If you only experience back pain during or immediately after a ride, then there is likely to be a high correlation between the pain and the activity.
Possible Causes of Lower Back Pain From Cycling
Pre-existing back conditions. If you have suffered trauma resulting in disc compression, herniation or lumbar fractures, then you will already have a good understanding of this cause. But older cyclists can also have disc degeneration or arthritic conditions that contribute to back pain and these issues may not yet have been diagnosed.
Leg length discrepancy. Unless you are riding on flat pedals, you are mechanically attached to the bike under your feet. Therefore if one leg is a bit shorter than the other, your back experiences an asymmetrical tug during each pedal stroke. There are two types of leg length discrepancy:
- Structural – in which a leg bone on one side is a different length to the other
- Functional – which could result from a muscle imbalance or foot pronation.
Effort exceeds capacity. Often a backache is from fatigue, and fatigue can come from riding further, harder, or over rougher terrain than you are accustomed to. Just as your leg muscles can run out of steam, so can your core and back muscles. This plays a key role in stabilizing your pelvis and countering the forces generated by your leg muscles as they power the pedals. As these muscles fatigue they have to work even harder to provide stability, and so the back problem worsens. You get the idea.
Weak Core: This is closely related to the above point. Cycling uses core muscles to support the back and stabilize the pelvis, but cycling on its own doesn’t develop and strengthen core muscles. If you have a flabby core you are going to be more prone to back aches.
Positional compensation. If your position and posture on your bike are not ideal, this will show up in various areas, including your back. Common compensations that impact your back include:
- A saddle too narrow can result in sitting askew on the saddle to get at least one sit bone firmly planted, twisting your pelvis and demanding more support from the back. Secondly, if the saddle is too narrow, there may not be enough real estate under your butt to offer structural support for the pelvis so the back has to work harder to compensate for this.
- A saddle causing perineal problems (pressure, numbness) can lead to a subconscious pelvic rollback to relieve soft tissue pressure and solve one problem but create another in the form of a rounded thoracic area spine and increased strain on the lower back muscles to hold a riding position.
- A saddle too high may cause pelvic rocking to help reach the bottom of the pedal stroke, adding unnecessary activity to the lower back, which leads to back muscle overuse, fatigue, and tension.
- A handlebar too far away requires extra extension to reach the bars, and consequent back tension to counter the over-reach.
- If you are sitting too upright on the bike and trying to generate power, you are trying to fire an arrow without drawing the bow. There is insufficient tension in your kinetic chain to anchor the pelvis and activate the legs. So why does not enough tension create too much back tension? All the parts aren’t working together so the lower back takes on victim status and carries the load that should be more evenly shared.
Cycling Lower Back Pain Relief
Pre-existing back conditions are actually a common reason people take up cycling due to the low-impact nature of the sport. However careful consideration needs to be given to the bike fit position so as not to protect the back and not add further aggravation.
A functional leg length discrepancy is best corrected by a bodywork specialist like a PT (physical therapist) or chiropractor. A structural leg length discrepancy needs to be confirmed with a standing AP X-ray, with a diagnosed difference greater than 1cm to warrant correction. This may be achieved through the use of an orthotic, but due to the low volume of cycling shoes, it is more commonly corrected by the use of external cleat shims.
Strength and conditioning training is often recommended to cyclists, but not so commonly practiced. It is the best way to protect your back from the demands of cycling and to increase your capacity to expend greater effort. Particular attention to core work is important for generating power without creating undue back strain.
Positional compensations can be hard to diagnose on your own, as they are usually subconscious. Start by paying attention to how your back feels while riding and experiment with adjustments and postural changes to see if you can effect improvement. The external perspective of a professional bike fitter is often required to first identify and then reduce any compensations through changes to your equipment and riding position.
Cycling should be experienced without undue or persistent back pain. If you do experience lower back pain from cycling, there are usually identifiable reasons for it and corresponding remedies. Seek advice, and do your core work!
John is an elite level bike fitter who works with non-elite cyclists – although a few have won races! Many don’t race at all, but ride for fun, fitness, or to compete against themselves. John has worked with 18-80 year olds (and younger and older), novices, age groupers, masters racers and all levels of weekend warrior. These include road riders, mountain bikers, triathletes, tandem riders, tourers, commuters, bike packers and gravel riders and racers. All share a love of cycling and just wanted to ride more comfortably, and in many cases faster. John is the owner of Fit Kit Systems, and provides bike fitting services through BikeFitr (bikefitr.com)