By Coach John Hughes
In the RBR reader survey a few weeks ago, painful or numb hands was the third most frequent problem cited – afflicting 16% of you as your main physical issue on the bike. (While it may not be main issue for most of us, hand pain or, especially, numbness, happens to almost all of us from time to time.)
I have a client, Sam, who had completed a series of brevets (200 km / 125 miles, 300 km / 187 miles, 400 km / 250 miles and 600 km / 375 miles). He developed numbness, also known as cyclist’s palsy, and actually damaged his nerves (neuropathy). It took a year of barely riding for his nerves to heal and to recover from the neuropathy. After he could ride again, I started coaching him.
Physiology Behind Hand Pain/Numbness
Nerve compression of one of the two nerves in the wrist is usually the culprit.
- Ulnar nerve — If you’re getting numbness in your little and ring fingers, it’s probably this one being compressed. This is the most common due to its location, at the bottom of the wrist, close to the bars and hoods of a road bike.
- Median nerve — If the index, middle, and ring fingers to feel numb, it’s probably this nerve, which runs in the middle of the wrist. This tends to be more problematic on a mountain bike. It’s also called carpal tunnel syndrome.
Although one is more likely to afflict roadies and the other MTBers, they aren’t mutually exclusive.
Riding Technique is Key to Prevention
The compression usually comes from the positions of the hand and wrist and/or pressure on the handlebars. The more your wrist is bent, the more likely you are to have tingling and potentially numb fingers.
You can reduce or eliminate the compression through better technique. You have five different hand positions on the bars, which vary in terms of how bent your wrists are:
- Tops – near the stem. Your wrists are very cocked in this position.
- Bend in the bars — just outside of the tops. Depending on your exact grip, your wrists are also relatively bent here.
- Brake hoods — Your wrists are fairly straight, although this depends on where the brakes are on your bars.
- The hooks, or bends underneath the brake hoods — again, your wrists are pretty bent unless you are crouched very low.
- The drops — Your wrists will be more or less bent depending on how low your bars are and how far they are away from the saddle.
On the hoods is the best position — I use a variation I learned years ago from a pro. Instead of my thumbs on the inside of the brake hoods and my hands on the outside of the hoods, the hoods are between my index and second fingers. My wrists are much straighter and more comfortable. Some riders think this isn’t safe since you can’t grab the brakes as fast. This has never been a problem for me over 40 years of defensive riding.
However, riding on the hoods may not be comfortable if your bike isn’t fitted correctly; for example, if your bars are too far away (your reach is too great) or too low.
Learn the positions in which your wrists are the straightest.
Although #3 is the best position:
- the key to preventing compression of the nerves is to vary your hands among the five positions.
I’ve developed the habit of changing positions literally every few minutes among all five of the positions, although I primarily use #3 and #5 (in the drops), in which my wrists are the straightest.
Make it a habit yourself to switch positions regularly!
Compression of the nerves can also come from the weight of your upper body on the bars. Lon Haldeman advises that your hands should rest lightly on the bars just like they do when typing or playing the piano! It also helps to ride with “soft” elbows.
Equipment Plays a Role, Too
Even if you change your hand positions frequently, you’re still exerting pressure on your hands against the bars, and on a longer ride the cumulative effect may cause problems. Here are some suggestions:
- The more rake and the higher the spoke count of your wheels, the more the bike absorbs any road shock.
- Depending on the position of the bars relative to the saddle, more or less of your weight will be on the bars.
- Padded bars can also dampen road shock. There are numerous gel tapes and others with a bit of built-in cushion available. You can also add your own: For padding, use foam that will compress a little, but springs back to shape. I use foam sold for insulating water pipes. You only need to pad the parts of the bars where your hands rest, not the underside of the bars. And, in some cases, depending on the size of your bars, you may need to use 4 rolls of tape rather than the usual 2 rolls to get full coverage.
- Padded gloves may also help, although they’re sometimes hard to find.
- Ken Bonner, who has ridden over 50 1200 km (750-mile) events, rides without gloves! On longer rides, hands (and feet) often swell, and the gloves themselves can compress the nerves. I sometimes take my gloves off while climbing, when more of my weight is on my butt.
The key is to get a good bike fit. If hand pain / numbness is a chronic problem, try padding as well.
Core Strength Simplified
Every roadie I know is pressed for time to work out, and core strength exercises are often skipped to make time to ride. Here’s how to strength your core without adding workout time once you learn how to engage your core.
In order for your hands to rest lightly on the bars, you need to have a strong core to support your upper body. You have two sets of abdominal muscles. The fibers in the surface muscles run up and down your abdomen — think six-pack abs (which almost none of us ever had, let alone as we age).
Your deeper core muscles are underneath the surface muscles. The fibers in your core muscles run horizontally around your trunk, forming a girdle around your core that supports your upper body weight so that your hands can rest lightly on the bars. The core muscles hold your back in neutral, the flat back described in last week’s column on upper back, shoulder and neck pain. These muscles provide a stable platform to anchor your leg muscles so that you produce more power.
The action of the core muscles working is subtle. Here’s how to find them. Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Rest your fingers tips on the soft tissues just inside your pelvic bones. Then pull your navel in so that your abdomen becomes flat or even concave. Here are several ways to visualize engaging your deeper core muscles:
- Imagine that you are pulling your belly button down to your anus.
- Imagine that you are tightening the muscles around your bladder and sphincter.
- Imagine that you are trying to make yourself thinner to slip sideways among people in a crowded room.
- Imagine that you are pulling on a tight pair of jeans.
Now that you’ve found your core muscles, spend a just a few minutes daily for a week practicing activating those muscles so that your abdomen becomes flat.
We spend way too much time sitting at home, at work and in the car. Even in the most ergonomic chair, you’re not using your core muscles. To strengthen them just sit up straight away from the chair back and pull your abdomen in. Do this for about 5 minutes every hour or two. I sit on an exercise ball — to keep the ball stable, I have to use my core muscles.
On the bike, practice engaging your core and flattening your back. Can you rest your hands lightly on the bars? You’ve got it!
Practice core training made simple! Make it a habit, just like switching positions on the bar.
The Lesson Learned from Sam
Because numb or tingling hands can get worse if not nipped in the bud, and persist off the bike in your daily life — prevention is vital. The problem cost my client Sam a year of riding.
While he was off the bike, Sam diligently worked on strengthening his core. When his neuropathy was finally healed and he started riding again — no numb fingers! He successfully completed the full brevet series and the 1200 km (750-mile) Paris-Brest-Paris.
The lesson is to address the problem through a combination of improved riding technique (regularly moving your hand placement on the bars), a proper fit and equipment, and keeping your core strong. Doing so will keep the issue from getting worse if it is already bothersome, and will help keep it from ever becoming an issue if you’re one of us who gets tingly only on occasion.
Reprinted with permission of RBR Publishing Co., Inc., www.RoadBikeRider.com