How to Get Back on Your Bike With RAby Cathy Kramer Patient Advocate
Bicycle riding is an activity my husband and I have enjoyed together for most of our married life. Before kids, we planned vacations around places we could take our bikes. After kids, we oriented them to a bike trailer as soon as they could comfortably hold themselves up. So, when the day came that I had to stay home while my husband went riding was a day of self-pity and tears. Due to the pain and swelling of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), there was no way I could get on my bicycle and ride.
It's not like riding a bike
I knew that as soon as my body could safely bike ride again, I would not hesitate. And I didn’t. However, the saying, “It’s like riding a bike” — something your body never forgets how to do — could never have been further from the truth.
When a body is stiff and swollen for years, it learns to adapt to the world in a different way. As my body adjusted positively to the medications I was taking, my brain had to relearn things like riding a bicycle that once seemed so simple.
As with everything RA, we need to take special precautions. Even for those of us who have found a treatment plan for our bodies, RA is always present. We have to plan carefully so that we are kind to a body that has already experienced so much.
So, how does one get back on the bike?
Find a comfortable bike
For me, the first thing I had to do was invest in a new bike. The placement of the gears on my 20-plus-year-old bike was just too awkward for my fingers and wrists.
Before buying, I tried out the bike in the shop, changing gears often to make sure my hands could manipulate them. Also, I got on and off the bike multiple times to make sure the height of the bike worked with my body and my flexibility.
Choose a bike with suspension
My husband and I ride mostly in forest preserves so even with smooth paths, the terrain is not always easy on the joints. Knowing what my joints have been through, my husband insisted my new bike come with suspension. Many bikes today are sold with suspension, but you can also have it added to a bike.
Basically, the suspension absorbs some of the roughness, so you don’t have to.
Find a comfortable seat
Unfortunately, the seats that come with many bikes are not comfortable. Not only are they small, but they are hard. I still have the original seat that came with my bike, but on long rides, I promise myself I am going to upgrade to something more comfortable.
Some folks buy padded shorts to wear on rides, but they have never been my thing. However, you might want to check out a pair and see how they work for you.
Get a helmet
I think by now, we all know that protecting our heads is important. Wear a helmet. Chances are, your body is not as strong as it once was, and your balance is not up to par. Don’t risk damaging your incredible brain if you fall.
After choosing a helmet, ask a bike store employee to help you fit the helmet to your head. Trying to hold your arms up as you maneuver the straps is challenging. Leave that to a professional.
Invest in a pair of gloves
I tend to be a no-nonsense kind of gal and bike gloves seemed a bit unnecessary to me. However, as I started riding, my hands were still in a lot of pain. My husband surprised me with a pair of bike gloves. Wow! Invest in this accessory!
Bike gloves come with padding that protects the palms of your hands. Plus, with many of us also having Raynaud’s disease, you will be thankful for the hand coverage on chilly days.
Protect the eyes
For many of us with RA, we know dry eyes well. Knowing that, take precautions to protect your eyes. Being outdoors often brings out the worst in dry eyes.
- Wear protective eye gear. Sports glasses or even a pair of sunglasses help keep debris out of your eyes.
- Keep eye drops handy. Recently I switched from a small bag on my bike to a fanny pack, so I can easily access my eye drops.
Take care with your wrists
In general, bike riding is gentle on most joints, especially if you stay on fairly flat paths. However, when it comes to my wrists, bike riding can be a challenge since pressure is being put on them throughout the ride.
- Take breaks often so wrists get some relief.
- If you can do so safely, take one hand off the handlebars as you ride and move it in circles back and forth.
- I have yet to try wrist bands on a bike ride, but that might be a good option.
Now that you have spent time preparing for a bike ride that will benefit your RA body, don’t skip out on water. All bodies need to stay hydrated.
- Many bikes come with water bottle attachments or you can buy one and have it installed.
- Because my wrists are weak and tend to get sore on bike rides, I prefer a hydration pack that fits like a light backpack with a tube that runs to your mouth, so you consume water as you ride.
Take it slow
Ease back into bike riding. This can be a fun activity, but you must become familiar with your limitations. Don’t overdo it. The consequence may be a fear of going back to it. If a five-minute ride is all you can do, applaud yourself for getting out for five minutes. It’s five minutes you weren’t moving before.
Also, find a partner that will respect your need to ride a little slower. No need to ride with someone who cannot respect where you are at today.
Enjoy the scenery
One of the main reasons I love bike riding is because I love nature. When I ride, I can let the pain of RA go and instead focus on the sounds of nature, the beauty of the trees that surround me, and occasionally I get to see a deer or two.
Do this for you!
Make this bike ride about you. Listen to your body. It is often telling you what you need, but you have to listen. If it tells you it is time to stop, do it. You can always ride again tomorrow. If it tells you to go a bit further, do it! Embrace the fact that you are taking an important step toward doing something you enjoy that will also provide positive movement in your life. Have fun riding, let go of all things RA for a short time, and shamelessly let out a big laugh on those downhills.