In this series of columns over the past few weeks, I’ve been discussing various aches and pains (other than tired legs!) that we road cyclists suffer from, what causes them and what you can do to avoid them on a bike. Previous columns have covered: cramping; nausea; saddle discomfort / saddle sores; upper back, shoulder, neck pain / discomfort; and numb / painful hands.
Today we’ll focus on lower back pain and discomfort – which is caused by muscles tightening up as you ride (unless you have problems with your spine). And, as with the other cycling maladies, we’ll devote some time to discussing how you can avoid it.
A Personal Example
Colorado has three passes over 12,000 feet (3,658m):
- Trail Ridge Road (12,183 ft.) in Rocky Mountain National Park
- Cottonwood Pass (12,126 ft.)
- Independence Pass (12,096 ft.)
Trail Ridge is the highest paved pass in the U.S. Cottonwood and Independence were both featured climbs in the USA Pro Challenge stage race. Cottonwood features a gravel climb on the west side.
In my 67th year, my goal was to climb each side of each pass, at least 3,000 feet of elevation gain on each ride. I claimed the last one, Independence east, on October 3. (See photo.)
Thankfully, I had no low back problems on any of the climbs.
But why not?
For a number of reasons, actually.
Bike Fit: I’ve had a professional bike fit at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine (BCSM), and I’ve participated in over 100 bike fits with clients there. The BCSM fits riders ranging from pros racing the World Tour to tourists. My bikes are set up for the kind of endurance riding that I do. The handlebars are about level with my saddle, and the stem puts my body at about a 45-degree angle. A more aggressive position would cause me to bend more at the waist, which would increase the tension on my lower back muscles.
Core Strength: To be honest, I hate doing core exercises! However, I know that a strong core is important so that my core is supporting my upper body rather than my lower back muscles. So I keep my core strong by being sure that I engage my core muscles standing, walking and sitting.
Flexibility: Unlike core exercises, which I find tedious, I find stretching relaxing, and I stretch most days. My hamstrings, gluteals, low back and upper back muscles are quite flexible. As I noted in a previous column, standing with my legs straight, I can put my hands flat on the floor.
Bike Posture: Over decades of riding I’ve developed the habit of riding with a flat back, which puts less tension on my lower back muscles.
Gearing: Because I like to climb, I have a triple chain ring and a big cassette so that I can always ride with a good cadence even at high altitude. The bigger the gear and the harder you pedal, the more you need to stabilize your torso so that the power goes into your pedals rather than into rocking your pelvis and torso. If you don’t have a strong core, then you’re using your lower back muscles to keep your torso stable, whichs adds tremendous strain to your lower back.
Stretching Breaks: On a major climb, the distance doesn’t really matter. I’ve learned that I can climb about 1,000 vertical feet (305m) an hour. Each pass then took about three hours in the saddle. At altitude, there’s not enough air to simultaneously pedal and eat or drink, so every half-hour (500 feet of climbing) or so I stop for a few minutes to drink and eat. I also stretch each time that I stop.
Alternate Sitting and Standing: On climbs around Boulder I can alternative sitting and standing, which relieves tension on the back. However, standing makes more of a demand on my cardiovascular system, and at altitude there isn’t enough air to do this.
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What Can You Do?
Bike Set-up: Get a professional bike fit that includes proper gearing for your riding. Here are two fit systems that I recommend. Each has professionals in bike shops around the world.
- Specialized Body Geometry. Andy Pruitt, the recently retired head of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, developed this program. The shop technicians are trained in the BCSM methods and then certified.
- Retul, which was founded by men who worked at the BCSM.
Flexibility: Your lower back muscles are connected to your gluteals (butt muscles), which are connected to your hamstrings. You should stretch all three muscle groups so that if your back muscles tighten while riding, they will still remain within their normal ranges of motion.
Technique: As I continually preach: core strength! As you develop your core strength, develop the habit of riding with a flat back. See Aches and Pains II: Upper Back, Shoulder, Neck Pain / Discomfort. When your are riding, mix in some standing pedaling along with seated pedaling. When you stand, consciously straighten up as much as possible.
Stretching Breaks: When possible, stop every hour or two and stretch for just a couple of minutes: Here are four simple ones you can do on any stretch break:
- Overhead: Interweave your fingers, reach overhead and push your palms toward the sky. Stretch and imagine your spine elongating. Then bend slightly to one side, hold, and then bend to the other side.
- Cat: Stand with both feet on the ground, straddling the bike and holding the bars. Slowly arch your back up, roll your head forward and drop your chin down toward chest. Then reverse the stretch, starting with your pelvis, then pushing your abdomen toward the top tube and, finally, roll your head back up slowly. You can also do this while riding; it’s a great stretch after cresting a hill. It’s similar to the standing cat. Just don’t drop your chin — keep looking down the road!
- Back Rotation: Stand with both feet on the ground, straddling the bike. Rotate to the right, grab your seat with your right hand and your stem with your left hand. Repeat the stretch to the left side.
- Hamstrings: Rest one foot on a rock, bench, etc. and lean toward your foot. If your back is sore, keep your back as straight as possible. The objective is to stretch your hamstrings a bit without stretching your back. To stretch your back use either the Back Rotation or Cat.
Developing new habits is the key to preventing most of the different aches and pains on the bike. Habits like riding with a flat back, looking around frequently instead of just ahead, changing hand positions often, stretching, and sitting up straight while at work or home instead of using the back of a chair are all fine things to embrace.
This fall is a great time to develop new habits. You’ll have more success if you pick just one new habit that you want to develop and then put your time into focusing on developing that habit. It takes three or four weeks for a change to become habitual — then you can move on to another new habit.
To catch up on the entire Aches and Pains series from Coach Hughes, here are quick links to the individual articles:
See photos of all six of Coach Hughes’ climbs on his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/john.hughes.5283
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.