Thankfully, cycling is one of the sports least affected by joint pain due to its lack of impact and the fact that the bike takes most of your weight. But that doesn’t mean cyclists are immune to joint pain.
Many joint problems are related to arthritis — notably osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis tends to be more common as you age because the bones in joints deteriorate or change shape through wear and tear, but it can also affect athletes and keen exercisers through joint overuse.
Most commonly, osteoarthritis is typified by a reduction in cartilage in the joint cavity that leaves the area prone to further degradation from bone-on-bone contact. Arthritis can also be caused by injury. Disgraced pro rider Floyd Landis is such a case, after a broken hip led to osteonecrosis — a condition where the head of the femur starts to die due to a lack of blood supply.
With rheumatoid arthritis the synovial fluid is affected, making joints less flexible — a classic example of an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues. Another joint problem is gout, caused by an increased concentration of uric acid in the body. The acid then turns into microscopic crystals that collect around the joints, often starting in the big toe.
As joint conditions affect the synovial fluid and cartilage, resulting in inflammation, a nutritional approach focuses on supporting and promoting the production of these two substances, together with anti-inflammatory measures.
What to feed your joints
Salmon & other oily fish (mackerel, sardines, herring, fresh tuna, trout, kippers, anchovies, halibut): Rich in omega 3 fats, which have anti-inflammatory effects and have been shown to ease symptoms of both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. A good source of protein for the repair of damaged joints, plus vitamin D.
Ginger: Root ginger contains gingerols, active components that are thought to stop the body producing inflammatory substances. Try adding fresh root ginger to hot lemon and water, curries, stir fries, ginger tea, breads and cookies.
Turmeric: Turmeric contains the potent ingredient curcumin which is thought to protect against inflammation and may help relieve the pain and stiffness of arthritis. Add liberally to curries, tagines and soups.
Cherries: Rich in antioxidants, particularly anthocyanidins to help prevent and repair the damage caused by free radicals. The flavonoids present in cherries inhibit inflammation and reduce levels of uric acid in painful joints so they’re particularly beneficial for gout sufferers.
Beta carotene-rich foods (sweet potato, carrots, kale, melon, mango, butternut squash, papaya, cantaloupe, apricots): Carotenes including beta cryptoxanthin are shown to reduce inflammation and help reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis.
Nuts & seeds: Good source of vitamin E, essential fats, zinc, biotin — all important nutrients needed to produce anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. Eat a selection such as walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, cashew and brazil nuts.
Berries: Packed with vitamin C, a key nutrient needed for the production of collagen, which is a major component of cartilage. Also rich in anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids, which help inhibit enzymes that break down collagen – try to eat a cup of berries daily.
Oats & wholegrains (brown rice, quinoa, lentils, dark green leafy vegetables): Good sources of magnesium needed for the production of hyaluronic acid, which forms the major part of synovial fluid within the joints as well as being needed for the production of cartilage. Rich too in selenium, low levels of which have been linked to the severity of osteoarthritis.
Eggs: Rich in sulphur and amino acids that are needed for the production of keratin.
Milk, cheese, yoghurt: Rich in calcium, important for healthy bones, especially for RA sufferers. Also contain magnesium, folic acid and vitamins. Eat low fat or skimmed varieties as saturated fat can increase inflammation.
In addition to a good diet, there is evidence that some supplements will help keep your joints moving smoothly.
Glucosamine sulphate & chondroitin: Glucosamine is an amino sugar that occurs naturally in the body. It is a key component of cartilage and helps form elastin and collagen and does appear to help reduce joint pain, tenderness and swelling for many people. A common dose is 500mg three times a day. Glucosamine is often combined with chondroitin although solid evidence of chondroitin’s efficacy is hard to find.
Essential fats: Fish oils and the omega 6 fat Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) are important for all aspects of joint health, especially in relieving inflammation. Look for a supplement with at least 450mg of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
Joint nutrients: Niacinamide acts as an antioxidant helping to limit inflammatory processes. Other important nutrients include vitamin C, A, E and trace minerals selenium, zinc, copper and boron. Look for a multi-vitamin containing these nutrients.