“It is estimated that 15% to 20% of adults have back pain during a single year and 50% to 80% experience at least one episode of back pain during a lifetime.” National Library of Medicine
Athletes aren’t immune. Researchers compared groups of elite athletes and moderately active people and were surprised to find half of each group had low back pain (LBP) and that the causes were similar. Those with LBP all had stiff backs and lacked control over the movements of their spines. Frontiers of Neuroscience
Regular exercise, increasing your core strength, improving specific muscular control and increasing your flexibility will help you avoid to LBP.
1. Regular exercise
A meta-analysis examined 25 different studies of the effectiveness of different prevention strategies to reduce the incidence of low back pain. The meta-analysis found “moderate-quality evidence that an exercise programme can prevent future LBP intensity.” British Journal of Sports Medicine
2. Core strength
Wearing a back brace can help to prevent or deal with LBP. Your core muscles surround your spine to stabilize your torso and they work the same way as an external back brace. However, if you just wear a back brace then your core muscles get weaker.
We tend to think of our core muscles as our abdominals and that developing six-pack abs will prevent LBP. The core muscles are underneath your outer abs and back muscles. Your transverse abdominis is a deep muscle that wraps around your midsection like a corset. Your multifidus is a muscle that lines your spine. It has a series of extensions that wrap each individual vertebra, similar to the way your bicycle chain wraps a cog. Improving the strength of your transverse abdominis and your multifidus is key to avoiding LBP. I wrote this column on:
3. Muscle control
In addition to a strong core you need fine motor control of the muscles that move your spine. You want the muscles to move your spine and to move your body around your spine the right amount; moving too far or too little may cause pain. Dynamic balance exercises train your body to control your muscles to move correctly. Static balance is standing on one leg. Dynamic balance is slowly lifting one leg, slowly moving the leg away from the body, slowly lowering that leg to the floor, shifting your weight and slowly lifting the other leg. Tai chi and Pilates both provide isometric exercise to strengthen your core. They also use slow movements to improve your dynamic balance. I describe different balancing exercises in this column:
4. Unanticipated instability
Even if you develop a strong core and work on your dynamic balance, you still risk of LBP.
Unanticipated changes in direction / load can cause back pain. Your core provides the stable platform for your other muscles to work correctly. Anticipating you’re about to walk down a flight of stairs, you instinctively tighten your core muscles to stabilize your spine and anchor your hip and leg muscles. But what if you aren’t paying attention and unexpectedly step off a curb. Or someone jostles you. These can result in LBP
A 2017 study tested the effectiveness of random functional perturbation exercises on LBP. The exercises included reacting to variable and unpredictable disturbances. The group which did this type of therapy reduced LBP by 35% compared to the control group, increased muscle strength by 15-22% and reduced trunk stiffness by 13%.
Mountain biking on single track, hiking on a rough surface, playing pickleball and similar activities cause you to react to something you can’t completely anticipate. Over time these improve your muscular coordination and control.
A stiff trunk is one of the contributing factors to LBP. As you get older you naturally get stiffer unless you work on your flexibility. I wrote this column on:
In addition to these five factors, bike fit, cycling technique, other things can also contribute to LBP as I explain in this column on:
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process has individual chapters on each of the types of exercise the American College of Sports Medicine recommends: cardiovascular both endurance and intensity; upper, lower, and core strength; weight-bearing, flexibility and balance. I include interviews with Gabe Mirkin (recommendations from an M.D.) Jim Langley (importance of goals), Andy Pruitt (importance of working on your skeleton, posture, balance, muscle mass), Muffy Ritz (recommended activities for older people, especially women), Malcolm Fraser (recommendations from an M.D.), Fred Matheny (importance of strength training), Elizabeth Wicks (motivation) and five other male and female riders ages 55 to 83. Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process incorporates the latest research and most of it is new material not published in my previous eArticles on cycling past 50, 60 and beyond. It’s your comprehensive guide to continuing to ride well into your 80s and even your 90s. The 106-page eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is available for $14.99.
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 over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.