Why Does Cycling Hurt Your Back?

Why Does Cycling Hurt Your Low Back?

Mankind really hit a home run with the invention of the bicycle.  You don’t have to look much further than Wikipedia to discover that the bike is the most efficient means of self-propelled transportation available to humans.  Unfortunately, the bike is also pretty good at producing low back pain.

As a competitive bike racer and a chiropractor, I have a pretty good understanding of what goes wrong in the low back when cycling…and some of the steps a cyclist can take to combat this common problem.

Let’s start with how a bike compromises the low back.

It’s All In The Prolonged Flexion

It doesn’t take very many observation skills to see that cyclists spend their exercise time all bent over.  While this posture is essential in the world of ‘efficiency’ (think wind resistance), it can be disastrous on the low back.

When most people hear mention of the spine, they think about topics like ‘pinched’ nerves, ‘slipped’ discs, ‘pulled’ muscles, or something ‘out of place’.  None of these explanations by patients for why their low back is hurting is complete in and of itself (the human spine is far too complex to be reduced to a singular etiology), but I suppose it’s better than the patients who show up saying that their ‘backbone’ hurts.

You don’t have to look much further than recumbent bikes and recumbent bike trainers to gather further evidence that the prolonged flexion of the low back on a conventional bike is largely the culprit in cycling-related low back pain.

Many recumbent riders attribute the relief they get when riding a recumbent bike to the ‘support’ they’re getting for their back, but that’s only part of the truth.  If you look at a recumbent rider’s horizontal position, and then rotate them vertically you’ll see that they aren’t bent over at the waist…they’re essentially exercising as if they were standing up (while laying on their back).

Now look at a rider on a conventional bike, particular the crazy riders (guilty as charged) who get into a time-trialing position.  What you’ll see is a sport performed at extreme efforts while bending at the waist as close to 90 degrees as possible.

So What’s So Bad About Bending At The Waist?

To satisfy the chiropractor in me, I’ll touch on the fact that prolonged flexion compresses the elements on the front of the spine (front part of the disc), and pulls on the back parts of the spine (facet joints, multifidus muscles), as well as the ligaments between the spinous processes.  Any of these problems can be the source of a lot of pain.

But, there’s something else involved here.  Namely, tight and contracted hip flexors.

When you think about what cyclists ask their legs to do within a very limited range of motion, it’s amazing that the bicycle is number one in the human-powered machine contest.  Over and over, the legs (specifically the hip flexors- called the psoas muscles) contract while near the limits of their shortest configuration.

Over time, the chief hip flexor muscle (the psoas) gets progressively shorter and tighter.

A short, tight muscle is prone to spasm (can you say ‘charlie-horse’?), but in the case of the psoas muscle there is a unique ability to cause trouble.  Namely, the muscle spans two very important joints.

The origin of the psoas muscle looks like a fan, attaching itself to the sides of the last five vertebrae in the spine.  From there it heads south, across the sacroiliac (hip) joint, and inserts onto the femur (thigh bone), spanning the joint where the femur attaches to the pelvis at the ‘cup-shaped’ acetabulum.  When the psoas muscle contracts, the thigh comes up, which is called hip flexion.

Stretch The Psoas For Pain Free Cycling

At the time I’m writing this article, there’s a phenomenon that’s sweeping the nation…Tebowing.

After throwing for or running for a touchdown, the Denver Bronco’s quarterback, Tim Tebow, gets down on one knee to thank God, and there are some aimless citizens who’ve taken to imitating the pose in very unusual settings.  In addition to receiving accolades from fellow listless peers, these mockers are benefiting from stretching their psoas muscles.

I doubt the craze will last very long, but coincidentally the pose is very close to the most effective stretch for the psoas muscle.

All a cyclist has to do is get down on one knee, and then – keeping the lower back as straight as possible – rock forward.  A deep pulling on the front of the hip indicates a correct stretching of this obscure muscle.

Work at keeping your psoas from getting progressively shorter over time and your cycling will be as pain-free as possible.  Now if someone could just come up with a bike saddle as comfortable as an Easy-Boy recliner…

About the author:  Dr. Ron Fritzke is a Chiropractor in Mount Shasta, California, serving on the sports medicine team at the College of the Siskiyous.  He spends untold hours riding his bike, and writing bike trainer reviews on trainers, like the Road Machine trainer.

Comments

  1. says

    A big thanks to Skyler for publishing this article. If there are any
    questions or comments, I’ll be glad to answer them to the best of
    my ability.

    Ron Fritzke, D.C.

    • Cheryl says

      Thank you so much for an article which answers why I have a “pain in the back” after riding my bike…
      I even bought a new one with suspension, believing this to be the (main?) cause. I had been thinking of the bending forward/leaning over as being the culprit but can fully understand how the pain occurs.

      I think I understand how to do the exercise to stretch out the posoas muscle but I do wish there was a diagram.

      x

      By the way, I am “only” a leisure – fair-weather -“cyclist” – and my bike is a many-gear (which I don’t understand) mountain bike as I prefer to stay away from the busy roads which surround my village – but I would hardly say that I cycle – mountains!

    • Bob Di Carli says

      Hi…Your article was very enlightening. I am basically a runner, but have had hip pain which you described in your article. X rays show no abnormalities. I was riding a bike for a period of time at a very hard pace between my days of running. I think that is how I injured my psoas muscle. Aside from your suggested stretch, do you think that purchasing a bike which has a wide tire would eliminate road shock to any discernible degree?
      Thank you,
      Bob

      • admin says

        Bob,
        Sorry about your injury. That is frustrating! I think that wider tires will definitely help with the road shock. I have never personally tried the wider tires but from what I have heard from others it helps a lot. Let me know how it works for you if you decide to give it a try!
        Good luck!!

    • Cheryl says

      Thank you very much!

      I understand now and will aim to do this on my limited space at the top of the stairs (not having a heavy-duty low table…).

  2. Amanda says

    Would it be better for someone who is just getting in to cycling that has had low back problems (microdiscectomy in the low back 3 years ago) to start with a hybrid bike rather than a road bike? I understand that these bikes aren’t as aerodynamic, but would the more upright riding position be better for the lower back?

    • admin says

      Amanda,
      If you are having back problems a hybrid bike would definitely be better for you than a road bike would. Hybrid bikes are designed to take the strain off of your back when riding because you are able to stay in an upright position. Hope that helps. Let us know if you have any other questions and good luck with those back problems!

  3. J_BIRD says

    Hi,
    Just a quick question. In shorter Tri’s everything is just fine. When I start having to bike over 20 miles in a race I can barely run because my lower back is in so much pain. Please let me know if it is just my road bike or if I need to just train more at longer distances. Thank you.

  4. Alicia says

    Genius! I’ve had low back pain (but only on the right side) for over a year now… I went to a chiropractor and he said it was due to sitting in a chair all day and doing military sit ups (with feet pinned, legs at a 90 degree angle) A LOT. He showed me this stretch, and I’ve been doing it here and there… but the back pain has persisted despite my frequent “work breaks” from sitting and having stopped doing sit ups. Then it dawned on me that my pain started around the time I picked up mountain biking. SO maybe this is the culprit? Or a combo of all? I went to a masseuse and he stretched my psoas… and I at least had some temporary relief. Do you have any advice, or can you suggest other stretches that may help me get rid of this pain once and for all!? I just want to be back to normal! And why is it only on one side of my body?

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