Cycling for fun or training, play it safe and smart

Eric Hoeper, MD
Eric Hoeper, MD

With the dog days of summer upon us, have you wanted to take out your bike and go for a cruise along the lakefront? Or are you gearing up for the bike leg of the Aug. 24 Chicago Triathlon? Whether you are an experienced cyclist or a newbie wanting to take a leisurely ride, following certain safety precautions and listening to your body are critical to avoiding injury.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 1.3 million people were treated last year for bicycle-related injuries. So before you take that bike for a spin, consider these safety tips.

• ALWAYS wear a helmet. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, cycling accidents played a role in about 20 percent of all sports-related head injuries treated in emergency rooms in 2009 – more than football and baseball combined. It was also the leading cause of sports-related head injuries in children under age 14. You might think that you’re not riding on rough terrain, but even roads that appear to be safe can be potentially dangerous. Collisions with motor vehicles frequently result in serious head injuries.

• Warm up before you ride. Don’t get on your bike and shoot for top speed right away. Start with a relatively light pace, gradually increasing your speed over a 10-minute warmup. Stretching is actually more important after you ride. Concentrate on your quads, hamstrings, calves and lower back.

• Stay focused while you cycle. This means no talking on the phone or texting while you ride. Just like driving a car, these distractions can lead to very serious accidents. Be aware of your surroundings, and take into consideration the road conditions. NEVER operate a bike while under the influence.

• Make sure your equipment is right for YOU. You might see a cool looking bike that seems absolutely perfect, but you first need to make sure it fits all your needs. Consider the type of cycling you are doing – competitive or leisure – and check the bike’s mechanical and protective components (brakes, tires, gears, reflectors, horn, lights, etc.) to see if they’re in good condition. Picking a bike that is the right size for you is essential to maintaining control while riding, allowing others to see you, and will reduce overuse injuries in the long run.

• Stay at a safe speed and follow the rules of the road. When cycling on roads with cars and other obstacles, don’t try to zoom as fast as you can and don’t weave just to keep up your pace. Cycling can be intense, so pace yourself to avoid accidents and injuries. Make sure you use the appropriate arm signals to let motorists know your next move.

• Mix up the way you ride. Changing positions every once in a while can be beneficial for your body. If you feel yourself getting sore, try standing up and pedaling for a while. This will reduce the pressure and stress on your muscles.

• Wear the proper attire. As those of you training for the triathlon know, the clothes you wear really make a difference. Padded gloves, padded cycling shorts and appropriate footwear are a must. Loose clothing and sandals are discouraged.

Cycling is a great way to exercise and an ideal recreational activity for family and friends. It can also be a vigorous workout for those that compete in races and triathlons. Following these guidelines will ensure you have a safe and enjoyable time while you cycle.

Dr. Eric Hoeper is a primary care sports medicine physician with NorthShore Orthopaedic Institute.

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