For many, cycling offers the perfect solution for people looking for a great cardiovascular workout without a whole lot of pounding and wear and tear on joints. Although cyclists don’t have to contend with the high-impact beating that runners do, a large number of cyclists experience lower-back pain.
Research out of Norway chronicling the injuries of 109 professional cyclists discovered that a whopping 45% of reported ailments had to do with the lower back. What’s more, 58% of participants said they had experienced some sort of lower-back pain in the previous 12 months.
While we often think of cycling as primarily a leg exercise, the back plays an important role, making it vulnerable to overuse injuries. Beth Leasure-Hudson, a coach, exercise physiologist and former elite cyclist, explains, “The back acts as a fulcrum for movement above and beneath it. It is the platform for powering the bicycle, using the legs as levers.”
Back issues can lead to pain in the back itself and can cause numbness and weakness in other areas, like your hands and neck—even all the way down to your toes. Identifying causes and preventative measures are important to ensuring the longevity of your cycling career, no matter what level you’re at.
1. Get a professional bike fit.
One of the first things to consider when trying to pinpoint the cause of back pain is to check your bike fit. Leasure-Hudson says to pay attention to both the size of the bike itself as well as whether the bike is adjusted properly for you as an individual athlete.
“Frame sizing is more than just throwing your leg over a top tube and noting clearance,” she explains. “One should test ride a bike in various sizes to see how the body performs on it at relevant speeds and in relevant conditions first.”
If you are riding on a frame that is too large, you’ll likely end up overextending your back in order to reach the handlebars. Conversely, if the bike is too small, you may find that your pelvis gets shifted forward and you end up in a hunched position. Either way, various types of back pain can result.
The positioning of your saddle is another important factor in making sure you’re comfortable on your bike. “The saddle is the main point of physical contact where all the forces facing the rider meet,” says Leasure-Hudson. “It’s important to find the right fit. There are some great systems offered at local bike shops that estimate the width of an individual’s point of contact to try to match it to the supporting base of a seat.”
Many cyclists are able to prevent or address back pain by visiting a bike shop with knowledgeable employees who can get you properly fit. Whether you’re buying a new bike or pulling a trusty old ride from the garage, it’s worth a visit to a specialty shop to get you in the right position.
2. Add strengthening and stretching sessions to your weekly routine.
Adequate mobility and strength in the right areas can also prevent soreness or address existing back pain for a cyclist. “Strength exercises or programs can be recommended depending on the level of rider and on their discipline,” says Leasure-Hudson. “A light form of Pilates or yoga with specifically targeted exercises relevant for cycling works well for most.
“Always strengthen what is also stretched, and always stretch what is strengthened within the range of motion relevant to the repetitive athletic demand,” she adds.
Try these strength and flexibility moves 2–3 times per week to help prevent back pain:
1. Plank: Get into a push-up position, but lower your body down so it is supported by your forearms and toes. Hold for 1 minute. Repeat 4–7 times.
2. Superman: Lie facedown on the ground. Lift your arms and legs off the mat and hold, pulling in your abdominals. Hold for 1 minute. Repeat 6–8 times.
3. Bird Dog: On your hands and knees, lift and extend your right arm out in front of your body and your left leg back behind your body. Then bring your right hand and left knee together under your body, being sure to stabilize and maintain balance. Repeat 15 times, and switch sides.
4. Bridge: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the mat. Lift your backside off the floor until your back is in line with your knees. Hold for 2 seconds, and repeat 15–20 times.
5. Downward-Facing Dog: Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, bend over and put your palms flat on the mat. Walk your feet back until your body makes an inverted V. Inhale and exhale slowly for 1–2 minutes, step your feet back to your hands, stand up, and repeat if you are still feeling stiff.
6. Snake Stretch: Lie on the floor facedown before raising your upper body up with your arms, palms flat on the ground, fingers facing forward. Hold for 1 minute, and lower back down.
7. Child’s Pose: Start out kneeling on the floor before stretching your upper body forward with your arms extended in front of you. With your palms flat on the ground, relax and hold this pose for 1–3 minutes while you take deep breaths.
3. Don’t slouch, and move around more during the day.
Many cyclists fail to consider their time out of the saddle when trying to identify the cause of back pain. To be sure, cycling may not even be the culprit—for many, it is simply sitting hunched over a computer all day. “Sitting can be a long-duration repetitive workout, even if you don’t realize it,” says Leasure-Hudson.
The solution to this involves strengthening the muscles that contribute to better posture, as well as ensuring you’re engaging those muscles and sitting up straight during the day. Getting up and moving periodically can also do wonders for your posture simply by allowing you to stretch and reset your body.
Remember that if you’re experiencing chronic back pain while cycling, the solution is likely multifaceted. Pay attention to not only the time you spend out on the road training, but also the other hours of the day you spend sitting and sleeping. While more serious issues should involve a trip to the doctor, many can be addressed simply by taking a few simple measures.
Photo by Rusty Brooks