Written by Michelle Stampe
Watch riders hop off their bike after a long day in the saddle, and it’s pretty clear they won’t sprint off for a beer and a taco too quick. It’s more of a belabored waddle. After most endurance riders cross the finish line, the first thing they do is put their hands on their back and stretch while making that face that says, “I will NOT get back on that torture device.”
Considering the hunched position riders are in, it isn’t unusual to experience some discomfort after a long or strenuous ride.
To find out just how prevalent lower back pain is in bikers, one research team interviewed 109 elite road cyclists to find out what injuries they suffered from in the last year.
A whopping 45% of injuries were in the lower back. What’s more, 58% of all participants had experienced lower back pain in the previous 12 months.However, just because some discomfort is normal, that doesn’t mean that pain is acceptable. And if a rider is otherwise healthy, they shouldn’t assume they have to endure back pain every time they ride.
As a cyclist, think about your normal routine. You get up, head to work, and likely sit most of the day. Then you leave work and sit on your bike for a ride. Then you sit down for dinner and sit in a recliner to relax before bed.
Because cyclist’s sport of choice is already in a seated position, it means that most of us spend way too much time on our butts. You probably don’t have great posture while doing all that sitting, either.
There are other factors as well, like poor bike fit, poor posture on the bike, and riding style. Below is some practical advice for pain-free rides.
Core strength is critical to avoid lower back pain. Basically, your core muscles help stabilize your spine, and because of that, any back rehabilitation program includes some core strengthening exercises.
Try integrating a quick, 10-minute core workout 2 times a week that includes exercises like planking.
If you’re not into working out alone, pilates, yoga, or CrossFit classes include a lot of core strength.
Injury rehabilitation specialist Paul Argent points out that a lot of discomfort comes from bending at your spine instead of at your hips. When you’re seated on your bike, you have two points on your body that allow you to bend over the bars: your lower back and your hips.
Research shows that cyclists with lower back pain usually have a significant bend in their lumbar spine.
Ever done “cat-cow” in yoga?
If you’re doing “cat” all day, you’re putting a lot of stress on your spine. Next time you ride, focus on keeping a straight back and bending at your hips.
For a few exercises to help with body position related back pain, check out this resource.
Crushing big gears hard for extended periods of time fatigues the muscles in your back. When those muscles get tired, your body relies on other structures, like bones and ligaments, to keep you upright. Without support from muscles, those structures are stressed.
You can reduce the overall amount of fatigue on your back muscles by doing two things:
1. Ride at a higher cadence
If you usually ride in the 60-80 rpm range, try downshifting to ride at 90 RPMs or faster. If you don’t have a cadence sensor, simply try riding your usual route in an easier gear. It might take a while for your muscles to adjust to this style of riding.
Try standing up during short, punchy climbs to give your back a break. Lot’s of us learn to climb seated because it’s more efficient and overall a little easier. However, when you start increasing intensity and duration, all that seated climbing can really fatigue your back. By standing up to climb you’ll lose a bit of efficiency, but may be able to stave off back pain.
As riders venture out for longer and longer rides, their backpacks get heavier and heavier. Which, as physiotherapist Phil Mack points out, this might be the most obvious problem with the most obvious solution to back pain.
Most hydration packs and riding packs center all their weight on your lower back. Try switching to a hip or fanny pack or carry your bottles on your bike. There are lots of bike bags available that hold your entire tool kit on the frame of your bike. Even if you don’t have any pain, it’s worth the investment to ride unimpeded by a sweaty back.
Remember, discomfort on long, hard rides is to be expected, but pain can be avoided. If you’re still struggling with back pain, consider investing in a bike fit or the advice of a sports medicine professional.