Whether you stick to a stationary bike or ride outdoors, cycling is one of those activities that seems pretty straightforward (hence, "it's like riding a bike"). But picking up a few bad habits is easier than you'd think, and poor technique can cramp your cycling style, damage your body, and even mess with your bike.
Sitting there wondering if you're guilty of getting lazy in the saddle? We tapped a few expert cyclists to help you leave nine harmful habits behind and become a better biker.
1. Not wearing a helmet when cycling outdoors.
I mean, come on, people! The biggest, most obvious cycling no-no is to skip out on wearing a helmet. Even wearing one that isn't a proper fit can be harmful—a comfortably snug helmet is an absolute must, as a loose fit won't protect you in the event of an accident.
Even if local laws don't require you to wear a helmet, do it anyway. Nix the annoying excuses you make: No distance is too short, temperature too hot, or hairstyle too perfect to justify not protecting your brain. Promise me you won't ever get on a bike without a helmet again, OK?
2. Neglecting your gear.
Sarah Hoots, a domestic elite cyclist for Unknown Cycling in Charlotte, NC, says that serious cyclists logging serious miles should buy a new bike every 2-3 years. Or, instead of getting an entirely new whip, she says you can invest in a great carbon frame and swap out components when needed. "A new chain is as valuable as a new bike so be sure to get a new one every 2,000 miles," Hoots says.
Hoots also suggests keeping a regular maintenance appointment scheduled with your local bike shop to prevent long-term issues. "If you ride more than once a week, this could be once every three months. Less frequent cyclists should aim for twice a year. But always check your tire pressure and inspect tires visually to look for any small tears or leakage," Hoots says.
3. Riding a bike that's the wrong size.
Unless you're riding a BMX bike that's intentionally small, you should speak with an expert to get properly fit for a bike before making a purchase. Paul Levine, CEO of Signature Cycles in Greenwich, CT, says that a proper fit plays a huge role in injury prevention and overall comfort on the bike.
"A lot of companies measure their bikes to slightly different points," Levine says. "Even within the same manufacturer you may ride a 56cm frame in one model and a 54cm in another, simply because of the design of the bike. So many riders end up on the wrong equipment if they're not working with experienced shop staff or a fitter to determine the bike size."
Levine also notes that getting properly fit in a shop improves your overall riding experience, no matter how seasoned a cyclist you are. "For more seasoned riders, a fitting can increase performance and accommodate life changes, or help us reach goals," he says. "Our bodies change a lot over time, we lose weight (or gain it), have injuries (or kids), and we evolve as cyclists when the miles accumulate. Our positions on our bikes need to reflect this."
4. Skipping meals before or after a ride.
You've got to fuel before riding, but there's no one-size-fits-all meal plan for cyclists. Erin Nelson, an instructor at Swerve Fitness in New York City, says that eating before exercise depends entirely on the person, especially for morning classes. "If you're going to eat something, make sure it's at least 30-45 minutes before class. I love RxBars and always have them on me."
After a ride, it's essential to refuel as cycling burns lots of calories. Nelson recommends having a nutritious smoothie to replenish until you can have a meal with lean protein and lots of greens.
And don't forget to drink plenty of water before, during, and after a ride. "The actual amount during a workout varies from person to person, but you should aim for around 36 ounces of water in the hours before and after exercise," Nelson says.
5. Barely warming up or cooling down.
Even if you hate it, stretch before and after a ride. According to Nelson, stretching is the best way to prevent injury and is also imperative for recovery and maintaining your range of motion.
Nelson recommends a runner's lunge as it helps elongate the hip flexors that typically get very tight during cycling. And massages are always a great idea for tending to sore muscles—this is your permission slip to book that spa day you've been dreaming about.
Most indoor cycling spots will allow riders to enter the studio at least five minutes before class, so Nelson suggests hopping on your bike early to get warm. "This is a great way to let your body loosen up and get the muscles ready for action," she says.
6. Skipping out on anti-chafe cream.
Discomfort from chafing during an epic ride is such a buzzkill. But good news: This agonizing pain is entirely preventable. Hoots knows from experience that chafing occurs after hours of friction in the groin region while cycling. She suggests applying a generous amount of Chamois Butt'r on any areas with creases in the skin that may be touched by the lining of your shorts' padding.
7. Lousy form.
Cycling is a relatively low-impact on your joints, but only if you have the correct alignment. All too often, novice bike riders jot their knees outward rather than tucking them in or ride with their seat height far too low.
Splayed knees are going to cause you serious pain down the road (and make you look like a clown riding a tricycle). Keep your knees slightly inward and your elbows in tight. "When in the saddle, the body position should all be within the frame of the bike, and the core muscles should be engaged to support the back," Nelson says.
To measure the correct seat height, start by aligning the seat with the top of your hip. Then sit on the saddle and adjust the height until you have just a 30-degree angle in your knee while extending your leg. Having the seat too high, which strains the tendons and ligaments in the hips and knees, and riding too low puts all of the engagement in your quads and patellar tendons.
And if you're on a stationary bike, Hoots has an easy-to-follow rule of thumb for checking your form: "There should be a straight line from the center of the pedal to the tip of your knee cap. Anything slightly over or behind will cause knee pain," she says.
8. Not being aware of your surroundings.
Wearing headphones is just plain dumb when it comes to outdoor cycling. You won't be alert, you'll have trouble hearing car horns and emergency sirens, and you definitely won't hear other cyclists approaching. Even in the countryside you need all of your senses to be fully aware of your surroundings and prevent accidents.
It's illegal in most places to use your phone while operating a vehicle, and bikes are no exception. Don't text and ride. If you need to send a message, snap a picture, or check directions, stop off on the side of the road. Keep your phone out of sight to prevent the temptation of checking in.
9. Play by the rules.
Cyclists tend to hate drivers, but drivers also tend to hate cyclists. You must adhere to road rules. Don't roll through stop signs haphazardly, ignore red lights, or weave through traffic—you can't predict when someone else may open a car door or run a red light.
And if there isn't a bike path on the street, command space in your lane. Never ride in pedestrian areas or on the sidewalk as you'll be moving at a faster speed than people walking. Don't hug the curb and risk getting pushed off of the road. "Cars should give cyclists three feet of space when passing, although not every driver is respectful of this rule," Hoots says.