dodgy knees - gotta get some strength back


Well-Known Member
Sep 16, 2003
Hi all,

In an effort to improve things with my dodgy knees I've worked rather dilligently on improving my spinning. I got shorter cranks, tweaked the gearing and every ride is a worship at the altar of cadence.
So far it's beena mixed success I suppose. The knees are definitely happier, but I'm beginning to lose a large chunk of speed. Basically I've added 7-10 minutes to what used to be an one-hour ride. And I can't blame it all on the bike.
My hunch is that I've lost too much strength, as I find myself downshifting sooner and sooner, and I just can't get the cadence up high enough to counter the downshifts.

Would any of you guys have some knee-friendly suggestions on how to work on strenght again? Do I simply start honking up the shorter hills again? Use the start out of intersections as opportunities for interval training?
Or do I hit the gym and start doing lunges or leg extensions in the machine?

Any hints appreciated.
Perhaps start doing high-cadence intervals in bigger gears? Then take it easy and spin, repeat, etc.
I have bad knees (hit by a car). I still do low cadence work. The knees are getting better. I am getting faster.
Originally Posted by dabac .

... My hunch is that I've lost too much strength, ...Any hints appreciated.
Can you still walk up a flight of stairs?

It's very unlikely that you've become strength limited in terms of your cycling. The forces of pedaling, even grinding away at high power at lower cadences are fractions of your body weight which you presumably have no problems lifting time and again while walking. Weight lifting is unlikely to help with your knee issues and grinding low gears in and of itself is unlikely the cause of your troubles.

I'd focus on positioning issues, particularly cleat and saddle positioning and yes I'd avoid slamming huge gears all the time but that doesn't mean you have to spin like a hummingbird either. Work on finding mid range cadences that feel powerful but not painful to your knees and do your 'knee conditioning' work on the bike. Get in enough pain free miles and you should find you can start pushing bigger gears on occasion without troubles. Don't rush right back to old habits, but you shouldn't be doomed to spinning light gears for the rest of your cycling career either if you approach this as an on bike rehab project.

Good luck,
I would have to agree with Dave here. The knee really can not be strengthened as it is a joint. You can add some more muscle to the surrounding muscle but it will not make the difference. All the difference will come in your position on the bike. You have to experiment with moving the knees more over the pedals or further back. Just change one thing and test. It is what I am doing now for my back issues.

Pretty much all knee issues come from either trying to do too much too soon and/or doing "something" badly. That "something" may be bad cleat positioning, bad seat placement, a need for shims and/or different crank length to compensate for leg length discrepancies or other bio mechanical woes that you may have.

The human body is wonderfully adaptive. It's when you ask it to do something it's not accustomed to and do it at a high intensity that problems often occur. Sometimes you've done a little too much, not recovered enough following each session and over time you end up with a small 'ache' that becomes a significant problem.

If you're used to low cadence gear grinding and you attribute that to your knee woes then expect more, but maybe different, knee problems if you suddenly try to up the cadence by 20rpm but working at the similar power output.

As for the OP's issue and loss of speed. As Dave pointed out - go ride and maybe back off the intensity until you're riding pain free. When you reach that point, unless there's something obviously wrong with your position, then start honking out the saddle up the hills again but proceed with some caution if you don't know what caused the original problem. Instead of mashing a big gear out of the saddle all the way up, save the out of the saddle efforts for those select sections where the gradients are steeper and work from there... Keep the efforts a little less intense for a couple of weeks and progress (adapt) back towards your normal riding/training. As for the speed - if you suddenly make a change that's significant it's not uncommon to notice a drop in performance. If you're not used to spinning at 95+ rpm then you'll more than likely lose power and hence speed. You might also alter your upper body positioning as you're not used to pedaling at those rpms - in the same way that if you try and spin fast at the end of a very long and hard ride where you're completely stuffed you're beyond "pedaling squares" and you have to sit a bit more upright. Higher position = less aero = nice human windbreak = slow.
Thank you for your thorough replies. makes me feel a bit guilty for not having provided more background in the 1st post.

Here's a fuller story:

When I was a kid (11-13 or thereabouts) I had a paper route. It took me some 3 hours on an adult sized 3-speed, heavily loaded, in hilly terrain. An orgy in honking. At a time I did 3 runs/week. No warm-ups, no stretching, no balanced training of antagonists. It's a paper route right?
Knees started hurting, first doc said "growing pains, nothing to worry about". I kept the paper route. More pain. Had to give the route up. Still pain. Got a referral to a sports specialist. Diagnosis was that lopsided muscle development due to my "training" had shifted my kneecaps towards the outside, causing uneven wear on the interior faces on the knee joint. Rest, then rehab, rehab rehab, and high doses of anti-inflammatory medication.

Ever since then it's been a balancing act. If I don't train the old assymetry will reassert itself = pain. If I train too much I stress the already worn surfaces too much = pain. A few lapses now and then, but it's worked for years, decades even.

Enter bike commuting. First I hit the streets like I'd hit a single-track. Plenty of out-of-the-saddle action. Knees didn't like that much. Gave up the honking. Knees liked that even less. Got a cadence counter, discovered that my average was low (abt 75).Tried spinning more on old bike configuration. Modest improvement. Easy to revert to old habits of stubborning a climb out sitting. Rebuilt bike. Got average cadence up to 85+. Knees fairly content - but I've lost some 12-15% of speed which I don't seem to be able to recover. It's been a year since I reconfigured the bike, so It's not like I was expecting an immediate improvement.

And that's where I am today. Pretty much pain-free, but slow. Slower as such I have no problems with, but I think the amount is excessive.

I can spin to maybe105 before saddle bounce becomes pronounced, but once past 85 it feels like power delivery fades fast. I can maintain but not accelerate. Even the tiniest uphill slope/head wind and I have to drop a gear or accept blowing the cadence.

An on bike rehab project sounds nice.