Cycling can be a great way to get the recommended amount of exercise in a week. Many great options exist for competition and recreation with triathlons, road races, and other events such as the week-long trip across Iowa, known as Ragbrai. With aerodynamics being an importance consideration, especially when racing, cyclists often find themselves in prolonged postures which occasionally leads to low back pain. Up to 50% of cyclists report low back pain and various factors including muscle activity, body position, and spine motion could play a significant role in developing pain.
Low back pain can be a significant limiting factor when it comes to biking, especially with bikes with low handle bars. Lower handle bars lead to increase lumbar bend or flexion while cycling. Excessive lumbar flexion, when sustained, may set someone up for problems in the low back. Three things have been linked to low back pain with cycling and modifications may help improve one’s pain and ability to bike.
Core muscle activation imbalances, deficits in back extensor endurance, and increased lumbar flexion have been found in cyclists who have low back pain compared to cyclists who do not have low back pain. Addressing these three components could be beneficial to get people with low back pain back to riding with greater ease.
Core muscle activation imbalances can vary from person to person. Occasionally some of the smaller muscles do not activate as well and large muscles become overworked. Specific exercises targeting these small muscles could help take some stress off of the larger muscles to help stabilize the spine.
The muscles that run along the back are responsible for keeping people upright. One could imagine if the muscles that normally keep the back straight get over fatigued, increased pain and forward flexion could result. Ramping up cycling miles too fast could lead to problems with muscle endurance. Specific exercises targeting the lumbar extensors could also be beneficial to improve the endurance of the muscles along the spine.
Increased lumbar flexion in cyclists could be a cause or result of back pain. Since lower handle bars lead to increased lumbar flexion, one strategy could be to raise the height of the handle bars. Not all bikes have options to do this easily so if cycling is very important to you and back pain is a limitation, handle bar height should be a consideration if purchasing a new bike.
Addressing the muscle activation, muscle endurance, and spine position when biking could provide some relief to low back discomfort when cycling. With the vast benefits of cardiovascular exercise, ceasing cycling due to back pain may not be the best option for one’s overall health. Attempting to resolve lumbar pain through physical therapy assessment and therapeutic interventions may be a great option to keep cyclists on the road or trails.
Is Cycling Causing Your Low Back Pain?
Streisfeld GM, Bartoszek C, Creran E, et al. Relationship Between Body Positioning, Muscle Activity, and Spinal Kinematics in Cyclists With and Without Low Back Pain. Sports Health. Vol 9, Issue 1, pp. 75 – 79. October-26-2016. 10.1177/1941738116676260