Posted on 19 July 2022
Is road biking bad for bones?
Road cycling can be bad for your bones, but by changing your training, eating the right foods, and getting essential supplements, you’ll be stronger than the cannibal (maybe).
Cycling on the road is bad for your bones, scientists have found. New research published in the Hebrew-language journal Harefuah of the Israel Medical Association found that the lack of impact reduced bone density.
“The phenomenon is seen at all ages, adolescents and adults and men and women,” says co-author of the study Dr Ianiv. The researchers found that cyclists experienced lower bone density in the spine and femoral bones.
The research highlights a problem scientists have known for a long time: long days in the saddle can affect the strength of your bones.
The good news is that you can help build stronger bones by varying your training, eating a healthy diet, and getting the supplements you need.
Why is cycling bad for bones?
Scientists have been concerned about the impact of road cycling on bone density for years. It’s because road cycling isn’t weight-bearing, scientists say. Elite-level cyclists spending hundreds of hours in the saddle every year are at the highest risk.
“Adult road cyclists participating in regular training have a low bone mineral density in key regions,” scientists concluded in a 2012 evidence review.
Specifically, cyclists are likely to experience lower bone density in the lower spine, hips and femoral neck. Again, elite cyclists and experienced road riders were most at risk, which suggests the longer and harder you train, the more significant the impact on your bones.
The findings, published in BMC Medicine, reviewed 31 studies and found that road bikers were more likely to experience bone density loss than those of the same age.
Elite cyclists and experienced road riders were most at risk, which suggests the longer and harder you train, the greater the impact on your bones.
Sprinters, roleurs, triathletes and mountain bikers all had healthier bones. Why? Because their bones are put under high forces when they’re riding. Mountain bikers, in particular, vary between out-of-the-saddle exertions, technical sections, jumps and more which varies the impact on the body.
Women have lower bone density than men and are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis during their lifetime. While few studies have been performed on women, researchers suggest that “pre-participation examinations (that is, DXA scans) should be conducted in adult female cyclists training at a high level.”
The problem is worse as we age, scientists say. The review reports that “master cyclists classified as osteoporotic compared to age-matched and weight-matched non-athletes.”
What causes low BMD in road cyclists?
Scientists have suggested several reasons why BMD is lower in cyclists, but there is some consensus on the cause. “The lack of impact might be one of the main reasons for the low bone mass acquisition in this population,” say scientists.
As you’d expect, professional bike racers are at the highest risk. This is partly due to the time they spend training and the sedentary existence they lead off the bike. In addition, recovery from racing is mainly spent sitting around, which isn’t great for bone health.
Elite riders are also smaller, with a lower BMI than the average person. Lower body mass is a well-known risk factor for osteoporosis and osteopenia.
Anyone who’s watched the racing this year (or followed Geraint Thomas’s career) will know that crashes are a part of life in the peloton.
How road cyclists can improve bone health
So, what can road riders do to improve their bone health? Here are some ideas.
Introduce resistance exercises
Academics have established that resistance exercise is an excellent way for anyone of any age to improve bone health. This is because resistance exercise increases mechanical loading.
Put simply, putting your bones under strain helps tissue to regenerate. “Bone formation is increased in regions of high strain,” scientists have found.
To counteract the adverse effects of lengthy road sessions, cyclists should include other exercise forms in their training regimes – mountain biking or even running.
Mountain bikers and those who regularly cycle off-road are less likely to experience bone density issues, researchers found. Why? Because off-road riding introduces ‘good vibrations’ that can stimulate bone tissue to reform.
Vary your training
Elite road riders will spend most of their time clocking up hundreds and sometimes thousands of road miles. It helps them generate the body they want (low BMI), but as the evidence has shown, it can lead to bone density losses.
“A bone needs to experience a tenth of the amount of force needed to break it to be stimulated enough to create increased bone density,” says Tracy Christenson.
Riders should introduce variations in their training programmes, including sprints and intervals, to increase forces on the bones.
While the prevailing logic is that you should ride as often as possible, that may not be the best thing for your bones. “Impact sports in which loading is applied unevenly and at a high rate also provide more stimulus for bone growth,” says Christenson.
You can read more expert advice in Christenson’s article here.
Add exercises off the bike
Researchers have found that walking, running and jumping are great ways to improve bone density. Scientists concluded in this study that swimming and cycling had benefits for heart health but did little to strengthen bones, scientists established in this study.
Cyclists can easily introduce walking and running into their exercise plans, using them as “active recovery” sessions off the bike.
Weight-bearing exercises, such as running and walking, can be performed at a relatively low intensity, say researchers, but you need to generate some strain if you want to build stronger bones.
“For the weight-bearing exercises to be effective, they must reach the mechanical intensity useful to determine an important ground reaction force,” academics say. They also cautiously suggest that whole-body vibration devices could benefit, although they don’t wholeheartedly promote using them.
As well as incorporating resistance exercises into your training regime, you should also ensure you get a diet rich in vitamins and minerals.
Every cyclist needs essential vitamins: vitamin D, vitamin, and calcium. These are the basis of building stronger bones, says the NHS.
While for most of us, the benefits of recreational cycling outweigh the risks to our body and bones, we should do everything we can to improve our bone health.
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