An aching back shouldn’t keep you off the bike. Here’s how to pedal free of low back pain.
If you’ve ever seen pros cross the finish line and visibly struggle to straighten up and stretch their spine to a normal upright position, you know that low back pain is common across all ranks. In fact, a recent survey of more than 100 pro cyclists during training camps showed that back pain accounted for the majority—45 percent—of aches and pains. Surveys of recreational cyclists show about one-third battle back pain now and again.
Dial in Your Fit.
A bike setup that is too long for you can cause an aching back by forcing you to be too stretched out. Assuming your bike is the correct size for you, that could mean a stem that is too long. a saddle that’s too far back, and/or bars that are too low.
Fast fix: You want to be set up so you can comfortably reach your bars from an upright position and so your elbows have a slight bend when you’re in the riding position. Try a shorter, high-rise stem. Add spacers under your stem. Check your saddle setback (though don’t bring it all the way forward; that’s bad for your knees). If you spend a lot of time in the drops, consider a bar with a shallower drop. If you spend a lot of time in the saddle and/or are prone to back pain, a professional fit is definitely in order.
Work Your Core.
You want to particularly focus on the “inner unit” of the core—the muscles that attach to the lowest vertebra (known as L5), namely the transverse abdominis (the deepest ab muscles that wrap horizontally around your midsection like a corset) and multifidus (the muscles running vertically along your spine). These muscles act as an anchor to stabilize you in the saddle. In a study published in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, researchers compared the strength of these muscles in a group of mountain bikers with and without low back pain. The difference between the riders: The riders with pain had less-developed transverse abdominals and lumbar multifidus spinae, so they had less lower back endurance.
Fast fix: Perform core exercises that target your inner unit. Aim for two sets of 15 three days a week.
Lie on your back with arms at your side and feet off the floor with knees bent so your quads are over your torso. Inhale and draw your abs in as you lift your hips off the floor and curl your pelvis to your ribcage and knees toward your chest. Pause, then exhale and return to the starting position.
Kneel on your hands and knees. Keep your back straight and your head and neck in line with your back. Extend your right arm and left leg, brining them up and in line with your back, or slightly higher than your trunk, if possible. Your fingers and toes should both be pointed. Pause, squeezing your glute and back muscles to maintain balance. Return to the starting position, and repeat to the opposite side. Alternate for a full set on each side.