One of the most common complaints of cyclists on the bike is pain or stiffness in the lower back due to the unnatural, hunched over, forward position. While extreme pain or injury should be addressed with a healthcare professional, there are a few changes you can make to keep this problem from persisting.
These five fixes should help you stay pain-free on the bike so you can enjoy your rides:
Pain on the bike is most often due to a poor bike fit. While getting fit by a professional is recommended, here are a few common fit issues that often cause lower back pain and are relatively simple to fix:
A saddle that’s too high will cause your hips to rock side to side when you pedal, leading to lower back pain. To determine if this is the issue, watch yourself in a mirror while pedaling on an indoor trainer. You should have a slight bend in the knee at the bottom dead center of the pedal stroke (6 o’clock). If your leg is completely straight in this position, lower the seat so you have 25–35 degrees of knee flexion.
When your handlebar is a bit too far away, it can cause a stretched-out position that puts too much strain on your lumbar vertebrae. Shortening your stem and raising your handlebars with spacers to achieve a more upright position could help.
If you’re constantly mashing big gears, you could be overworking your muscles — including those in the lower back and hips. Once they become fatigued, stiffness and pain could result while you’re on the bike.
While it’ll cause you to change your riding style, using a higher cadence could solve this issue. Instead of riding in the 65–80 rpm (revolutions per minute) range, try riding at 90 rpm or higher. This will tax your cardiovascular system a bit more but allow you to keep your power output the same while placing less stress on your muscles. Try a few high-cadence drills to adapt your body to this style of cycling.
Also make sure you remember to shift whenever the gradient increases and change your position on the bike every so often from sitting to standing to keep your lower back muscles from getting stiff and tight.
During the pedaling motion, the core stabilizes the pelvis, providing a foundation for your legs to push against. The stronger your core, the faster you’ll go. On the flip side, if you have a weak core, you’ll be forced to use your lower back to compensate. This can cause pain as the lower back muscles begin to fatigue and eventually leads to injury.
By strengthening your core, you’ll rely on your lower back for power less, making it easier to tolerate the forward position on the bike as the miles and hours in the saddle pile up. Give these exercises a try to strengthen your core, decrease your pain and improve your speed in the process.
Because of the position, tight hamstrings are a common ailment for cyclists. What you may not realize is tight hamstrings can cause lower back pain, since these muscles attach on the lower part of the pelvis. When your hamstrings are tight they can pull down on the pelvis causing a posterior pelvic tilt, resulting in increased flexion of the lumbar vertebrae.
Make it a habit to foam roll and stretch your hamstrings a few times per day, especially right after you get off the bike. Remember: You’ll get a better stretch and improve your flexibility more when you’re already warmed up, so do so when possible.
Tight quadriceps, hip flexors, piriformis and other muscles that originate at the pelvis can cause back pain as well. Including some of these stretches in your routine improves your overall flexibility and not only helps you avoid lower back pain on the bike, but can also help you achieve a lower, more aerodynamic position.
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced cyclist ramping up for an upcoming race, increasing your mileage too fast could lead to pain or injury out on the road. Like anything else, if your muscles aren’t conditioned to handle the stress of the activity you’ll have to compensate for any areas of weakness — and most of the time your lower back will take the bulk of the punishment.
Allow your body to adapt to the increased time spent riding by increasing your mileage slowly, by no more than 20% per week. It’s also a good idea to use training blocks to prevent overtraining and injury. Follow every three weeks of ramping up your weekly mileage with one week of recovery. Your recovery week should include some cross training, rest days, and a 30–40% decrease in your total weekly mileage.