Cycling Back Pain Part 1: Breaking Down 4 Causes

Cycling Back Pain Part 1: Breaking Down 4 Causes

Poor posture, bike fits, daily habits and approach to strength training are primary factors holding back cyclists and triathletes from better performance and riding without pain.

Back pain and cycling may seem to go hand in hand, and many riders see back pain as “inevitable” or “highly likely” if for those who ride regularly. But that doesn’t need to be the case.

In this first of a two-part series, we’ll examine back pain in cyclists. Part One will cover the more significant contributors to back pain, while Part Two will look at a few approaches to help reduce the risk of developing back pain.

Let’s start with a few critical points:

  • There is no singular cause to back pain.
  • No single solution exists to “cure” back pain.
  • Each case of back pain is different, so that each rider will have a unique path to recovery.

An approach that “worked wonders” in relieving symptoms for one person may be the worst trigger for the next. This challenge makes addressing back pain much more complicated and requires a different skill set than helping someone with a torn ACL or broken collarbone. We’ll cover those topics more in the second part, but it’s essential to set the tone before diving into pain triggers.

While addressing and treating back pain is incredibly individualized, there are four leading causes for back pain in cyclists:

  • Riding Posture
  • Bike Fit
  • Daily Body Movement Habits
  • Strength and Movement Training

Riding Posture

The sport of cycling is unique regarding posture while in motion. Whether you’re a triathlete on a time trial bike, a roadie or a mountain biker, being on the bike requires us to be in a much different posture than our bodies are designed for through walking or standing.

On the bike, the upper back tends to round and roll forward. Our head must be pitched back and looking forward to see and control the bike. And our hips and legs only go through a limited range of motion when pedaling, preventing us from getting a full extension from the hips and knees. Additionally, our lower back tends to be slightly flexed forward, even more so with riders of lesser hip mobility.

These postures significantly change the positioning of the joints of our body, which means the muscles and other soft tissues (ligaments, discs, fascia, etc.) are now working and aligned in positions for which they are not designed for, nor for life-long health and movement.

The joint position dictates muscle function and soft tissue performing as designed.

And in the case of a cyclist, while we work hard to get ourselves as fast or strong as possible on the bike, without careful thought and attention, over time, this can lead to imbalances where some muscles become shortened while others lengthen. Specific muscle groups dominate movements while others are turned off and along for the ride. Meanwhile, our connective tissues methodically become stretched and deformed, contributing to further posture issues.

Improper Bike Fit

Often seen as an unnecessary expense, a quality bike fit is worth far more than its financial and time investments. A quality bike fit will help ensure that a bike is set up to the rider’s unique needs and help them move as naturally and efficiently as possible.

Many cyclists forgo this investment, usually because they feel they are “not a racer” or aren’t concerned about performance. While this may seem reasonable, a bike fit and at least yearly check-ins or refinements with the fitter, is one of the most approachable changes a rider can make to help ensure their body stays healthy, pain-free and riding for many years to come.

When seeking out a fit, there is a wide range of options that can be classified as “bike fits.” A bike fit at a local bike shop can range from simply checking that the saddle height and reach are set appropriately to a complete 3-D analysis with computer mapping and anatomical exam. Making sure to find a high-quality bike fitter is ideal for gaining the benefits of alleviating or preventing body pain.

There are many fit specialists out there these days, often with tools including camera-based movement software, lasers, and other fancy gadgets to “fit a rider through science.” However, bike fitting is as much art as science.

Many cyclists forgo this investment, usually because they feel they are “not a racer” or aren’t concerned about performance.

A high-quality bike fitter will take the time to talk with a rider for 30-60 minutes (or longer), learning more about them as a person, their daily activities, past exercise and injury history, as well as riding goals. A rather extensive off-bike range of motion and flexibility screening should follow this interview process, most importantly evaluating hips, knees and other joints to understand how the body is functioning as a whole, not just the “cycling movements.” Only after all these evaluations are done should a rider jump onto the fit stand to pedal while the fitter begins to make adjustments.

Some aspects a fitter should study include: A proper saddle that provides the optimal amount of support for a rider’s SIT bones, the correct width and reach for handlebars, how the rider is positioned on the bike and pedals, how cleats are set on shoes and more. These adjustments help to provide a better on-bike experience and decrease the likelihood of developing back pain issues.

Using an improperly fit bike can have a massive effect on an athlete off the bike. Adding more value to having a proper bike fit as it can improve more than just pedaling performance.

Poor Daily Movement Habits

How an athlete moves the other 22 or so hours a day when they are not riding can have as big of an impact on keeping their back happy as the movement on the bike.

Sitting for long periods of time, picking things up with poor form, and even how one ties their shoes and brushes teeth all take a toll on the back if a rider is not paying attention to their movement habits. Habitual poor body movements and usage will certainly contribute to stressing tissues and triggering pain.

I spoke about this with world-leading low back and spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill on my podcast.

Poor understanding of strength & movement training

While the cycling and triathlon worlds have shifted gears from lighter weight and high reps—or avoiding strength training altogether because it will make them bulky—to lifting heavier weight, many are still missing the essential part of strength training. It’s not how much you lift, but rather how you move it.

Yes, eventually, heavy weights are necessary to see continued results. However, technique and which muscles perform most of the work are far more critical than anyone likes to admit. After all, who wants to focus on technique when you can just go in, load up the bar and lift some heavy things?

But for many cyclists and triathletes, the sad reality is that this mentality of lifting heavy stuff, without taking the time to learn great technique and allow the tissues of the body time to adapt to these new stresses, leads to an otherwise easily avoided back injury. Dr. McGill and I discussed this on another podcast, going into detail surrounding proper weight training.

While lifting heavy stuff can be a fun new challenge, there are five factors to address to improve on-bike performance via strength training.

Back Pain in Cyclists

Several factors contribute to the development of lower back pain in cyclists, some obvious, others not so much. Preventing back pain, let alone resolving it, takes a holistic approach and not simply looking for a few exercises or stretches. In Part Two, we will look at a few simple tools to help stave off back pain or help get a rider on the track out of back pain.

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