Many riders are troubled by low back pain, and it seems common that it has become an accepted 'just part of being a cyclist'. Three hours into a group ride and you can see a bit of squirming and sitting upright going on.
The low back area is a bit of a nightmare when it comes to muscles, tendons, nerves and bones. Take, for example, the hamstring muscles. They cross the knee joint, and also the hip joint. They help bring your heel to your backside from straight leg to flexed leg, and also help push your knee from raised to straight. Which should be an indicator of why it can be rather hard to get an accurate diagnosis of why it hurts here or there.
As a crazy little way to illustrate how connections between muscle, nerve and tendon can be beyond what we think is rational, try this little exercise.
Take your shoes off, stand up and touch your toes. Make a note of how far down your legs the tip of your fingers can reach. Now stand up and, using a tennis ball, rolling pin, or can of rice pudding, roll the soles of your feet 5-6 times, pressing hard so it’s a bit ‘ouchy’.
Now try to touch your toes again – see how much further you can reach? But that’s an exercise in hamstring and low back flexibility! You haven’t done anything to them directly. You just rolled your feet. Now can you see how complex back pain can be?
Prevention, not cure
If you suffer from low back pain, the purpose of this article is not to diagnose why: it could be from a childhood injury, a single tight muscle, a wonky knee or a nerve being pinched. If you wish to know why your back hurts, you need a diagnosis and rehab programme from an established and credible injury specialist.
Rather, I want to address what you can do to minimise the likelihood of incurring back pain while riding and in normal life. I’m going to assume that you don’t have low back pain from a single injury incident that needs treatment but that you simply get some aching on rides.
Look down. Are you sitting on a chair with your legs bent at the hips? If you do this rather a lot, your hip flexor muscles will most likely be tighter than is good. As a result, when riding, there will be a tendency for your pelvis to rotate forward on the saddle.
Now, this might not be an issue, if it wasn’t for the fact that you’ve probably got tight glutes and hamstrings which will be trying to rotating your pelvis in the other direction. Something will complain.
You may also find that slamming the stem, just like Adam Hansen, not only looks ‘proper pro’, but causes your pelvis to rotate forwards as you haven’t got the same core strength and flexibility that Mr Hansen has through numerous hours of off-bike conditioning.
What to do?
There are three steps to take that I believe will eliminate back pain for the majority of riders – if they don’t work you should seek a diagnosis from a credible injury specialist. This is not an exhaustive list of all the possible ways to eliminate backache, but it’s the most likely fix for the majority of riders.
Firstly, before you get out of bed, do some easy range of movement exercises.
Bring your knees to your chest, pull them in until you feel a stretch, then gently rock in and out of the stretched position for 20-30 seconds. Now put your feet back on the mattress but with knees bent. Drop your knees as far as possible to one side, hold the stretched position for 20-30 seconds, then do the same for the other side. Do this every day. Seriously.
OK, now on to more proactive exercises.
- Enhance the flexibility of your hip flexor muscles.
- Enhance the flexibility of your hamstring muscles.
- Strengthen the muscles that form the main support for the pelvic area and lower back.
You can do this simply by protecting your genitals and head from an imaginary electric fence and then swinging a big heavy ball. What?
Two exercises, around 5 minutes a day – got to be worth trying?
Imagine an electric fence just under crotch height and pretend to step over it one leg at a time, lifting your feet high and rotating as you move. Then duck under another wire at belly button height, then turn around and back to the starting point leading with the other leg. High swing of the leg, low duck back under.
If you feel really stupid doing this in a dark room with no one watching you’ll probably be doing it right. Do 12 in total, rest for a minute, then 12 more.
Now for the big weight thing. The Kettlebell Swing is an excellent way to develop core strength and it will also add power to your pedalling. Find a kettlebell. Or fill a dry bag with sand. Or put a watermelon in a carrier bag (don’t do this really!). Then swing it.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes straight ahead like your riding position, crouched with knees slightly bent, looking straight ahead. Hold the kettlebell between your legs using a two-handed grip.
Keeping the arch in your lower back, bend your hips back until the kettlebell is between and behind your legs, then squeeze your glutes and snap your hips forward to extend your hips and swing the weight up. Don’t raise it with your arms, keep them straight and let the hips swing it up.
Then, control the swing back down with your arms, still keeping them straight, let the weight swing back between your legs as you bend your hips and slightly bend your knees, then hit it again.
Try 25 swings, rest, then 25 more. When you can do 75 in one set, up the weight. A good starting point tends to be 8kg for women and 12 kg for men.
There’s a good demonstration here.
And that’s it! Try these two exercises three times a week for a few weeks and see if you notice a reduction in low back pain.
Dave Smith has been involved in coaching cyclists in all disciplines for more than 25 years. A former GB national and Olympic road coach, Dave has trained Tour stage winners and Olympic medallists, world champions and numerous national champions. In addition he has applied his quirky and counter intuitive thinking to help dozens of regular cyclists, polo players and F1 drivers. He rides 250 miles a week on and off-road in all weathers.