Lower back pain cycling is one of the most common injuries in the sport. In fact people who cycle 160 km or more per week are 3.6 times as likely to experience LBP compared with people who cycle less than 160 km per week according to the School of Public Health, Townsville Australia. When we think of triathlon injuries, usually we think of injuries to do with running- Achilles problems, runner’s knee and plantar fasciitis.
Cycling, being a non-impact sport generally produces less incidence of physical therapy and doctor visits.
Cycling injures tend to be more from crashes (I speak from experience and have a new respect for my helmet!).
Though due to the number of hours triathletes spend in the saddle, overuse injuries do occur.
The cyclist’s feet and hands are fixed so poor technique is not usually catastrophic. In fact many triathletes do not ever consider cycling technique at all. Of course, while better technique will improve performance, speed and efficiency, it is not essential to get the job done.
Still cyclists do report overuse injuries such as lower back pain, neck pain and knee pain.
These many result from poor posture, many hours in the saddle and neglect of flexibility and core strength to balance out the repetitive motions of pedalling in the one spot for hours.
You may think the knees are most likely part of the body to suffer the most but a recent study of professional cyclists found 45% reported lower back pain cycling and 23% knee pain.
If you are one of those experiencing back pain on the bike, it can make the experience highly unpleasant and lead to you giving up the sport.
There are two main reasons that may be contributing to your back pain, and both of them are fixable!
So read on, analyse your situation and take action.
Do not continue to ride in pain- it is not good for your spirit or your back (and will just get worse if you ignore it)!
Lower back pain cycling: Look at bike set up first
Most new triathletes and cyclists buy a new bike, adjust the seat height and start building mileage.
However if you have lower back pain cycling, you must also consider all aspects of the bike:
the handlebars, the forwards/backwards position of the seat, YOUR posture on the bike and YOUR fitness for the bike.
If you cycle with poor posture or have poor back muscle and core strength, you will experience back pain, no matter how expensive your bike is or how many bike experts say that your set up is perfect!
Cumulative hours in the saddle with training or racing intensity can become problematic- even if you have not experienced lower back pain cycling before or your 5km commute to work is pain free.
Here are some videos with great exercises to strengthen your core and back muscles from our friends at Training Peaks.
Here are some tips to optimise your bike fit:
This should be positioned so that when the pedal is at the bottom of the stroke and the ball of your foot is on the pedal, your knee should have a slight bend in it.
Your hips shouldn’t move sideways during crank rotation and you shouldn’t have to stretch at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
This should be in a horizontal position, parallel with the floor when viewed side on (but sometimes a very slight downwards tilt can be helpful for some).
Forwards/backwards position of the saddle
With the pedals adjusted so that they are at the three o’clock and nine o’clock positions, a vertical line dropped from just behind the kneecap of the forward knee should pass through the axle of the pedal.
Handlebars should be adjusted so that you neither have to stretch to reach them, or feel confined by having them too close to your body. This can vary depending on ability and posture.
The forearms should be approximately 45 degrees from horizontal. You should be able to comfortably reach the bars from an upright position and your elbows should be slightly bent when resting on them.
This is normally set to the width of the shoulders.
This is usually a personal preference and is typically between zero and 10 cm below the seat height. Someone who is less flexible and new to cycling may prefer zero and a frequent racer may be as much as 10cm. If you find lower back pain cycling is a problem, raising the bars slightly may be more comfortable.
One word of caution:
There is a saying that is you want to be good at something, find someone who does it well, and do that!
However- when we look at pro cyclists, they have their bike set up in a very aggressive posture for maximum aerodynamics. Obviously they are highly trained in this position, have cycled at a high level most of their lives and have done a ton of strength training, leg work, core work and flexibility.
Also they do not sit in a cramped office 10 hours a day– which also has an impact on our posture on the bike.
So unless you have all these things sorted, you are not comparing apples with apples.
If you are a beginner or even intermediate, this very aggressive position may not suit you. You MUST go for comfort first, or you will get injured, not enjoy the journey and end up not achieving your goals from the sport.
You will be able to do more training and get better results if you are comfortable and can do the volume and intensity of training required, than be in an aggressive race position but unable to train so much because you have lower back pain cycling after 1 hour on the bike.
Lower back pain cycling: Look at your posture on the bike next
Posture is an interesting aspect of sport, which most athletes ignore (until they have pain).
You can have the most incredibly correct bike fit done but still sit on the bike badly. I see this a lot with cyclists who do not consider HOW they use their machine.
I used to do ergonomic assessments in offices for people with back pain. They would report they have had an ergonomic assessment done by HR and they have bought the most expensive chair possible.
What they fail to consider is you can still slump in ANY chair. This is a very good office chair with back support However remember to do your bit and sit properly in it.
If it is possible in your home or work office, one of the best alternatives is to get a standing desk. This way you can stand up for a portion of the day. This takes the pressure off your back, lengthens your legs muscles and continues to burn calories a low level. When you sit down, a lot of the electrical activity in your muscles is turned off, metabolism slows and postural muscles get weak.
The normal chair and desk set up does not fix your posture FOR you.
It simply optimizes the environment and encourages you to be in the correct position, but some effort is still needed on your part to stop sticking your neck forward and slumping in the low back. Take as many opportunities as you can throughout the day to stand up- either during phone calls, walking to the water cooler, standing meetings, using standing desks or taking the stairs instead of the lift.
It is the same with cycling.
Cyclists report to me that they have bought the most expensive bike and have paid for a proper bike fit.
However many of them ride with terrible technique in a cramped, hunched forward position. Inevitably they develop lower back pain cycling.
Here are some things to watch out for:
Saddle too high
This will lead to either hamstring tendonitis or low back pain. Hamstrings that are too tight will pull the pelvis into posterior pelvic tilt. This will make the low back muscles over work instead of generating most of the force from the gluteal muscles and legs.
Saddle too low
As the foot goes over the top of the stroke, the knee comes up too high and the lower back is pushed backwards, into a slump. It will also mean you have poor power generation from the legs.
I am sure we have all cycled behind someone whose back and pelvis is swaying about as they pedal.
Make sure that person is not you.
Aim to keep your back and pelvis still as you pedal.
The rotational movement should come from your hips and knees not your back.
Though if you have weakness or poor flexibility, your back will compensate for lack of movement elsewhere.
Result? Back pain!
Lower back pain cycling: look at your strength (or lack of!)
It is an unnatural position to be bent over for many hours working at high intensity.
Muscle fatigue is a major factor with lower back pain cycling. Cycling is often thought to be a leg based activity.
However it is actually a whole body activity. Stability is required from the back and the core. The upper body is required for counter force. Make sure you do some very hard sessions in your training to improve your strength. Make sure you are maintaining good posture and engaging your core during training.
The beauty of doing some indoor training like Sufferfest below is that you can get some hard training in while you focus on your posture and core muscles without getting distracted by traffic, dogs and the egos of other riders.
When the legs fatigue, the back muscles are required to work harder and it changes our movement patterns.
Recent studies found (no surprise) that the more tired cyclists legs were, the worse their spinal posture became.
Observe your own posture, make sure you are not too curved and flexed in the lower back.
When cycling uphill or sprinting, try to be conscious of using the legs muscle and keeping the back relatively relaxed.
Consciously check your posture on long rides. Actively relax the muscles in the neck, shoulders and the back and try to straighten your back a little if you feel it starting to slump.
Lower back pain cycling: Correct your posture in the office
Yes, your posture all day in the office has a major impact on lower back pain cycling.
Many cyclists ignore this.
Cycling is a bent forward activity.
When sitting at your desk, in your car, at the cinema, try not to be slumped. Use this time to train your postural muscles.
Aim to have the strength in your core and your back to sit at your desk happily with a straight back without slumping.
This is an important form of endurance that will pay dividends on the bike.
If you do not have the ability to sit up straight for a couple of hours without fatigue- your back is weak- plain and simple.
Even if you can deadlift big weights- that is a different exercise to maintaining postural muscles at a low level.
On the bike- we need to maintain “switched on” postural muscles at a low level for many hours.
Start practicing today.
Try to make sure when you are sitting at work and at home, you are not slumped for long periods.
If you overstretch the ligaments in your back by sitting on the sofa slumped for 10 hours- your back will be weak and you are more likely to get disc problems, muscle strains and lower back pain cycling.
This is simple, free and takes no time out of your day- do this.
3 Key Exercises To Eliminate Low Back Pain Cycling
Focus on developing strength specific to cycling.
There are many exercises available to strengthen the core and the back. Strength exercises are very important for cycling.
Many cyclists see these exercises as something they “should” do.
This translates to: ‘I never do them but I know I should”
In short- yes you should.
But especially if you are experiencing lower back pain cycling- you must do them before the pain gets worse.
I will point out 3 key exercises but there are many more.
The old favorite. Everyone knows it, but very few DO it.
Triathletes should be doing this daily for many reasons- stability here will also help your swim and run.
Do LONG holds.
The advice I see some give where you do 3 x 15 second holds is ridiculous.
The fact you may be cycling for 4-6 hours means you must be able to do a long plank- so aim for several holds of 3-5 minutes….
These must be done correctly. Get your technique checked by an instructor.
Deadlifts improve posture, gluteal strength and back strength.
Make sure you do not lift too heavy initially.
You can do them at home if you have lightweights. Or in the gym with a sensible weight.
A massive favorite of pro cyclists.
Because they work!
The more leg strength and endurance you have, the less is required of your back.
Squats also help back strength, core strength and posture.
What Else Can You Do to Address Your Lower Back Pain Cycling?
Have someone observe how you move while cycling or set up a video on a tripod at home.
- knees move out to the side
- hips tilt from side to side as you pedal
- body sway to one side
- body bounce up and down as you climb a hill
Remember it is best to do this when fatigued.
You may have perfect posture cycling for the first 10 minutes when you are fresh and there is minimal resistance. They key to working out the problem is what happens when you fatigue or climb a hill.
Pedal hard for an hour-THEN run the camera. Try to simulate some fatigue or it is unlikely you will spot much.
If you do a lot of cycling, it is worth checking your bike fit each year. As you develop as a cyclist, you may need to tweak the position slightly to adjust for your improving strength and ability.
Only make small changes.
Big changes at once are sometimes too drastic and can lead to problems. Muscles trying to generate the same forces from a position they are not used to, can complain.
If you still have lower back pain cycling: seek professional help
Of course if you have lower back pain cycling that is acute, or not going away or starts to run down the leg like sciatica, seek professional help.
Get the problem sorted and get specific advice to get rid of the pain.
You may also have a tight knotted back which needs releasing a couple of times, then you may be good to go.
Or you may need a specific treatment.
In 99% of cases, lower back pain is fixable, and cycling should be one thing you can do into your old age without injury.
Happy Cycling everyone.
Comment below if you have overcome lower back pain cycling.
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