Cycling back pain can come either during or after the ride. In most cases this type of back pain is not serious, and will go away by itself or after making the required changes in your riding style, the bicycle or other equipment that you are using, or just getting in shape. Anyway, bicycling and pain are not strangers to each other.
There are many types of pain that can result from our great hobby, such as leg pain, bicycling knee pain, neck muscle pain and the most common bicycle saddle sores. Back pain is another quite common type of pain resulting from bicycle riding.
Types of Cycling Back Pain
There are two main types of back pain from bicycling: Upper back pain, and lower back pain. In this page I will focus on the 2’nd form of pain. In most cases the lower back pain is associated with neck pain, and is covered in my article about neck muscle pain.
While riding, the low back muscles are responsible for stabilizing and controlling the movement. If our back is not in its best condition and it is not flexible enough, we can expect to suffer from back pain.
What Causes Cycling Back Pain
There are several reasons for having a cycling back pain. The main factors that most likely contribute to lower back pain while cycling are incorrect riding style, non optimal bicycle fit and lack of core muscle flexibility and strength. Let’s discuss these factors one by one, and add some others as well.
Bike Fit and Your Posture on the Bike
In most riding styles, and especially in mountain biking and road biking, our back is arched, so that we have the ability to absorb the bumps. If you ride straight upright, spine has no way to “give” when the bike hits bumps. From the other hand, if we lean too much forward, bumps might cause the back to bow even farther in the forward direction. In both cases we can expect to have a back pain.
Bicycle sizing is a key factor that affect our back while riding. Many cyclists are not fully aware of the dramatic effect that riding a bike that is too small or that is too big for them might have on their health, and on the probability to suffer from health problems such as lower back pain while riding, especially on long and consecutive rides.
Generally speaking, every aspect of the bicycle geometry, such as the height of the bicycle handlebars, top tube length (or the length of the “virtual” top tube, in some bicycle models) may increase the pressure on the intervertebral disks, and have a negative affect on the biker’s back that can cause a back pain.
Besides the size of the bicycle there are other bicycle related factors that can affect our back. A major cause for back pain is incorrect saddle height: If the saddle is placed too high our hips might rock from side to side. This can cause a back pain. Bicycle seat that is too low might have a negative affect no other parts of our body: this can cause a bicycling knee pain.
Lack of Suspension (Mountain Bikes)
From my own experience, another not so commonly discussed cause for cycling back pain is the lack of proper suspension in mountain bikes. Please refer to my articles about mountain bike shocks and about bicycle forks. If you are serious about mountain biking, you should consider riding o a bicycle that has shocks.
The Riding Style
Did you know...?
Did you know that doing a bit of weight training can help protect you against cycling-related back pain?
Doing some deadlifts or weighted hyperextensions will condition your lower back muscles to support heavy loads, ensuring that these muscles are better prepared for the rigors of competitive cycling.
While climbing and sprinting we put a lot of pressure on the pedals, and there is a tendency to pull the handlebars up. This puts a lot of pressure on our back muscles. Strengthen your lower back muscles, and avoid overload.
Lack of Muscles Flexibility / Core Strength: We like bicycling, and in many cases do not add any other sports activity to our routing. Lack proper flexibility and core strength can cause lower back pain, as Road and mountain biking demands prolonged back flexion. Regardless of our bicycling level, core strength and stability should be something that we all have to maintain, and improve.
As you tire on a long ride our rising style changes. One of the changes is the tendency to put more load on the lower (and upper) back. We also often lean to the side of the downstroke, so the weight of the body can help the tired leg muscles. This also adds an extra load on our back. When you feel that you are tired, do not continue riding (like we did during our Rhine River tour). Take a break, fuel up, look at the scenery -- riding is supposed to be fun.
Too Heavy Backpack
Carrying a heavy cycling backpack loaded with water, spare inner tube and bicycle repair kit increase the risk of having a cycling back pain. Extra weight increases the amount of work your back muscles must do, causes cycling back pain. Try to carry the water bottle in a bicycle water bottle cage attached to the bicycle frame. Carry your bicycle repair tools in an bicycle saddle bag.
Non Cycling Related factors
There may be many other reasons for back pain, other than the cycling itself. It may be due to other physical activities. I am not intending to discuss this serious matter here.
For more information you can turn to online information sources, such as Wikipedia. As always, when it comes to health related issues my recommendation is to consult a sports doctor.
In the mean while, there are several products that you may consider using as a first aid treatment. Take a look at this excelent product.
Treatment for Your Back Pain
As with most muscle and joint-related problems, treatment for cycling back pain will differ depending on the source of the pain and the severity of the injury. Here are some of the most common treatment options for cycling-related back pain.
- If your back pain is caused by a build-up of excess lactic acid in your lower back muscles, massage therapy is really your best bet.
- There are many different kinds of massage therapy out there. You're not looking for a relaxing oil massage. What you want is a deep tissue or sports massage specifically designed to relieve muscle soreness and dissipate lactic acid in your muscles.
- If the pain is particularly severe, ask for your massage therapist to perform petrissage. This type of massage uses the fingertips to knead out specific kinks in the muscle and is a basic massage skill that every certified massage therapist should know. It's great for treating cycling back pain. It'll be a little more expensive as therapists work on one small area at a time, but the relief it brings is well worth it.
- If your back pain is caused by an injury to your joints or spine, chiropractic treatment is your best bet.
- Chiropractic treatment involves the application of carefully measured force to painful joints or pressure points along the spine. This will help to reduce inflammation, relieve pain and restore lower back mobility.
- If you are suffering from pain as well as restricted lower back movement, the odds are high you need to see a chiropractor.
- Chiropractic treatment can be very painful, but when performed by a certified professional, it'll do plenty of good in the long run.
Change in Diet
- Cycling back pain can sometimes be caused by nutritional deficiencies. Sportsmen, especially those who participate in strenuous sports like cycling, require larger quantities of essential vitamins and minerals than people with sedentary lifestyles as their bodies are subjected to far greater stress.
- One crucial vitamin for athletes is Vitamin D. A high intake of Vitamin D reduces the risk of muscle and bone pain. The human body is capable of producing Vitamin D in the presence of sunlight, but as this occurs in very small quantities, athletes are strongly advised to ingest Vitamin D supplements on a regular basis.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency has also been linked to chronic back pain. This deficiency is quite rare, but if your back pain is accompanied by numbness or a tingling feeling, you may need to see a doctor about getting some Vitamin B12 jabs or a Vitamin B12 nasal spray.
- Cycling back pain can be alleviated by ingesting herbs like white willow bark which, once digested, convert to salicylic acid. Salicylic acid reduces joint and muscle inflammation.
- This is obviously a last resort. Very few cyclists will require surgery to remedy their back pain. If a surgical procedure is needed to alleviate the problem, then the injury is far more severe than a mere muscle or joint strain. The patient is probably suffering from a disc problem.
- Bulging or herniated disks are hardly ever caused by cycling. They are usually caused by lifting heavy weights with incorrect posture. These problems may, however, be exacerbated by poor cycling habits.
- If you find that the pain is spreading from your back down to your legs and is frequently accompanied by numbness, you may be suffering from a disc problem. See a doctor and find out if surgery is needed.
Preventing Cycling Back Pain
As the old adage goes, prevention is better than cure. Now that you know more about the different causes of back pain and the strategies you can adopt to avoid back injuries, you should quickly begin to correct any bad habits you have before back pain develops. Adopt a well-rounded training regime that strengthens your lower back and abdominal muscles instead of one that just targets your legs. Consume food and supplements rich in essential vitamins and minerals. Last of all, when in doubt, see a doctor. They'll be able to diagnose your specific ailment and prescribe treatment tailor-made for your type of injury!
Books About Back Pain
Take a look at these excelent books about back pain:
Last Word About Cycling Back Pain
Lower back pain is quite common among cyclists. The good news is that by making some minor adjustments in the bicycle fit, changing our posture on the bicycle, strengthening our back and making some changes in our cycling style and technique we can prevent most cases of lower back pain.
There are some other reasons for back pain that are not directly related to bicycle riding. Just like in any other health problem, my recommendation is to consult a doctor who specialized in sport injuries.