Causes of lower back pain when cycling

Earle Logan

11 August 2014

Lower back pain and cycling

Whether you are cycling the Giro d’Italia or going for a gentle family bike ride, avoiding injury is always a good plan. Lower back pain is one of the most common problems which cyclists face (although injury-inducing falls onto hard surfaces rank quite highly too) and understanding the mechanism behind the pain often helps to avoid such an eventuality. Road cyclist in particular often experience neck pain as a result of the different shape of a road bike. Read my blog post on neck pain from cycling for some more information.

1. Do you fit your bike?

Although it is common to see little kids trying out huge bikes on Christmas day with the firm knowledge that they will grow into the bike before too long, the same cannot be said later on in life. One of the most common causes of lower back pain when cycling is spending hours pedalling away on an ill-fitting bicycle.

Generally speaking, the ball of your foot should sit comfortably on your pedal. When the pedal is at the bottom of a stroke there should be a slight bend in the leg and you shouldn’t have to stretch to reach the bottom of a stroke. Your saddle should be horizontal, or tilted very slightly downwards.

When your pedals are at the three and nine o’clock positions, your forward knee should be directly above the pedal. You should be able to comfortably reach the handlebars, with a slight bend in your elbows.

2. And when you can't blame your bike?

Our cycling position may also affect our susceptibility to developing back pain. Just like hunching over a desk or slumping in front of the TV, adopting poor position while on your bike takes its toll on your back.

This is particularly common when cycling uphill. It is easy to lean forward as we strain up those last few metres, but this drastically increases the loading on your back. This will only be worsened if you are trying to cycle up a hill in too high a gear. Instead, you should stand up while cycling uphill, as this will reduce loading on your back. Additionally, ensuring that you have strong core muscles will help you to maintain the correct posture while cycling so that you don’t begin to give way in your middle and slouch over the handlebars.

3. The role of muscle fatigue

As with any sport, muscle fatigue will occur if you are pushing yourself to any extent. In cycling, you often feel the effects of this in your hamstrings and calf muscles. If you continue to pedal, even when your leg muscles are near exhaustion, this can have an unexpected effect on other groups of muscles, including those in your back. Knees can begin to splay outwards or flop inwards. The more your leg position moves from the vertical, the worse your back posture (and pain) will become.

Additionally, it is important to make sure that you are not leaning to one side. This often happens because we are naturally stronger on one side than the other, but this can cause muscle tightness on one side of our back, and muscle strain on the other. This usually needs to be corrected through muscle strengthening exercises on the ground to equalise any imbalances.

4. Have you stretched?

Stretching out your muscles is important as it encourages good blood flow to the muscles. This ensures that you can squeeze out all possible energy, but also is likely to prevent muscle damage, cramping and injury. With cycling, it is particularly important to stretch your hip flexor muscles. We do not use this group of muscles much in day-to-day living, but they can be put under strain when cycling. The best times to stretch are just after warming up and after exercise.

If you can work it in, particularly if you are cycling a lot, it is worth getting a deep tissue massage. This promotes repair and recovery of muscle fibres, reducing the impact of a hard training session, and will help you get pedalling again the next day.

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