Bike riding is not enjoyable if you are in pain.
Do you experience lower back pain while riding? If so, you are not alone. Back pain from cycling is widespread, especially for beginning riders.
Short of a crash or bonking, few things can spoil a ride more than lower back pain from cycling.
Such cycling pain irritated me for my first couple of years as a recreational cyclist. However, when I began to tell my club members about my back pain from cycling, I quickly found out that it was something they all faced at some point in their cycling life.
So, I am certain occasionally, or consistently, you suffered from the same.
Causes of Back Pain From Cycling
Cycling back pain is something you most likely will experience. However, back pain is not just the burden of cyclists. It is very frequently experienced by non-riders as well. In fact, it is a pain felt by most people on the planet. Millions of people suffer from it.
According to medical researchers, the most common causes of lower back pain are muscle strain, tension, or spasms.
Cyclists’ back pain comes about from basically the same conditions. The main culprits causing back pain from cycling one or both of the following:
- tension in the shoulders
- improper posture when riding on the drops
There are many things for adult riders to concentrate on when they start cycling again after many years off of the bike.
Safely guiding the bike around corners and over uneven surfaces can be daunting. Learning to clip into “clipless” peddles can be frightening. Adjusting to a new bike or bike seat disrupts our mojo. All of these circumstances can cause us to tense up our shoulders unknowingly. This tension often radiates to the neck and down the back.
The back pain from cycling may start mild and later hinder our riding longer and faster.
The other major contributor to cycling back pain is riding in the drops. For those unfamiliar with cycling jargon, “riding on the drops” is holding on to the parts of the handlebars that curve outward with your hands just behind the brakes.
Riding on the drops gives us a lower profile, resulting in less wind resistance. As a result, we move along faster in that position. It is an essential cycling skill. You will want to master it.
At first, it does not feel natural to bend over with your face, almost touching your handlebars. Comfort only comes after many hours on the drops. So, be patient.
When you are on the drops, your back should be straight like a plank. If your back is not straight, you do not really gain much of an aerodynamic advantage.
If the back is bowed when you are on the drops, you will almost certainly experience pain during or after rides. Therefore, the back must be as flat or straight as possible.
Learning to ride on the drops will pay dividends in speed and comfort, but riding in such a position must be done correctly to avoid pain or injury.
I will discuss techniques for riding in the drops in an upcoming post. To learn to be more comfortable when cycling, see my 5 Key Elements of Cycling Comfort discussion.
Cycling Back Pain Relief
Many cyclists’ go-to relief for back pain is over-the-counter medication like Tylenol, Advil, or aspirin. They are not harmful, at least in the short run. What we need to realize is these medications only treat the symptom – the immediate pain.
They do not work toward preventing back pain from cycling in the future.
Obviously, relaxing the tension in the shoulders will help immensely. But, until it becomes a habit, check yourself several times during a ride… “are my shoulders relaxed?”
A basic step towards treating the pain in your back is to circulate more blood into the area. The increased blood circulation ramps up the healing process and reduces the pain quicker. You can increase blood flow to the back by activating the back muscles.
Of course, you are activating the back muscles during a ride. Therefore, it is beneficial to stimulate those muscles before and after a ride as well.
If the back pain is caused by tension or strain and not some other major medical issue, try this one or all these methods to bring some relief.
When I was still an avid runner, I always stretched before and after workouts. When I started cycling, I assumed that cycling did not require stretching. It doesn’t, but it sure helps.
Stretching back muscles and others that influence back muscles goes a long way toward relieving back pain from cycling and preventing it.
Here is a great video of helpful stretches:
The riders in the Pro Peloton go for a massage after almost every race and often after training rides. They understand that quickly relaxing muscles after a ride alleviates the present pain and prevents future pain. The goal is to remove as much lactic acid as possible and remove the tension in the muscles.
Most of us do not have the funds to pay a masseur after every workout or ride. Not all spouses or significant others are excited about giving us messages either. So, we are left with finding ways to massage ourselves.
Below are a couple of videos demonstrating do-it-yourself massages for the back pain from cycling.
This technique employs a tennis ball, or if you want something firmer, use a lacrosse ball.
This technique uses only your hands.
Application of Heat or Ice
Cold and hot treatments are often recommended for post-exercise back pain.
Using cold therapy right after riding will reduce any long-term damage to back muscles. In addition, cold therapy will reduce swelling and bring quick relief for the pain.
Here is how to make your own cold gel pack.
If the pain persists after more than twenty-four hours, use heat therapy to heal the tissue. Heat also relaxes the fatigued muscles in the injured area.
If there is swelling of the back or the pain is a little more severe, ice for a few days followed by heating packs, heating pads, or warm washcloths should be helpful. If you don’t feel any relief from ice, feel free to start on heat. — Otho Nebraska
Here are instructions for making your own heat-pack without spending a lot of money. It is very effective.
Strengthening Back Muscles
There are primarily two ways to strengthen your back muscles and reduce the possibility of consistent, reoccurring back pain from cycling.
First, continue cycling. When you first start cycling, especially over 20 miles, mild back pain is to be expected. However, the more rides you put into your body, the chances are you are strengthening weak muscles that a causing back pain.
Exercise, especially cycling, is the best preventive measure to take against exercise-induced back pain.
Strengthening your core through sit-ups, crunches, planks, and other exercises will also go a long way toward preventing back pain.
Yoga is another excellent exercise for strengthening your core and reducing back pain. Yoga emphasizes stretching, positioning, and increasing blood flow to help build and tone the muscles. It also contributes to breaking up muscle tension. When combined with breathing techniques and meditational yoga, it is an advantageous means of reducing lower back pain.
Prescription medications are generally reserved for damage that has occurred to the muscle area. Check with a doctor before getting too involved in medication, even over-the-counter meds.
See more of our posts about Cycling and Health.