Considering how much work your legs do on the bike, most of us don’t spare much brain space or time for our arms, hands, and wrists. They’re just propping you up, right?
Well, yea, but that actually requires a fair amount of work. And when your wrists are bearing the brunt of hours and miles in the saddle, the wrong position or the wrong bike fit can be downright uncomfortable—and even cause nerve damage if you keep ignoring it.
Just as posture is important, wrist position matters while riding. People tend to assume their wrists should be straight, like in a karate chop. “That’s actually a compressive position for the wrists,” explains physical therapist and bike fit specialist Kevin Schmidt, owner of Pedal PT in Portland, OR. It puts extra pressure on the nerves and tendons in the carpal tunnel. “You actually want 15 to 20 degrees of backbend in the wrist, which will open up that carpal tunnel,” he adds. If you go far enough back that you can see a crease in your skin, that’s too far and will end up compressing the carpal tunnel again.
It’s not just how you hold your wrist, though. One of the most common culprits is an out-of-sync weight distribution. “If your position on the bike shifts your weight distribution to be more prominently on the wrists and hands than the saddle, that’s likely to cause a problem,” says Jason Williams, a human performance sports scientist and bike fit specialist with Retül in Boulder, CO.
One of the biggest culprits behind messed-up weight distribution? Your saddle. “If the saddle is too high or the nose is pointed too far down, that ends up dumping a ton of weight into your hands,” says Schmidt. Obviously, the exact measurements are going to depend on your body and what saddle you’re using, but, in general, if your saddle is angled down by more than 5 or 6 degrees, it may lead to wrist pain, says Williams.
Reaching too far for the handlebars will also put excess pressure on your wrists. “Typically, if you’re looking at the shoulder compared to the trunk, you want a 90-degree angle at the shoulder itself,” says Schmidt. Beyond that, you’re going to end up locking out your elbow and put a lot of backward bending in the wrist, he adds.
Speaking of handlebars, “if your hand placement or hoods are significantly wider than your shoulders, you tend to roll the wrist outward,” says Williams, so you’re putting the weight of your hands on the meaty part of your palm. “That’s right where the ulnar nerve passes through,” explains Schmidt, “so that would give you a tingling and numbness in your pinky and ring finger.” And if you have to roll your hands significantly forward to grip the brakes and shifters, that can cause pain, too, he adds.
While you can rotate the brake levers a bit, there’s not much room to adjust when it comes to the handlebars. “Some of this can be remedied with a little bit of change to your technique and posture, but you may just need a new handlebar if yours aren’t promoting that natural alignment and are causing pain,” says Williams.
Even things like terrain—rough roads and rocky gravel—can put extra stress on your wrists with all the chatter and bumping up and down. In those conditions, you want to avoid tire pressure that’s too high, says Schmidt. “Running tubeless tires at 20 pounds or 15 pounds can create more shock absorption,” he says. Other solutions, like carbon fiber handlebars that better absorb that high-frequency vibration or even gel bar wraps can help soften the bounce a bit, adds Williams.
One of the best ways to avoid all of this is getting your bike fit to your body right at the outset. “For some riders, it really makes sense to just go into a fitter that they trust and get their fit figured out, lock in their position, and then go shopping based on that fit,” says Williams. “Other riders prefer to find a bike that they like and buy it, then get it fit retroactively.” Getting your bike properly fit allows you to ride as long and far as you want without any pain points—even ones that seem as minor as wrist pain.
If you’re already on a bike and dealing with wrist pain, start paying attention to the circumstances. “If symptoms occur super quick, a larger modification—like fixing the saddle position—probably needs to be made. If your wrist starts hurting five hours in, that may just be about correcting your hand position,” says Schmidt.
And while cyclists, like many athletes, can be somewhat masochistic when it comes to pain during workouts, you don’t want to push through any sharp, localized pain. “Muscle soreness and fatigue and the strain of putting in a hard effort is all very appropriate, but pain is not part of the puzzle,” says Williams. “Localized or asymmetric joint pain is a real strong indicator that your position is off or your parts are off, and you should see a professional to sort that out, because it can cause some real trouble long-term.”
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