For a lot of cyclists, low back pain is just a part of riding their bike. Whether it hurts before, during or after riding (or all 3 for a lot of people) they know that throwing their leg over their bike will most likely result in their low back getting angry with them.
And while there are exceptions, in my experience a lot of this pain is avoidable. Brought on by mobility and movement dysfunctions, once you address the root of the problem then your low back isn’t under as much stress.
If you are experiencing or just want to avoid low back pain then here are 3 tips that will help you have more fun and less pain from riding…
1 – Improve Your Hip and Thoracic Mobility.
Your low back is caught between two areas that are notoriously tight for most riders – the hips and the upper back between the shoulder blades. When one or both of these areas is tight and can’t move like they should then the low back comes into play more to make up for it.
The problem is that the low back isn’t meant to create a lot of high stress movement. Just like using your lower back for squats or deadlifts in the gym, you can get away with it for a little while but eventually this overuse will catch up to you.
This is one of the reasons that mobility training is one of – if not the most – important thing for you to focus on when you are off of the bike. The nature of riding a bike creates a lot of tightness and tension in the hips and upper back and this leads to movement dysfunctions that impact the low back.
Spending 10-15 minutes a day focusing on these areas will make a big impact on your mobility and help take a lot of stress of the low back as a result.
2 – Stand Up More To Pedal.
Look, there is no getting around how dysfunctional sitting in the Adult Fetal Position is on your bike. There is an entire industry that revolves around finding the right “fit” to put the best polish on that turd but at the end of the day seated pedaling has a lot of drawbacks for your low back compared to standing pedaling.
A few things to consider about this spinal nightmare…
- Sitting down on your seat disengages your core to some extent. Not entirely, but as soon as your core has the stability provided by the seat it disengages to save energy. This is one of the reasons that seated pedaling “feels easier”…your core isn’t as active which isn’t good news for your spine.
- Sitting down makes it harder to engage your glutes. Your glutes have to engage simply to hold you up and keep you balanced on your seat. If they are engaged doing that then they can’t create as much power. This makes it harder to use your hips to drive the pedals stroke and some of that load goes to the low back, which again isn’t made for that.
- Sitting down has you working the weakest and tightest range of motion in your hip hinge. It is like doing the bottom half of your deadlift over and over again. This is where you are weakest and most likely to need to compromise spine position to make up for tight hips. When you stand up you are working the top of your range of motion, which is much stronger and easier to maintain a better spine position.
To be honest this list could go on and on. Your body simply never expected for you to sit down and try to apply movement and energy with your legs and isn’t really built for it.
The answer is to use Standing Pedaling more. The key word here is more. I’m not saying to stand up all of the time, simply to work on standing up more.
Like anything else on your bike there is a specific skill and fitness behind it that will get better as you use it more. This will make it easier and let you do it more, eventually leading to a riding style that lets you use Standing Pedaling for your hard efforts and Seated Pedaling for easier and recovery efforts.
3 – Stabilize Your Foot Properly.
Anyone who has had any contact with the Barefoot Running/ Training movement over the last few years knows that everything starts with the foot. If it isn’t functioning properly then everything else in the body will be off trying to make up for it.
This applies to the bike just as much as it does anywhere else. However, it is one of the most overlooked aspects of cycling related low back pain.
At its heart your foot is an arch. The arch is one of the strongest forms in all of nature and provides a dynamic base to work from as you can shift weight from one end to the other as needed for balance.
But these things only work if you have both ends of the arch stabilized. Destabilize one end and the whole thing falls apart.
Now when you press down into it you have one end collapsing, which requires energy from the foot to hold up and loses some of the power going into the pedal.
You also lose the ability to apply pressure through both ends as needed. For example, your foot requires pressure through the heel to be able to recruit the hips – if you don’t have anything under the heel for it to apply pressure into then the hips can’t fire and the low back winds up taking the slack.
With a platform that stabilizes both ends of the arch you can get better hip recruitment, plus it makes it easier to stand up and pedal since your feet and calves aren’t working as hard to hold up the back of the arch themselves.
Of course, you will always have those that claim you don’t need heel pressure and that you instead want to be on the ball of your foot when riding. I won’t get into debunking their rather silly claims here – I did so in detail in The Mid-Foot Manifesto Podcast – but I will say that if you are on the ball of your foot and suffer from a tight, painful low back then it may be worth at least considering another option.
Once you do these 3 things then you body can move better and rely less on dysfunction to get your through your rides. This means that the stress is being placed on the right areas and spread out over the body instead of being focused on the low back.
To help you with these things I have two pieces of advice…
First, if you haven’t done it already then be sure to sign up for the free Standing Pedaling Solution Program. It is a 4 week workout program that addresses a lot of the mobility and strength issues I refer to in this article as well as direct skills training advice on how to apply your better movement to the trail.
Second, get a pair of Catalyst Pedals. As the only pedal on the market that is long enough to support and connect both ends of the arch, I designed it to be your best option for achieving a strong, functional pedal stroke. It also makes standing pedaling much easier since you aren’t balanced on your toes, helping you to stop relying so much on the Adult Fetal Position on the trail.
Riding mountain bikes hurts enough already so why make it harder than necessary by suffering through low back pain? Apply this advice and you’ll be able to stop the cycle of pain and dysfunction, letting you enjoy riding even more.
So give this advice a shot and let me know how it works for you.
Until next time…