Most avid cyclists have had a brush with back pain. “Neck and back issues are so common in cyclists because they are in the same position for such a long period of time,” explains Jesse Lewis, DPT, owner and physical therapist at District Performance & Physio. “Your body likes change, so being in one position puts stress on muscles and joints.”
Most often, back pain from road cycling is located in the lower back (spinal erectors), mid-back (upper trapezius) or neck. “These are the muscles that are stressed the most in that forward position that cyclists are in,” Lewis adds.
Spinners often deal with low-back pain, for the same reasons road cyclists do. “Cycling requires a closed-hip flexed position, which shortens the psoas muscle, one of your hip flexors,” notes Bianca Beldini, DPT, a USA Triathlon coach. “This muscle has attachments on the bones of the lumbar spine. When the psoas is short, it tugs on the low back, oftentimes giving rise to low-back pain.”
Similarly, head and neck position can exacerbate low-back pain. “The head weighs about as much as a bowling ball or slightly more,” Beldini says. If your head tips forward, the muscles in the back of the neck engage, which signals the long muscles that run parallel to the spine to engage as well, creating tension in the lower back.
Despite all these common reasons for back and neck issues, they’re not inevitable — even for avid cyclists. Here, six ways to prevent and deal with cycling-related back pain.
GET A PROPER BIKE FIT
“This is essential for anyone who’s going to be putting a lot of miles on a road bike,” Lewis says. Dialing in your position and posture ensures you don’t put extra stress on your back, neck and even knees.
A professional fit session at your local bike shop is ideal, but if you need to make adjustments yourself, it’s still worthwhile. “Make sure you have your saddle set up right at or slightly above your hip bone when standing next to the bike,” advises Meghan Kennihan, a Level III cycling coach and a Schwinn-certified spin instructor. “When your foot is at the bottom position while seated, you should have a slight bend, about a 20–30-degree angle, at your knee. If the seat is too high, you will be rocking back and forth, causing low-back pain.”
Lastly, if you’re having upper- or mid-back issues, your handlebar position may be to blame. “If the bars are too far away, it puts you in an outstretched position and can cause strain,” Kennihan explains. “You can also adjust the height of your handlebars so you are in a more upright position to help your low back and not be so bent over.”
For the spinners out there: “Getting the right fit is harder when on a spin bike in a class setting, but it’s still important to make the bike fit as best you can before class starts,” Lewis adds.
MOVE YOUR BODY ON THE BIKE
Especially on longer rides, it’s a good idea to change positions periodically. “Sit taller, lean forward, get off your seat, shift your weight,” Lewis advises. “This allows you to put stress on different areas of your body and rest others during your ride.”
You can also do short, targeted stretches to relieve any tension you feel building. “For neck issues, sit up taller on the bike (you may have to release the grip on the handlebars and place only the fingertips on them while this is done) and tuck your chin, holding for a few seconds, resting a few seconds,” says Jennifer Novak, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of PEAK Symmetry Performance Strategies. Repeat this about five times.
“For the low back, it’s helpful to mindfully draw the navel in toward the spine while cycling to engage the abdominals,” Novak suggests. “Breathe through a 10-second lower abdominal hold, then rest it for 10 seconds. Repeat at least five times.”
GET ADEQUATE REST
“Cyclists often think the best way to improve is more miles and more rides, but they often see better progress when they make sure they schedule in the right amount of rest days,” Lewis points out. “Getting rest also allows your body to recover from the stress of long rides and to get out of the fixed posture that cyclists are in for such a long period of time.”
“Strength training tends to be a dirty term for cyclists, but it’s incredibly important,” Lewis notes. “A solid strength-training plan makes your body, especially your back and neck, more resilient to overuse injuries.”
Another area to focus on, according to Kennihan, is your core. “The core is the foundation for everything. A weak core means that you will start to use your lower back to compensate, and that means low-back pain.” Her go-to core exercises? Planks, bird dogs, stability ball crunches, and pushups.
DO MOBILITY WORK
Mobility exercises are often forgotten or treated as an afterthought, but stretching the hips, hip flexors, hamstrings and lower back can be a huge help. Kennihan recommends kneeling hip-flexor stretches, standing or seated hamstring stretches, child’s pose and downward dog as great places to start before or after a ride. “For your upper spine, anything that opens the chest works, like the doorway stretch or even just having your hands behind your back and raising them up to open your chest. Foam rolling your hamstrings, hip flexors and thoracic spine will also be beneficial.”
KNOW WHEN TO GET HELP
Some back pain requires a professional evaluation from a doctor. “If you are experiencing pain and/or numbness in the arms or legs or feet, or if you find that you have any weakness in the muscles that affect your pushing power, see a professional,” Beldini advises.