. You want your leg to be about 80% straight at the lowest point of the pedaling cycle.
- Change the height of the handlebars. You want to be leaning forward with your back straight, and not too upright
- Change how far forward or backward your seat is
Indoor cycling is by no means the only option, and it really is up to you. But I thought you would like to at least know the benefits.
11. Outdoor Cycling – Takes Your Mind Off Injury
On the other hand, there is a lot to be said about outdoor cycling.
One of the big things is that outdoor cycling tends to be more motivating. There are a lot more stimuli to get your brain going!
Returning after an injury is just as much a mental journey as it is a physical one. Many people are reluctant to exercise for long.
Many cyclists find outdoor cycling much more engaging and exciting a prospect than indoor cycling. There are a few issues, including:
- Having a set route is easier to complete than just cycling for a time period on a stationary bike
- You get sunlight and all its benefits
- You can see a range of scenery and conditions (depending on where you live).
There are just a few top tips that are worth knowing about, which include:
Reasonably Flat Terrain Is Better
You don’t really want to start on terrain that is in any way hilly. Going downhill is not a problem, but you want to avoid going up hills.
Going uphill will mean you are cycling against much greater resistance, and also you might need to come out of the saddle. This turns cycling into a weight-bearing activity.
Ideally, the terrain should be as flat as possible (though I understand this might be challenging in reality). You might have to really think about the best possible route you can take.
Smooth Surfaces To Start
Not rocket science this one! But paved roads or similar are the way to go. Try to avoid any excessive jolts and jerks.
Going over potholes, debris, gravel, or other obstacles puts added strain on your knee that you probably don’t need at this stage.
12. Train With Others
This is another mental aspect.
Training with others is a really motivating and positive tool. This is another way of getting your mind off your injury, and connecting with others, and getting involved in a mutual exercise.
There may be groups in your local area that offer training for similarly injured people. Or you may meet or know people that have similar knee issues.
13. Condition Your Joints And Muscles To Avoid A Repeat
One of the important things about going through an extensive rehabilitation program is to keep going with some sort of preventative exercise when it is complete.
You don’t want a repeat injury!
Cycling is generally good for knee health and strengthening the muscles around it. Though nothing can stop future injuries, this at least keeps you in positive shape and acts in some way against them.
14. Used As A Warm Up Before Leg Exercises Targeting Rehabilitation
Cycling is only going to be part of your rehabilitation program, with other activities also integrated.
I have spoken with people that have recommended cycling as a warm-up to other activities. Cycling works well for this. It increases heart rate and circulation while limbering up the lower body in particular.