Cycling is a good cardiovascular activity in which the joints generally do not suffer as they are not weight bearing, although back pain appears to be relatively common among cyclists. According to research, approximately 68% of people who ride a bicycle frequently experience debilitating back pain related to cycling at some point in their lives. Back pain from cycling has a number of causes, primarily due to improper bike dimensions, poor posture, and weak, inflexible back (and torso) muscles. Learning proper bike dimensions, as well as specific back exercises and stretches, should help you avoid back pain caused by cycling.
Part 1 of 3: Choosing the Right Bike
Step 1. Buy the appropriate size bike
It should be obvious that an improperly sized bike can result in back pain and other physical problems, but many people select a new bike based on the selling price and tend to downplay dimensions and ergonomics. Ideally, a bike should be customized to your body, but that can be quite expensive. A cheaper alternative is to buy a bike from a bike shop (not a department store) and ask the dealer about the appropriate size.
- Once you've limited the bike frame size and style, ask to take the bike on an extended test drive (at least 30 minutes) and see how your back responds.
- Choosing a bike that is too big will cause you to hunch too much when reaching for the handlebars, resulting in back pain over time.
- For those with lower back problems, a recumbent bike (also called a recumbent bike) might be the best option.
Step 2. Make sure the seat is at the correct height
Although the height of the bicycle frame is important, especially to be able to get off safely, the height of the seat is even more important. The seat height is determined by the length of your legs and should be positioned in such a way that when the pedal is at the bottom of the pedal stroke (closest to the ground), the knee should be slightly bent; between 15 to 20 degrees of flex ideally.
- The hips and buttocks should not move laterally when pedaling and you should not have to stretch your legs at the bottom of each pedal; Overstretching your legs puts pressure on your lower back.
- Adjusting the angle of the seat is also important. Positioning it horizontally (parallel to the floor) suits most people, although people with chronic back problems or sensitive perineal areas may feel more comfortable with the seat tilted slightly forward.
Step 3. Adjust the height and angle of the handlebar
The bicycle handlebar should be adjusted to a height where you can comfortably reach it from an upright position, while keeping your elbows slightly bent. This is usually a personal preference, but the height of the handlebars is often at or up to 10 cm (4 inches) below the height of the seat, depending on the flexibility of the back muscles. The handlebar angle is not adjustable on many low to mid-range bikes, but if yours is, try different settings and see how your back responds. Increasing the angle works to lift the handlebars closer to your body (allowing you a more upright position), which could be helpful in preventing pressure on your back.
- Novice and occasional riders should keep their handlebars at the same height as the seat.
- Experienced riders generally keep their handlebars a few inches below seat height to be more aerodynamic and quick, but it requires decent flexibility in the back muscles.
Step 4. Get a suspension bike
Almost all modern bicycles (at least mountain bikes) have some kind of suspension or shock absorbing accessories. Cushioning is very important for the well-being of your spine, especially if you ride your bike on uneven terrain and jerk frequently. The more comfortable your ride, the less likely you are to develop musculoskeletal pain. Get at least a bike with front shock, but consider full suspension bikes somewhere under the seat if preventing back pain is important to you.
- Other forms of cushioning on a bike include thick, bulging wheels, heavily padded seats, and padded cycling shorts.
- Most suspension accessories are adjustable, so ask any qualified salesperson for help if you need it.
- Road bikes tend to be especially light and stiff, but they don't come with suspension.
Part 2 of 3: Maintain Proper Form
Step 1. Avoid hunching your shoulders when riding a bike
Your cycling posture is also crucial if you want to avoid back pain. Try to keep your back straight when riding a bike, not completely upright like sitting in a chair, but flat, stable, and well supported by even shoulders. Distribute some of your weight to your arms and hands, keeping your chest and head elevated. Change your position and the angle of your upper body periodically to prevent muscle fatigue.
- Raising and lowering the head carefully from time to time is helpful in keeping the neck loose and avoiding muscle strains.
- Approximately 45% of overuse injuries in professional road cyclists involve the lower back.
Step 2. Keep your arms slightly bent when riding a bike
When riding, keep your arms slightly bent (10 degrees) when holding the handlebars. This pose will allow your upper body muscles and joints to absorb some of the vibrations and shock rather than your spine, particularly if you tend to ride on uneven terrain like forest or mountain trails.
- Hold the handlebars with your whole hand, but not too firmly. Wear padded cycling gloves to help with cushioning.
- If your back tends to hurt when riding a bike, break your trip into segments and make more rest stops.
Step 3. Keep your legs at a 90 degree angle at the top of the pedal stroke
When pedaling, it is more efficient and better for the hips and lower back to have the knee bent at a 90 degree angle at the top of the pedal stroke (when it is farthest from the ground). At 90 degrees, your thigh should be roughly parallel to the seat, which then allows you a stronger push on the pedal. At the bottom of the pedal stroke (when the pedal is closest to the ground), the knee should be flexed to approximately 15 to 20 degrees, which is unlikely to put pressure on the lumbar muscles, tendons, or ligaments.
- If your legs don't match these angles when pedaling, adjust the seat height.
- The front third of the foot should be in contact with the pedals when pedaling.
Part 3 of 3: Strengthening and Stretching Your Back
Step 1. Strengthen your core muscle groups
The torso includes the muscles in the pelvis, lower back, hips, and abdomen. Having a strong torso that works in harmony dramatically reduces the risk of injury and back pain from exercise. Making sure your core muscle groups are relatively strong before you start riding a bike is a good strategy to reduce your risk of back pain.
- Cycling does not specifically strengthen the core muscles, although it can certainly put pressure on them.
- On the contrary, any exercise that uses the abdominal and back muscles in a coordinated way is a good exercise for the torso. For example, just trying to balance while sitting on a large exercise ball will work your core muscles.
- Do the bridge exercise: lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, keeping your spine in a neutral position and without bending your hips. While contracting your abs, lift your hips off the floor and hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat 10 times daily. This will also help strengthen your glutes.
- Try planks: start on all fours, with your hands resting on the floor directly below your shoulders. Extend your legs behind you so that your hands and toes are supporting your body weight. Keep your back straight (don't let it sink or bend up) and tighten your stomach. Hold for 30 seconds, then release. Repeat 2 to 3 times, gradually increasing the retention time of the exercise.
- A good activity that will strengthen your core and prepare you for cycling is swimming.
Step 2. Strengthen the buttocks and legs
Cycling can obviously strengthen your legs, but research has shown that if your legs are not strong enough before engaging in cycling, then you are at a higher risk for back pain. Scientists have shown that when cyclists pedal until they are exhausted, their hamstrings and calf muscles become more progressively fatigued, negatively impacting spinal posture and putting them at risk for back pain. Therefore, consider increasing your leg strength before embarking on cycling as a hobby.
- Strengthen your hamstrings by doing deep leg bends, lunges, or push-ups at the gym 2-3 times a week. Start with light weights and move to heavier ones over the course of a few weeks. Consult with a personal trainer if you are unfamiliar with weight training.
- Strengthen your calves by grabbing a few free weights (at least 10 pounds or 4.5 kg in each hand) and doing calf raises. While standing on tiptoe, hold the position for 5 seconds and repeat 10 times daily. Switch to heavier weights over the course of a few weeks.
- In addition to strengthening the legs, one should also strengthen the glutes (the buttocks). If the hamstrings and calves get too tight, the glutes become weak. This results in more work on the lower back. Weak glutes can also contribute to knee pain.
- Strengthen your buttocks (glutes) by doing the bridge exercise. Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and your knees bent. Raise your back slowly off the floor as high as you can so that your thighs and back are aligned in a straight line. Hold this position for 20 seconds. Rest and repeat 3-4 times. You can increase the hold time of the position as you improve your strength.
Step 3. Keep your back flexible with stretches
The flip side of a strong back is a flexible one. Having strength in the back muscles is important for generating power when pedaling and absorbing the small trauma of road vibration and shock, but a flexible back is crucial to supporting the posture required for riding a bike without resulting in sprains.. A good activity that stretches the back and other muscles of the torso is yoga. The demanding body postures of yoga also work to strengthen the muscles of the torso and legs, and improve overall posture.
- Do leg-to-chest stretches: Lie on a padded surface with your knees bent and your feet together on the floor. Hold your shins and try to make your thighs touch your chest. Go as far as you can until you feel a stretch in your lower back muscles and hold the position (without bouncing) for 30 seconds. Repeat 10 times daily until you no longer have back discomfort caused by cycling.
- As a beginner, yoga poses may create some muscle pain in your legs and back; it should go away in a few days.
- Cycling is less jarring on the spine than many other aerobic exercises, such as running, but not as "joint-friendly" as swimming.
- Bikes generally called "beach bikes" are not made for speed, but are usually better ergonomically for your back and spine.
- Chiropractors and physical therapists are trained to strengthen your back and make it more functional. Consider evaluation or treatments before cycling more seriously.