Cycling and Back Pain Don’t Have to Ride in Tandem

Even when technique and equipment are chosen carefully, cyclists are prone to low-back pain. But it’s not inevitable.

Cycling works the legs, of course. We’ve all seen videos of those muscular legs working their way up some mountain in France. But it’s the hip flexors that are responsible for drawing the muscles up toward the abdomen, and they are in heavy demand during cycling.

One study of a very small group of cyclists, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that the cyclists who had the most flexion— think of a coiled spring, or a body in the crouching position— also had the most complaints about back pain. This suggests that stretching the hip muscles and not keeping the legs severely bent at the hips for the entire ride might help minimize back pain.

Plus the hip flexors are the victims of our seated lifetimes (sitting at a desk, commuting, sitting in front of the TV, sitting down for dinner) so they may need a little toughening as well as TLC.

Equipment Check

First, what kind of cycling do you do? Here are a couple of suggestions for lessening your chances of having back pain:

  • Avoid mountain biking (cycling on rough terrain)
  • Find a bike that fits properly, and use toe clips
  • Wear biking gloves to minimize shock to your upper body
  • Use as upright a bike as you can stand to be seen on
  • Try a recumbent bike if you really have an issue with back pain.

One-legged Pedaling Improves Training, Fitness

There are training methods that target the hip flexor muscles, such as one-legged pedaling. Mount your bike with one leg clipped into the pedal and the other held out of the way. If you are a typical, weak-flexored cyclist, you will find that your stroke quickly becomes jerky and you find it difficult to pull the leg back up for the downstroke. This signifies weak flexors.

While we are riding in our usual two-legged routine, we let the downward stroke (loaded with our own weight) do the work of bringing the other leg up. One-legged pedaling prevents this cheating. It also provides some neuromuscular training, so the pulling-up motion becomes more automatic.

By incorporating one-legged pedaling as well as squats and leg curls into your warm-up routine, you’ll improve all of the major muscle groups used in cycling.

Check the Flexors

Meanwhile, here are some ways to tell if your back pain is caused by tight hip flexors. Do you notice soreness or pain on any of the following motions?

Cycling and Back Pain Don’t Have to Ride in Tandem

  • When you move from a seated to standing position, or get off your bike?
  • When you bend backwards while standing?
  • When you are first lying flat on your back with your legs straight?
  • While you’re cycling, especially as the intensity increases?

If any of these movements seem to bother you, the flexors may be the culprit.

And if all else fails, you should know that scientists are investigating the kinetics of a spider who can leap vertically from a pool of water to escape a fish. The water strider first draws its legs inward, pushing down on the water surface so slowly that it doesn’t break the surface tension of the water. Then it erupts with a leap straight up in the air. Researchers in Seoul, Korea, have no idea how the strider can launch himself with minimal pressure on the water surface. Maybe it has something to do with his hip flexors.

If you want more on the subject of cycling and back pain (and less on spiders), call our clinic and ask to see one of our sports medicine specialists. Back pain does come with the territory of cycling, but you don’t have to give it a free ride.