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Cycling - Low Back Pain

Ron Fritzke considers why so many cyclists suffer from low back pain.

You have been a biking maniac, riding consistently for many miles over hilly terrain. After a recent long ride, you hop off your bike and find you cannot stand up straight. The old nursing home feels like it is about to have a new resident .... you.

Many people suffer from low back pain.

Cycling enthusiasts, especially older riders, are likely to have some form of low back pain. The exact cause or source of the low back pain is often tricky to determine. The muscles, joints and nerves in the low back region are a complex system that are inter-weaved and work together. If any one of these systems is out of whack, their interaction can be thrown off, resulting in searing pain. Simply saying that 'I have pulled a muscle in my back' or 'It is a back spasm' gives too little information.

What might be causing the low back pain?

When cycling, we are restricted to the shape of the bike. Our bodies are hunched forward and our lower back is forced in a prolonged flexed posture. This is hard on joints and muscles. On average, we already spend too much time in flexion. We often sit for long periods of time. Whether it is at work, at school, or on the the couch watching television; we constantly sit. This constant flexion results in short, contracted hip flexors. Even when we sleep, many of us do so in a semi-fetal position. All of this flexion shortens our psoas, iliacus, rectus femoris, and sartorius muscles.

The low back region is complex. There are several muscles that comprise the hip flexor group and low back region. If one takes the time to understand the complexities in this region, it will go a long way in helping prevent the many low back injuries that are common to cyclists.

One way to help prevent the low back injuries that are prevalent to cyclists is stretching the hip flexors. One of the big problems with this is that there are very few activities of daily living that stretch out this muscle group. The flexibility of this group in general is poor at best. As cyclists, we are forced to perform in a position that forces the hip flexors somewhere between 'short and shorter'. These 'short and shorter' muscles are very susceptible to fatigue and spasm. One example where short hip flexors is problematic is during a ride with a long climb. After a relatively short amount of time, the rider tires and the lower back can become uncomfortable or even painful. To get some relief, the rider will stand. The standing is where the rider experiences the benefit of stretching the hip flexors.

The best way to help avoid problems with shortened hip flexors is using a regular hip flexor stretching routine and deep tissue massage. It is also important to develop a strong core (stomach and back). Without the stability of a strong core, prolonged bike rides are often limited. One needs a strong core to keep pedaling when the ride becomes challenging.

In addition check the saddle position as it may be set too far back. Thomson and Origin8 make straight seat posts to help get the saddle further forward. For mountain biking and other rougher surfaces, consider Cloud 9 saddles with the 8" wide spot to sit on and Elastomer coils underneath thus facilitating the important concept that the saddle gives instead of the spine.

Make sure and pay attention to joints and nerves

The sacro-iliac joints are often overlooked when low back pain is involved. The muscles that affect these joints, which include the hip flexors, are complex. The sacroiliac joint is the junction of the lowest part of the spine (sacrum) and the pelvis (ileum). Up until about eighty years ago, it was thought that there was no movement in the sacroiliac joints, but it is now known that these joints do have some limited normal movement. When this movement gets stuck, one will most likely experience searing pain. Going to a chiropractor to free the restricted sacro-iliac joints usually offers a great deal of relief. Of course it is best to stop a problem before it starts. So our objective is to give you some things to do before your sacroiliac complex goes into painful spasm.

These Oft Overlooked Muscles Could Use a Stretch

We have already alluded to the benefits of alternating sitting with standing in order to lengthen the hip flexors. Stretching out this muscle group at home is invaluable to riding comfort.

Most discussions of cycling stretches include the hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves and perhaps some general low back stretches. These are all important, but there is a critical group of muscles directly affecting the sacroiliac joints and lumbar spine which is often neglected.

Here are three overlooked muscle groups that should be emphasized in addition to any general stretching that is performed:

  • The piriformis muscle that originates from the front part of the sacrum and crosses the sacro-iliac joint to the femur. Any muscle that crosses a joint will directly affect that joint. This little muscle, as it relates to the sacro-iliac joint, is no exception. About 15% of the population, including cyclists, have their sciatic nerve running through this muscle instead of under it, making them more susceptible to sciatic nerve impingement when this muscle is too tight. Anyone who has had sciatic nerve impingement knows what pain is.
  • The psoas muscle is critical to hip flexion. Since cyclists are bent at the waist when riding, this muscle has to do its work while in a 'shortened' position. The psoas muscle begins along the lumbar spine and crosses the sacro-iliac joint on its way to the femur (long bone in the thigh). It is often a direct contributor to many forms of low back pain. Make sure and do all you can to keep it long and loose.
  • The gluteal muscles are comprised of the three muscles that make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. Chronic tightness of the gluteal muscles can lead to painful trigger points along the backside of the top of the pelvic bone (iliac crest). Effective massage therapists are well aware of the location of these trigger points. You definitely know it when they find them!

Due to limitations on space, we leave it up to the reader to do some Internet sleuthing. There are many excellent websites that cover stretches in good detail for the three muscles groups above.

Armed with New Knowledge, I Think I'm Ready to Ride

In general, people's bodies are in flexion too much. As cyclists, we are in flexion even more so, due to the nature of the machine we ride. As we ride, it is the repetitive, short range, very controlled movements that are a recipe for a host of overuse injuries. Subjecting ourselves to the confines of a bike exacerbates the need for preventative measures such as stretching some lesser-known muscle groups in addition to the common stretches already being done.

Besides stretching, outside help such as deep tissue massage and chiropractic adjustments can aid tremendously. Just as you take a vehicle in for regular maintenance to keep it running in mint condition, your body also needs routine maintenance. It is the combined efforts of the individual and professionals such as massage therapists and chiropractors that help keep you running in tip-top shape.

The neuromusculoskeletal system works as an integrated system. Each component; the nerves, muscles, and joints, affect one another. As a cyclist, it is important to take a multi-disciplined approach to keep this intricate system at its optimum. Once there is a good understanding of potential low back injuries and some simple ways to help avoid them, we can be proactive rather than reactive.


Page Reference

The reference for this page is:

  • FRITZKE, R. (2009) Cycling - Low Back Pain [WWW] Available from: http://www.brianmac.co.uk/cycling/lowbackpain.htm [Accessed

About the Author

Ron Fritzke, D.C. currently serves as the chiropractor for the College of Siskiyous sports medicine team. He has also maintained a private practice in Mount Shasta, California for 22 years. He is a former marathon runner who sports a personal best of 2 hours and 17 minutes. His current sport of choice is cycling. He competes in bike races and writes about cycling related topics such the bike jersey, bicycle indoor trainers, indoor cycling shoes, and bicycle clothing on his website, Cycling-Review.com.

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