Cycling and Walking - A Hip Comparison
by Sherri Leigh Iwaschuk
Kinesis Myofascial Integration
Many recreational and professional athletes cross train during their “off season”. Often a cyclist will hike or run in the “off season” and a runner will cycle to give their legs a break. Hip function is different when walking compared to riding. In general, unless the cyclist is climbing with their pelvis out of the saddle or descending on a mountain bike, the hip musculature does not have to respond to stabilize the structure while riding a bike the way it does when upright, walking. The saddle already stabilizes the pelvis. The spine is vertical when walking and more horizontal while riding. The following is a comparison of hip function while walking and riding.
A description of how the body moves while walking or running is called ‘gait’. During a functional gait cycle, one hip provides support (stance phase) while the other prepares and advances forward (swing phase). Rotations, shifts and tilts take place in the boney pelvis. At the end of swing phase, the supporting hip’s heel rises and the forward hip’s foot makes contact.
If your right foot took a step forward and the left ball of the foot still remained in contact, your right limb would be at the beginning of stance phase. The right hip would be bearing most of the weight in a closed kinetic chain. Because the center of gravity is medial to the hip joint, the myofascial units that oppose adduction must fire to keep the torso upright over the right, weight bearing, hip. The muscles involved are gluteus minimus, gluteus medius and tensor fascia lata, all of which are considered hip abductors. The myofascial units that oppose hip flexion, gluteus maximus and in this instance, adductor magnus, will fire to keep the torso from ‘jack-knifing’… collapsing forward. These muscles act as hip extensors.
The left hip, the one left behind in this instance, will have little or no weight bearing function. Its extension will be kept in check by the myofascial units that are considered hip flexors: illiopsoas, rectus femorus, sartorius and tensor fascia lata. Additionally, the hip joint capsule and its invested ligaments (illiofemoral, pubofemoral and ischiofemoral ligaments) have an orientation that prevents excessive extension, abduction and external rotation.
The integrity of all of these soft tissues is important. The hip joint is a ball and socket joint. The ball, or femoral head, and socket, or acetabulum and accompanying labrum, are a tight fit that is enhanced by as much as 25kg of atmospheric pressure. While standing and walking, though, there is a relatively small contact area between the acetabulum and femoral head. This is due to the anterior orientation of the femoral neck and the acetabulum. The joint surfaces are brought in full contact when the hip is 90 degrees of flexion with a slight abduction and internal rotation, the position taken while riding a bike.
In general, the hip joints do not bear weight while cycling on a road bike. Musculature between the shoulder and hip joints (the abdominals, quadratus lumborum and latissimus dorsi) are active in a stabilizing role. With the addition of cleats to the sport, the emphasis of the pedal stroke while spinning is forward and backward (flexion and extension) rather than up and down. A good cadence produces little or no changes in the sound of the tires on the pavement. The rider pulls across the bottom stroke using hamstrings and the extensor/adductors, and pushes across the top stroke using the quadriceps group. Some riders may use psoas, pectineus and hamstrings in an attempt to create an upstroke. This can result in destabilization of the pelvis providing an ineffective base for generating power. While the cyclist is out of the saddle, pedaling or not, some hip stabilization will occur. Because the burden of the body’s weight is shared by the upper limbs and the spine is horizontal, the hip stabilizers will not have to fire as strongly as when walking. There will be less of a gravitational pull on the laterally positioned hip joint.
Cycling is usually a closed chained activity. The cyclist’s feet are on pedals and hands are on the handlebars. Whether or not the pelvis is on the saddle is dependant on the style of riding and the effort of the rider. A road rider will pedal standing up while ascending or sprinting. A mountain biker will stand in neutral position (with her lead foot at 3 o’clock and the other at 9) while descending and possibly cornering. Free riders break all the rules. A “superman” has the rider soaring through the air attached to her bike only by her hands or a “nothing”, a term used to describe the only open chained trick I can think of, where the rider is soaring above the bike unattached.
Weight bearing activity is said to maintain or increase bone density. It’s interesting to note that a study published in the August 2003 addition of Osteoporosis International, cycling did not produce enough of a weight bearing activity to prevent bone density loss. Recreational male riders had 10% less hip density than your average “couch potato”. In fact a significant percentage of professional cyclists also show a lower than average bone density. A Tour de France rider can lose up to 14% of his hip density during the three-week race. Certainly, the extreme nature of the Tour would no doubt affect the rider’s nutrition, therefore effecting bone density. Mountain bikers seem to lose less bone density; maybe due to terrain differences that produce more impact and the amount of high torque, out of saddle riding that takes place.
During walking and cycling the differences in joint action at the hip vary greatly. Due to the lateral location of the hip, walking is a weight bearing movement that requires stabilization. Cycling does not require the same hip stabilization. The cyclist’s pelvis is usually in contact with the saddle and the upper limbs support the upper body’s weight. With this in mind, a cyclist might do well to hike in the “off season”. The weight bearing activity might help save bone density in the hip region.
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