7 Expert Tips for Banishing Lower Back Pain
“Back pain is very common in cyclists and can arise from many different root causes, including bike fit, training history, personal health issues, riding style, and what you do during your daily life off the bike,” says Matthew Silvis, MD, medical director of primary care sports medicine at Penn State Hershey Medical Group in Palmyra, PA, who specializes in the care of injured endurance athletes. To battle back—and win—the fight with lower back pain, you need to address it on all those fronts. Here’s how.
Dial in Your Fit
“The first place to look is your bike fit,” says Silvis. “I spend a lot of office visit time educating my patients about bike fit. Very often, adjustments resolve the problem and prevent it from recurring.” Specifically, a bike setup that is too long for you can cause an aching back by forcing you to be too stretched out. Assuming your bike is the correct size for you, that could mean a stem that is too long, a saddle that’s too far back, and/or bars that are too low.
Fast fix: You want to be set up so you can comfortably reach your bars from an upright position and so your elbows have a slight bend when you’re in the riding position. Try a shorter, high-rise stem. Add spacers under your stem. Check your saddle setback (though don’t bring it all the way forward; that’s bad for your knees). If you spend a lot of time in the drops, consider a bar with a shallower drop. If you spend a lot of time in the saddle or are prone to back pain, a professional fit is definitely in order.
Work Your Core
“A lot of people I see miss their core entirely during training. That’s a big problem because as a cyclist, you use your core muscles to generate power and control the movement of your bicycle,” says Silvis.
“When your core is relatively weak, you’ll get fatigue and back strain and pain much sooner than someone who is better conditioned in their lumbar spine area.”
You want to particularly focus on the “inner unit” of the core—the muscles that attach to the lowest vertebra (known as L5), namely the transverse abdominis (the deepest ab muscles that wrap horizontally around your midsection like a corset) and multifidus (the muscles running vertically along your spine). These muscles act as an anchor to stabilize you in the saddle. In a study published in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, researchers compared the strength of these muscles in a group of mountain bikers with and without lower back pain. The difference between the riders: The riders with pain had less-developed transverse abdominals and lumbar multifidus spinae, so they had less lower back endurance.
Fast fix: Perform core exercises that target your inner unit. Aim for two sets of 15 three days a week.
Lie faceup with arms at your side and feet off the floor with knees bent so shins are parallel to the floor. Inhale and draw your abs in as you lift your hips off the floor, curl your pelvis to your ribcage, and knees toward your chest. Pause, then exhale and return to the starting position.
Kneel on your hands and knees. Keep your back straight and your head and neck in line with your back. Extend your right arm and left leg out, bringing them up and in line with your back, or slightly higher than your trunk, if possible. Pause, squeezing your glute and back muscles to maintain balance. Return to the starting position, and repeat to the opposite side. Alternate for a full set on each side.
Don’t Forget Your Hips
“Often the culprit is not the back, but the pelvis,” says Silvis. “You want to be able to sit on the saddle with proper pelvic positioning—a slight forward tilt—so you can maintain a neutral and not overly flexed spine.” Many cyclists have significant muscle imbalances and general immobility throughout their hip region in the form of dominant quads, weak outer glutes, and tight psoas (the muscle that attaches the lower spine to the femur and acts as a hip flexor). All of that can cumulate in poor pelvic positioning and lower back pain.
Fast fix: Stretch and foam roll all your lower body muscles regularly. Also, add this hip stability move to your repertoire three days a week to strengthen and stretch all the right places:
Fire Hydrant with Rotation
Kneel on your hands and knees. Keep your back straight and your head and neck in line with your back. Draw your navel toward your spine. Pull your right knee to your chest. Contract the right glute and lift the leg out to the side of your hip, like a dog marking a fire hydrant. Then rotate back and around in a circle, until the knee is tucked back to your chest. Repeat for 5 to 6 rotations; then reverse direction for 5 to 6 rotations. Switch legs.
Ramp Up Your Riding Wisely
Sometimes back pain is just a matter of doing too much too soon, says Silvis. Because cycling is low impact it’s easy for us to get gung ho on the first nice days of the year and ride longer and harder than our supporting muscles are conditioned for. “Then you pay for that later…like the next ride,” he says.
Fast fix: Rein yourself in a bit and ramp up your riding in a progressive way, increasing your weekly mileage by no more than 20 to 25 percent. That’s especially important for your weekly long ride.
Change Positions Frequently
By definition chronic injury like back pain is the result of repetitive, cumulative stress that leads to tissue damage. Sitting fixed in one position for hours on end increases that risk.
Fast fix: This is an easy one: Move around a little out there. Change positions from the tops to the hoods to the drops. Stand up out of the saddle and take a few pedal strokes. Scoot forward or back a bit on your seat. Give your body a break from the same position a few times an hour.
Going Up? Shift Down
Sitting and mashing a monster gear places undue stress on your back and fatigues your glutes and hamstrings, which can cause your pelvis to tilt backwards and put even more strain on your lumbar muscles, says Silvis.
Fast fix: Use your gears! Try to keep the load low enough so you can spin a cadence of around 80 rpm while you climb.
“Many of the people I see have pain because they sit all day long and then hop on their bike, bringing their general tightness and stiffness along for the ride,” says Silvis.
Fast fix: Work is work, and you’ve got to be in the office when you have to be in the office, but if possible manipulate your environment to put your body in motion more throughout the day. Request a convertible work station that allows you to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day; swap a stability ball for your office chair, and use your lunch time to get up and at least take a quick walk. “All those little movements add up to a big benefit for your back,” says Silvis.