Century cycling: Avoid the ache
Lower back pain on the bike is a common complaint, but in most cases, it’s avoidable.
Generally, lower back pain on the bike is attributed to one or a combination of factors – improper bike fit and position; lack of core stability resulting in poor posture and support; less than optimal hip mobility and stability; hip-flexor and hamstring inflexibility; and/or pedaling style or gearing and equipment selection.
An improper bike fit will lead to back pain as a result of excessive reach to the handlebars. This often leads to lower back fatigue and spasms, as well as issues with the upper back and shoulders. Assuming the saddle height and fore/aft positions are dialed, the reach and consequent back strain, would be reduced by raising and/or shortening the stem.
Depending on the stem/headset model, fit may be altered by raising the stem out of the steerer tube or adding spacers on threadless headsets. The other option is to purchase a new, potentially shorter, stem with an upward angle.
Individual body structure, for example a leg length discrepancy, may also play a role in contributing to back pain. A leg length discrepancy can also be addressed and resolved with a professional bike fit and cleat positioning, and potentially the use of shims.
Fifty to sixty percent of low back pain can be attributed to poor posture. This is usually caused by reaching for the bars by rounding at the lower back. Proper position is achieved by rotating at the hips, sitting back in to and activating the glutes, while maintaining a strong, neutral spine with core engaged.
Essentially, the rounded back breaks our pillar (shoulders, trunk and hips) of strength and consequently our efficient leverage and solid platform to generate movement to our legs. As a result we take the torque in the isolated lower back.
Maintaining a strong solid posture affords other benefits as well. Proper posture facilitates optimal breathing capacity whereas rounding the back inhibits our breathing by sucking the diaphragm up in to the rib cage.
Additionally, when we find that ideal posture with sit-bones established squarely on the saddle, and a supporting trunk stacked on rotated hips, the majority of our weight rests on the saddle and will alleviate the arms from bearing excessive weight and undue energy expenditure.
Mobile, stable hips increase range of motion — equating to a bio-mechanically sound hip, knee, toe alignment. In addition to reducing back issues, this relationship is essential to improve and increase efficient transference of power to the pedals.
To effectively improve the mobility, stability and strength of your entire pillar (shoulders, trunk and hips) develop and follow a dynamic functional movement program. Movement, in all of our activities is generated from our pillar – our center.
A functional movement-focused pillar training program will enforce proper movement recruitment patterns and the ability to maintain stability through our movements/activities. As a result, we experience improved coordination and fluid efficient translation of energy from our pillar to our extremities. A stable pillar effectively counter balances the pedaling forces.
Lack of flexibility in the hip flexors and hamstrings also tug on the lower back. Pilates and yoga are effective practices for increased strength, flexibility and body awareness. The key is consistency and then taking the practice outside the studio by applying it to time on the bike.
Perhaps you are a Jan Ulrich, big-gear masher, using an uber-long crankarm with slow cadence — a combo certain to tweak and torque the lower back. If so, consider shorter cranks arms, and focus on lighter gearing and increasing pedal cadence by 5-10 rpms.
Lower back pain sparked by one, or a combination of the above mentioned factors may be exacerbated by over-enthusiasm, and ramping up from zero to Tour de France-like miles in a month. Sound familiar? A more is better mentality is an endurance athlete’s greatest pitfall.
In general, endurance athletes will benefit by dedicating a piece of overall training time to incorporate foundational activities — dynamic pillar and functional movement strength exercises, as well as pilates and yoga practices. By balancing time on the bike with these supporting activities, you will improve sports performance and durability while preventing injury.
Seize your century.
Julie Young was a top U.S. professional cyclist for 12 years and has since transitioned to trail running and cross-country skiing. She is the owner of o2 Fitness and now coaches endurance athletes in the region. Check her out online at www.o2fitness.net.