One question that the recreational roadies and racers I coach have in common – and something I hear very often from riders of all ages and abilities – is some variation of: “My lower back is always sore during and/or after a ride. What can I do about it?”
In short, there’s no magic bullet to address this common problem. Lower back pain is typically the result of a combination of possible issues at play.
My reply is to lay out the five main factors that can combine to cause lower backpain, and how to address each one of those:
1) Bad or No Bike Fit
Being in the wrong position on the bike can not only cause lower back pain, but can also cause knee pain, damage to the knee, pain in the arms, neck, upper back, calves and Achilles. Couple a bad position with worn out or wrong-sized equipment (like stems that are too long, bars that are too wide, a saddle that causes high pressure ridges) and you have a potent recipe for pain and discomfort during and after rides. Getting a good bike fit by a competent fitter is one of the best things you can do as a cyclist.
2) Lack of Flexibility
Most cyclists lack basic flexibility. But what is flexibility in cycling? Effectively, it is how much your hamstrings will stretch before pulling on the base of your pelvis, which in turn pulls on your lower back. Lack of hamstring flexibility is undoubtedly the No. 1 cause of lower back pain. A good daily stretching and core strengthening routine is recommended. Here’s one helpful exercise from our recent eBook, Stretching and Core Strengthening for the Cyclist.
From the eBook: Hamstrings extend the leg and flex the knee. Tight hamstrings can be the cause of lower back pain. This stretch will stretch the hamstrings as well as the lower back. While sitting, knees slightly bent and trying to maintain a flat back, bend over and grab your toes. Slowly straighten out your knees. For a greater stretch, pull on your toes, which will cause you to bend further forward. The further you bend forward, the more you are stretching your hamstrings. Try and maintain a flat back. Hold for 30 seconds. Relax and do another set or two. If you can’t reach your toes, bend over as far as you can. Do this stretch every day. Eventually you will be able to grab your toes and do the full stretch.
3) Lack of Core Strength/Poor Posture
A strong and engaged core helps support your entire body, especially the lower back This is especially true for cycling. A strong core helps produce power. A weak and non-engaged core allows the body to slump into a poor posture that can also lead to a sore back. Doing a daily core workout like planks along with back stretches like the one shown below from the eBook will help to strengthen your core.
From the eBook: Lie flat on your back and engage your core. You can place your hands to your sides, which will help with your balance. Keeping feet together, lift heels 6 inches (15.25 cm) off the mat and hold for 10 seconds. Raising your head and shoulders off the mat helps to keep the core engaged. Slowly lower heels (and head and shoulders) back down to mat. Repeat 10 times. Again, lifting your head and shoulders helps engage the core. This will help reduce any possible injury to the lower back.
4) Poor Position on the Bike
A flexed back instead of an extended back can cause stress on the lower back, as can a backward tilted pelvis. Rotating the pelvis forward and extending the back will unload the lower back and load the glutes, which are the most powerful muscles in the body. See the following for a comparison of incorrect vs. correct posture on the bike.
5) Other Possible Contributing Factors
- Leg length discrepancy (LLD) – Having a LLD, which is not uncommon, can cause you to sit off to one side of the saddle. This can cause the body to, ineffect, fight itself as you pedal, twisting and torquing the lower back. If a LLD is discovered during a fitting, you and your fitter need to address it with cleat shims, pedal setup, etc.
- Worn out equipment – Chamois pads can get old and bunch up, saddle padding can bunch up, causing the base of the saddle to become uneven, insoles can be worn out to the point of becoming uneven as well. Worn out shoes, worn out cleats, even worn out handlebar tape can cause one hand to grip higher than the other. Keeping your equipment updated and in good condition – even the little stuff you might think is unimportant – is imperative.
- Back alignment issues – Alignment issues such as Lordosis, Kyphosis or Scoliosis can also lead to excess stresses on the lower back. Understand your medical and physical situation fully in order to address any related discomfort or pain on the bike.
In Stretching & Core Strengthening for the Cyclist, our new 57-page eBook, Coach Rick Schultz and Amy Schultz clear up the confusion and take the guesswork out of knowing what to do, and how to do it, to implement a stretching and core strengthening program. (Amy Schultz is completing her Doctorate in Physical Therapy, is an accomplished cyclist and has done extensive research on athletes and injury prevention. Amy demonstrates the proper form for all the stretching and core exercises in the eBook.)
Bike Fit 101: Your Toolset for a Great Bike Fit combines industry best practices and Coach Rich Schultz‘s own experiences as a GURU-certified bike fitter to create a best-of-the-best bike-fitting process in the form of a step-by-step how-to manual that you can use to do a bike fit yourself, or fine-tune your fit. It also provides a toolset for those of you who prefer to work with a professional fitter. It shows you how to find a quality fitter, and how to work with that fitter to get the best possible fit for your cycling goals and needs.
Steve Hardy says
This is a helpful article, and has recalled a question I’ve had for some time. Over time, my hamstrings have gotten very tight and shortened (when I wrestled years ago I was extremely flexible, even though I was muscular). Yeah, my stretching habits have been inconsistent, at best. I have purchased this ebook, with the intent of making stretching part of my program and taking another run at restoring some measure of flexibility. I certainly recognize that, having lost flexibility over a long period of time, this isn’t a quick fix and will take time and consistent effort. From your experience, how much hamstring flexibility can I expect recover with (near) daily work and how quickly HAVE you seen people respond to such work? Thanks for your response.
Rick Schultz says
When I measure the lower back angle of the pelvis using a goniometer, most cyclists are around 80-85 degrees. After 6 weeks or so of stretching, many have increased this to 90-92 degrees.
Rick Schultz says
Steve, one common thing I see is handlebars are too low. As you stated, cyclists think they are physically still the same as they were 30 years ago. An argument usually follows where I mention we need to raise the bars. They say “but I will look like a nerd.” I follow this up with a compromise saying lets raise the bars now, you do stretching then come back and when your body is ready, we will lower the bars. Usually works.
Will Haltiwanger says
There are many things that can cause back pain. I would like to share my story. After 35 years of back pain I had surgery and felt great, for a few months. Within a year I spent most of my non-cycling hours sitting on a heating pad and walking with a cane. Then I read Mind Over Back Pain by John Sarno who explains how stress can cause back pain and that such pain rarely correlates with X-rays or MRIs that show a “bad back”. I read books on relaxation and followed Sarno’s recommendations to think of pain as a manifestation of stress. The result: I have been virtually pain free for almost 15 years. I do not stretch, work on my core or do anything else but ride, walk and enjoy not having back pain.
Rick Schultz says
Relaxation is good too. The big 3,.. strengthen the back, stretch the back, relax the back.
Long ago, before aero bars became popular, my bike fit me and I had no pain. As soon as I started riding aero bars, my lower back started hurting. It finally occurred to me that I was “bent over” more when using the aero bars especially since I never rode in the drops much before then.
So I raised the bars slightly and the back pain went away.
Quite a few years later after I abandoned aero bars, my Retul bike fit told me to lower my bars essentially the amount I had raised them for aero bar riding. That was the ONLY adjustment they offered which let me know my original fit was pretty good.
It also reminds me that small changes can make a big difference!
William Baucom says
The Back Mechanic by Stuart McGill is an indispensable guide for back pain. Prof. McGill is the world’s foremost back researcher.
Rick Schultz says
Here is a recent study – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5908986/
In one way I am am a bit lucky – my lower back hurts only when NOT riding…
What works for me is a “modified push-up”. Slowly push up while relaxing the back. Stop when the pelvis begins so rise. Repeat until 7 have been done. Then do three more, but let the pelvis rise. Hold for a few seconds to let the pelvis drop a bit.
After a few minutes, repeat. Then, after another rest, do 3 more.
Important to recognize that just because you don’t have back pain at lower mileage doesn’t mean that you won’t at higher mileage. I had this experience 15 years ago when I went from being a casual rider to pounding out 100+ miles per week. As I gradually increased mileage and effort the back pain soon followed. At that point, I did get a bike fit from a former racer/coach who had become a Physical Therapist. He told me that while the bike fit would solve most problems that, if I really wanted to be the best that I can be, that addressing No. 3,4&5 above would be as important. At age 67 the best that I can be isn’t anything special but, I can easily ride 50+ miles with some good climbs and, no back pain.