Having back pain is common for cyclists. It’s no surprise that exercising hunched over for a long time could lead to aches. It doesn’t have to be that way!
Back pain, especially lower back pain when cycling is usually the result of poor positioning, weak muscles, or muscle fatigue. More than 90% of the time it can be easily corrected by making sure that you have the correct bicycle setup and/or by strengthening some of your muscles.
In this article, we’re taking a closer look at the most common causes of back pain and what you can do about it so you can cycle pain-free.
Why does my back hurt when cycling?
The number one reason why beginner (and sometimes veteran) cyclists have back pain is their position. A 60- or 90-minute session with your hips too high, back arched, or shoulders forward is a sure way to feel terrible for days after.
Poor positioning on the bicycle usually occurs when one tries out a new bicycle, makes some changes to the bike (e.g. new crank arms, saddle, etc.), or rides on a loner bike. You need to spend the first few rides on a bike that hasn’t been set up for you paying attention to every single feedback your body is giving you. If they go unnoticed or unaddressed, you may end up with back (and other) pain.
In order to get the position dialed in to the point of perfection you should get a professional bike fit.. A professional has the equipment that analyzes every small detail in your movement and makes sure that everything about the bike is right for your body.
If you prefer to set up your bike for yourself, keep these guiding principles in mind.
- Make sure you have a slight knee bend at the bottom. Having a straight leg at the bottom pedal stroke means you’re riding too high.
- You should also have a slight bend at the elbows. Stretching your back and arms to grab the handlebar means you’re too far away from it.
- Look for a 60-40 split. Keep 60% of your weight on the back and 40% on the front. Adjust accordingly.
Cycling will give you strong legs – but it will not train your upper body. Cycling requires every muscle to be strong if you’re planning to spend long periods of time in the saddle.
Hitting the gym two or three times per week or doing core strengthening exercises at home, is going to help you prevent back pain when riding. More on this later.
Muscle fatigue can be as painful as riding with weak muscles. How can you tell a weak muscle from a fatigued muscle? The number one sign is burning out. Fatigue usually isn’t in the body alone but the mind as well.
If you’re having a hard time getting out of bed or on your bike, you may be a little too tired. A fatigued back is prone to injury and pain.
How can I avoid my back from hurting?
Check your bike (and your technique)
Unless your bike fits you like a glove, you’re going to put unnecessary strain on your body.
Here are some of the things you must keep in mind:
Never buy a bike that’s not your size. Sometimes you fall in love with a bicycle that – for whatever reason – isn’t available in your size. It’s very tempting to ‘forgive it’ that it’s the next size up or down. This will inevitably lead to an uncomfortable ride. A bicycle that’s too big for you causes you to stretch out too much and is going to result in back pain.
Saddle height. As mentioned earlier, your ideal saddle height is where you have your legs slightly bent in the 6 o’clock position. If you have your saddle raised too high, you’re going to rock left to right whilst riding in order to reach the pedal. This constant hip movement may lead to back pain.
Saddle fore-aft position. One way to prevent stretching out too far to reach the handlebar is by moving the saddle forward. Even just a few millimeters can make a difference.
Stem length. This is another way of shortening the distance you need to stretch out to reach the handlebar. If you experience no pain in your knees, then this is probably the preferred way of shortening the distance, since altering your saddle position as described before, is also going to affect your relative position to the pedal.
Strengthen your muscles
Weak back and core muscles will lead to back pain. You don’t have to be a body builder to be sufficiently strong to maintain your riding position without pain, but concentrating on your major muscle groups on a weekly basis is a good way of building up sufficient strength.
It is worth noting that the more aggressive your riding position and the more demanding your riding style, the more important muscle strength is.
The major muscle groups you need to focus on are the following three:
- Legs: riding your bike takes care of this, but you can do squats, launges and deadlifts to further strengthen your legs.
- Back: deadlifts, rows, and pull-ups are some exercises that you can do in a gym or at home.
- Core: planks, hollow holds, side twists, and bridges help build a strong core.
Resting has a tremendous capability to help your muscles recover. In fact, muscle fatigue is often a sign of over-exercising without sufficient recovery.
The first type of recovery is recovery on an ongoing basis. It is important because it allows you to let your muscles regenerate after each ride.
A second type of recovery is when you take a longer break from riding. While this may be counter-intuitive, and seem like wasted time letting your muscles relax and build back up could make you stronger than before.
You know that you need to take a few days off when your regular daily recovery periods seem to be insufficient, and you feel unnecessary strain on your back as you get into the saddle the following day.
Your recovery should consist in of a passive as well as an active part.
Passive recover means that you’re not exercising, not actively engaging your muscles.
Active recovery consists of stretches and massaging your muscles through with foam roll for example.
As a side note, taking a week-long break every three months is beneficial for you – even if nothing is wrong.
How often should cyclists work out?
For an average road rider, one gym session per week is sufficient to build enough muscle, but some pro cyclists work out two to three times per week. It’s a good idea to schedule your gym day when you’re not riding, or when you have an easy day in the saddle.
You shouldn’t strength train when you’re tired. On days you have to both train and ride your bike, make sure you lift weights first and cycle second. If possible, wait for a few hours after weight training so your body can recover.
Can you cycle with back pain?
As long as your back pain doesn’t get any worse when you ride your bike, you can, but with caution. You should avoid cycling if you’re feeling worse than before when you get off your bike.
If your pain seems to stay or worsen, always look for professional help. This can be a coach, a physiotherapist or a doctor. The worst thing you can do is to ignore the pain over a period of time.
You can get back on your bike once you solve the issue – but do so gradually! Take a few days to get back to your previous workload.