Since the COVID-19 shutdown, and with increasingly sunny days, more and more people are choosing to bike as a way to get around the city. As a result, a question I often get asked is, “why does my back hurt after biking?”. 

While there are many reasons why your back may hurt after biking, below is a list of common sources of cycling related back pain:

incorrect bike setup

Before even getting on a bike, it is essential that you have it set up to fit you!

Here are some tips for setting up your bike:

Bike frame size

      • When you straddle the centre or horizontal tube of the bike frame, you should have about one to two inches between the tube (or highest part of the tube if your tube is angled) and your crotch. 

Seat height 

    • Stand next to the seat, the top of it should be in line with your hips 
    • When you are seated on your bike, you should just be able to touch the ground. 
    • When you are cycling and your foot hits the bottom of your stroke (6 o’clock position) you should have a slight bend in your knee

Handlebar distance 

    • When you have your hand on the handlebars, you should be able to reach them comfortably while having a slight bend in your elbows

For more details on bike fitting, take a look at this link.

 

poor posture

When I cycle around the city or teach my weekly spin class, I often see people riding their bikes with an overly rounded lower back. Biking in this hunched forward position can lead to back pain. The problem with biking with poor posture is that it can irritate the muscles and joints in your low back. It is important to maintain a neutral posture when cycling so that our body can distribute weight more evenly, and move more efficiently.

So what is a “neutral posture”?

Neutral posture is maintaining the two natural curves of our spine. To maintain a neutral posture in your lower back, imagine your hips and pelvis are a bucket filled to the brim with water. Tipping your hips too far forward or too far backward will spill water from the bucket. Neutral spine is found when your bucket is tipped just a bit forward so that there is a slight curve in your lower back. This slight curve should be maintained when you sit on your bike saddle and have your hands on the handlebars with a slight bend in your elbows. To maintain a neutral posture of your upper back, keep your shoulders down and back when you have your hands on the handlebars. 

It is easy enough to say “keep a neutral posture”, but having the strength to do so while biking is another thing. This brings me to the next source of back pain from cycling: a weak core.

 

weak core

First off, we can loosely define the term “core” as the muscles found deep in our torso which help to stabilize our spine and pelvis.

When biking, your core needs to be able to support our back in a variety of positions. From biking on flat roads to climbing up steep hills, our core muscles need to have the strength and endurance to keep our spine in a neutral position. A strong core also helps stabilize our body so that we can use our legs more efficiently as we push into the pedals of our bicycle. 

To turn on your core muscles when biking, try the following:

  • Visualize a wire gently tightening the area between your belly button and spine, and tighten those muscles accordingly
  • Imagine the muscles below your belly button are a seatbelt pressing across your hips, and pull those muscles into your body

What you shouldn’t do to turn on your core:

  • Hold your breath 
  • Squeezing your abdomen as if you are going to the bathroom

Because cycling is a repetitive movement that we do for a long period of time, it is easy to forget about your posture and gradually round your lower back. Be sure to always “check in” with your body while you ride to make sure you are keeping your neutral posture.

Now that you know how to turn on your core, you need to challenge it in positions that are more similar to biking. One great exercise to do this is bird dog:

 

Moving Visual of Bird Dog Excercise

For more ideas on core exercises that a good for reducing back pain from cycling, check out this link.

 

doing too much too soon

Another common mistake for new cyclists is doing too much too soon. I have had clients say “I rode my bike for the first time this year for four hours this weekend, why is my back sore?”. Like starting any new exercise or workout, you have to start small and increase difficulty over time. It can take our body at least two weeks to adapt to the demands of a new activity. 

As a general rule of thumb, increase your weekly cycling distance or time by no more than 25% each week.

 Final Thoughts

Having back pain after biking is common in both the beginner and experienced cyclist. Ensuring that your bike is the right size and properly setup is the first step in reducing back pain (or any other pain for that matter). Like our bicycles, our bodies need to be properly set up. We can do this by making sure that we bike with good posture and have the strength to hold that posture. Lastly, like any new sport or activity, take it slow and steady! 

If your back pain persists, please book in for a thorough assessment with one of our experienced Physiotherapists. We strive to get you back on your bike and doing the things you love to do so that you can keep #amovementlifestyle!

Written by: Sean Lee, Registered Physiotherapist
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