You’re riding so mentally high that, in your mind, your pedaling technique resembles that of trail-blooming Elisa Balsamo, and your new overpriced polyester shirt effortlessly hides the curves that cotton tops can’t reach. when Yakety Yak, there goes the back. Again. Your chances of progress are deflated again and you haven’t even had a single stab.
“The incidence of back pain in cycling is difficult to quantify because not all lower back pain is reported and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between cause and effect; i.e. is cycling causing the pain or is it something else, like working in front of a computer for 10 hours a day? That’s the real reason for the injury, but it’s more painful when riding a bike.”
This is Bianca Broadbent, a top physiotherapist and bike rider who has worked with both recreational cyclists and the world’s elite, including Lawson Craddock of the Jayco-Alula team, when asked how common is back pain back to the world cycling group. Broadbent is a scientist and not prone to hyperbole. She is the very definition of a pragmatist. But after pondering the study value of a library in his head, he notices a figure. “About 19%,” he says. “This has been reported on how many cyclists have, or have had, back pain.”
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With one in five of us squeaking our way through a journey, if the pain is bearable, of course, it’s nothing to be sniffed at. But that’s nothing compared to professionals, for whom a Norwegian study reported that of 116 elites, 49 had reported lower back pain at some point. That’s 42%. It begs the question, what are the main causes of back pain in cyclists and how can it be prevented in the first place (or at least reduce your chances of enduring time off the bike)? But first things first, it seems obvious, but what exactly is back pain?
Muscle roots…or maybe neural
“As you might expect, it’s generally a muscle problem,” says Broadbent. “It’s the same with the legs: overload them and the muscles will hurt a lot, which can sometimes lead to re-injury. However, it’s also possible to endure neurological pain. Sometimes the position you’ve adopted it causes pressure on certain structures and as a result the back suffers as a secondary structure.For example, you may have nerve pain in the buttocks causing your back pain, or it could be nerve pain radiating from the legs”.
“Multifaceted” is one of Broadbent’s favorite words when talking about back pain, both physiologically and biomechanically, meaning what are its root causes when it comes to angles on the bike? “One of the key assumptions is a high drop,” he explains. “In other words, you may have a bar position that is too low. In turn, this increases lumbar flexion and sacral tilt [akin to pelvic tilt].” This increases the stress on your lower back and you endure pain.
“Another hypothesis [pragmatist Broadbent loves this word, too] is that the rider is at the extreme end of their flexibility and the load is too much. It’s like you fell asleep on a plane. Your neck falls to one side and when you wake up it hurts because it’s not used to that position.”
“And another key reason behind back pain could be the angle of the saddle where the saddle is titled,” Broadbent continues. “Again, this goes back to the hypothesis of increasing wood flex. The shape of the saddle can also play a role, as can the height of the saddle. If it’s too high, you’ll have too much movement in the saddle, which can cause lower back problems. Ultimately, it all comes down to the one common denominator that you’re asking your lower back to do too much.”
Look for a professional
Saddle position, handlebar settings too low… all point to going to a professional bike fitter to assess your experience, flexibility, strength, injury history and riding goals not just for the purpose of converting – make you a more efficient cyclist. but also one of the most bulletproof. This is good for your body, but it may be less good for your ego, as a position that is too aggressive for your driving ability is common. But rolling it up—in other words, perhaps a higher bar position and a shorter stem—could pay big dividends.
In a professional bike fit, beyond the biomechanical assessment of how your limbs sit inside the bike, they will examine the saddle. This opens up a can of worms, as the right chair for you is such an individual choice. Broadbent mentions that Specialized’s Power range of saddles has come off the shelves and is a very good unisex saddle, while in the past I’ve had discussions with bike fitter Phil Burt, who used to work with Team Sky and now runs the a clinic in the shadows of Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium. “A good starting point for finding the right chair for you is to measure your sit bones to give you an idea of the width of your pelvis,” she said. “You can do this by sitting down on a piece of paper and identifying the pressure points.” Broadly speaking, the width of men’s sit bones ranges from 100mm to 140mm, while women’s sit bones range from 110mm to 150mm. Chair makers will take care of this, although it’s a very broad brush.
“Unfortunately, this is very much a starting point,” he continued. “Take women. They may have wider hips and wider pressure points, but that doesn’t mean they need a wider saddle. They might be more comfortable with a cropped saddle so they can comfortably park their bits in the gap.” He also suggested that saddle discomfort and its potential lower back repercussions could be due to bike choice short and on the chamois pad, “whether it moves with you or works against you,” rather than the saddle itself. It’s complicated. So get fit on a bike.
A handle that is too long is another potential irritant to the lower back, as in the 12 o’clock position, the knee and hip are compressed too much, which can lead to pain in the kinetic chain. A shorter crank will open up both your hips and the angle of your knees and ease the load on your lower back.
Stronger, faster… hurt
“You should also be aware of how your back reacts to changes in intensity,” Broadbent explains. “You should look at a study in the journal ‘Sports Biomechanics’…”
I do. It is titled Effect of incremental intensities on spinal morphology and central muscle activation in competitive cyclists. The catchy headline and research was delivered by a group of Spanish scientists, who analyzed the impact of increased intensity on spine posture and the eight core muscles of 12 competitive cyclists. The findings were no surprise to any of you who have tackled Hardknott Pass or Porlock Hill: “A significant increase in muscle activation was observed in all core muscles” with the rectus abdominis (for those of you with lucky to have one). , this is the upper layer known to some cyclists as a “six pack”!) Also, “as cycling intensity increased, cyclists significantly increased thoracic and lumbar-spinal flexion.”
In short, when you go harder, you’re not only putting your heart, lungs, and leg muscles under greater stress, but your lower back as well. The authors don’t suggest never riding hard, but it’s something to keep an eye on as it might help a bike fitter identify the cause if it becomes a real problem.
Walk or rest?
Which raises the question of when it’s safe to ride through back pain or spend a spell on the sidelines. “If the pain is just on the bike, then see a good physical therapist and/or bike fitter,” says Broadbent. “If you have a problem off the bike as well as with it, you should see your GP who will refer you to a suitable professional. If it gets to the stage where you are losing control of your bowels and bladder, this is considered a medical emergency and you are advised to go to A&E straight away. Again, it’s very important to differentiate between what is an on-bike problem and an off-bike problem.”
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If it’s an issue with the bike, beyond a bike fit and potentially a new saddle, off-bike work will help. Greater core strength and greater flexibility make you a more robust cyclist, so regular gym and stretching work is recommended. Yoga and pilates are two must-haves, and especially as the years go by, it may be best to sacrifice a ride or two for these off-the-bike essentials. They are also particularly beneficial for riders coming from team sports, where the twisting nature of sports such as football and rugby can lead to asymmetry on the bike and, again, potential back problems.
So there you have it. Having a professional assess you as a cyclist and your position on a bike is advisable whether you are injured or not, but obviously if you are suffering it will have health benefits beyond pure performance. You may need a new saddle, and even a new bike if yours is too big or small for you. So there could be expense. But ultimately, with 19% of runners suffering or having suffered from back pain, it would be money well spent.