Can Cyclists Experience both Comfort and Performance?

by | Feb 17, 2024

Cycling is a diverse sport influenced by traditions, legends, rules, experiences, expectations, norms, opinions, and advice that can at times be contradictory, confusing, right, wrong, or somewhere in between.  No wonder it can be a bit intimidating and overwhelming for newcomers to the sport, and even for those with more miles under their legs.  One of those confusing concepts is the term “comfort”.  Should a cyclist aim to be comfortable on a bike, and if so, is that at odds with performing well on the bike?

I once had a bike fit client tell me her coach recommended me because I fit for “comfort”, but that the coach sent “racer” clients to another bike fitter because he focused on “performance”.  This was informative on a number of levels, one of which was that the coach didn’t really understand my approach to bike fitting.  I’ve also had clients come to me after seeing the “performance” fitter because they were underperforming – due to being uncomfortable in their high performance position.

Comfort and performance are tightly intertwined in cycling.  Some cyclists (and fitters) may want to bias toward one or the other, but the reality is that high performance is not achieved at the expense of comfort, it is achieved on a foundation of comfort.

So yes, it is a realistic expectation to be comfortable while riding a bike, but what does this mean? Comfort, from the cycling perspective, is not analogous to being in a state of relaxation.  There is no soft sofa to recline on, nor the accompaniment of mindless entertainment with a beverage of choice in hand. To cycle is to perform a physical and athletic activity. Being comfortable while cycling is to be free of any significant discomforts related to equipment choices, riding position, and biomechanical function.  This is separate from any discomforts resulting from environmental variables, terrain choice, and exertion levels. Being hot and sweaty, with labored breathing and fading muscles may not be comfortable either, but it is not the sort of discomfort we are talking about.

Let’s dig into the 3 broad categories of comfort mentioned above:

Contact Point Cycling Comfort

Triathlete with the 3 main contact points (feet, butt hands) circled in red: how to achieve cycling comfort

There are 3 areas of contact point comfort: the feet, butt, and hands, with 5 actual contact points (for most people): 2 feet, 1 rear end and 2 hands.  Aches, pains, sores, loss of sensation, and loss of control and function can occur if there is a mismatch between your body and the bike equipment that you are in contact with.

Feet: Foot numbness, aches, or “hot foot” can result from the following:

Butt: Unhappiness on the saddle causing genital numbness, swelling, saddle sores, chafing or other discomforts can be due to saddle position (height, setback, angle), saddle choice, clothing choice, handlebar position, pelvic posture, leg length difference, foot instability, etc.

Hands: Hand discomfort may be experienced as tingling, aches, or loss of sensation that may be due to handlebar position, handlebar size and diameter, glove choice, tire pressure and suspension settings, saddle position, postural awareness, and weight distribution.

None of these discomforts are required and intrinsic to the experience of riding a bike.  They are optional!

Positional Cycling Comfort

Does the relationship between the limbs and spine and the bike, which is your body position, result in a sore lower back, neck, shoulders, elbows, or other parts that aren’t seemingly actively involved in propelling the bike?  Lack of positional comfort can curtail a cyclist’s ride duration and enthusiasm, as well as function and performance.

Again, having achy or numb areas even under short duration or low intensity riding is not required to be a cyclist.

Functional Cycling Comfort

Outdoor Cyclists with calf discomfort on a mountain overlooking the ocean

Do the body parts that move the bike cause any aches or pains during or AFTER the ride?  With this it is important to distinguish between issues resulting from over-exertion, doing too much too soon, or over-training, from basic cycling function, and there may be overlap.  Likely candidates for complaint are connective tissue (Achilles tendon, quad, and hamstring tendons) knee and hip joints, and prime mover muscles.

Any issues of discomfort in these 3 categories should be manageable and preventable. If you are not experiencing any discomfort in these categories, then by definition you are comfortable on the bike, and that is the basis for improved performance.

Cycling Performance

3 Cyclists Riding on the dirt in a gravel race: cycling comfort

Performance on a bike may be defined in different ways and may be subjective or data-driven.  Performance measures may include elements of riding further and/or faster, as measured by FTP, w/ kg, peak power for a set duration, sustainable power, speed, VAM, Strava KOM’s or personal records, or simply by the fun factor or perceived rate of exertion.

Now think about how any of the above discomforts would influence your performance on the bike.  If your feet are numb or hurting, can you really push the pedals with as much power as possible?  Likewise if your knee or hip are speaking up, do you feel like you can give your best?  If your back is sore after 60 miles, do you really want to keep going hard for 100?  If you are a triathlete and you cannot stay down in aero position without a sore neck and have to keep sitting up, how fast are you really going compared to how fast you could be going?

Any and each discomfort detracts from your performance capacity.  It is not possible to perform at your best if there are neurological feedback mechanisms signaling discomfort.  If you are consciously aware of discomfort, then your body is throttling down performance to prioritize other matters.  That can be overridden consciously for a short time period.  For example, if a large barking dog emerges from a driveway and launches itself toward you, any distractions about sore feet or a lower back will get shunted aside to prioritize escape and survival.  Your performance will increase remarkably for a short duration, but you cannot ride effectively in fight, flight, or freeze mode on every outing.  It is neither desirable, wise, sustainable, or necessary.

The Wrap

In the historical European tradition of cycling, the ability to suffer was deemed to be an essential characteristic of a true cyclist.  To be able to suffer was to have the mental fortitude to physically endure any number of challenges encountered during a ride. These could include adverse weather conditions, relentless uphills, poor road conditions, mechanical failures, chasing dogs, dung, farm machinery, distracted drivers, navigational errors, and inadequate nutrition and hydration.  Experiencing many of these in one outing would surely make for an epic ride with a healthy dose of suffering.  Add in saddle sores, numb genitals, a kinked neck, and achy feet and the suffering could be taken to new heights.  Some of these are inescapable, some are manageable and some are preventable.

Many of these challenges continue to exist, along with new ones.  Sometimes these add to the cycling experience, and sometimes they take away from it, leading some cyclists to shift their focus from outdoor road riding to indoor trainer riding or gravel riding.  However the physical act of sitting (mostly) on a bike and revolving the pedals remains, and with that so does the opportunity for suffering.  However, self-imposed and situational suffering and discomfort for the reasons discussed are not the same thing.  Performing well on a bike, by whatever measure, is dependent on many factors, including the absence of discomfort.

John Higgins

John Higgins

John is an elite level bike fitter who works with non-elite cyclists - although a few have won races! Many don't race at all, but ride for fun, fitness, or to compete against themselves. John has worked with 18-80 year olds (and younger and older), novices, age groupers, masters racers and all levels of weekend warrior. These include road riders, mountain bikers, triathletes, tandem riders, tourers, commuters, bike packers and gravel riders and racers. All share a love of cycling and just wanted to ride more comfortably, and in many cases faster. John is the owner of Fit Kit Systems, and provides bike fitting services through BikeFitr (bikefitr.com)

1 Comment

  1. Jim Cunningham

    Great stuff as always John! Keep it comin.

    Reply

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