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Gritty knees can be a painful problem for many cyclists - here's how to beat the grind

Although cycling is a low-impact sport, the repetitive action of pedalling can still have a detrimental effect on vital joints in the legs. One problem for many cyclists is ‘gritty knees' - a painful grinding sensation behind the knee. This is caused when the cartilage surrounding the kneecap softens and breaks down through excessive, repetitive use.

>>> Cycling knee pain: everything you need to know

How do gritty knees occur?


The kneecap, or patella, takes more pressure per unit than any other part of the body. It manages to do so because of a large amount of thick articular cartilage that cushions any impact. This also allows the kneecap and surrounding bones to glide gently together.


"If abnormal stress is placed on the knee joint, biomechanical changes in foot, knee and hip relationship and position can pull the patella at an odd angle," explains sports specialist physiotherapist Stephanie Smith, founder of Pea Green Physio. "This increases grinding of the patella along the groove edges, causing wear and tear of the patella and femur or worse, osteoarthritis and cartilage damage to the surfaces of the bones. It's what gives the ‘crepitus' (cracking, creaking, clicking, grinding) noises you feel and hear," she says.


How can cyclists prevent gritty knees?


There are several things cyclists could do to help prevent the onset of gritty knees. The first is to get a proper bike fit. "It may be the seat is too far forwards or too high, forcing the knee too far over the toes or too far back," says Stephanie. "This could cause forced extension leading to ITB syndrome." Stephanie also advises cyclists to watch their knee position. "Ensure the knee doesn't drift inward or outwards significantly as this could put added strain through the knee joint," she adds.


Ensuring your quadriceps muscles are in good condition is also important in helping to prevent gritty knees. "Stretch the hip flexors, glutes, ITB and quadriceps, as these can get quite short and tight with cycling," Stephanie says. Exercises such as sprints, step-ups and lunges could also help strengthen the thigh muscles and take pressure off the knees.


In addition, natural supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin will have long-term benefits for your knees. "Glucosamine and chondroitin are the natural building blocks for hyaline cartilage - the cartilage that covers the ends of the bone," says Stephanie. "It is proven to help reduce the gritty, crunchy noises and pain while you are taking them."


Help to ease gritty knees


If you already suffer gritty knees there are steps you can take to ease the painful grinding. "The most important thing is to limit your cycling activity," says Stephanie. "If the above advice doesn't help, it may be time to take it easier for a few weeks when cycling. Try reducing mileage, avoid hills and reduce overall workout intensity by pedalling easier at a lower, pain-free resistance."

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Michelle Arthurs-Brennan

Michelle Arthurs-Brennan is a traditional journalist by trade, having begun her career working for a local newspaper, where highlights included interviewing a very irate Freddie Star (and an even more irate theatre owner), as well as 'the one about the stolen chickens'.

Previous to joining the Cycling Weekly team, Michelle was Editor at Total Women's Cycling. She joined CW as an 'SEO Analyst', but couldn't keep her nose out of journalism and in the spreadsheets, eventually taking on the role of Tech Editor before her latest appointment as Digital Editor. 

Michelle is a road racer who also enjoys track riding and the occasional time trial, though dabbles in off-road riding too (either on a mountain bike, or a 'gravel bike'). She is passionate about supporting grassroots women's racing and founded the women's road race team 1904rt.

Michelle is on maternity leave from July 8 2022, until April 2023.