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Cycling offers many benefits. It strengthens the muscles and bones in your legs. It's also a great source of aerobic exercise. But some cyclists also experience a negative effect when engaging in the sport they love: lower back pain.
When you think about cycling and pain, your thoughts may not immediately go to the lower back. Instead, you may think about the likelihood of pain in the thighs or calves when pedaling faster or to make it up a hill. Or maybe you think about pain in the knees due to the continual movement of that joint. However, lower back pain is fairly common in this sport.
In a survey of 109 professional road cyclists, it was discovered that 53 percent had experienced lower back pain within the previous year. Comparatively, only 36 percent reported knee pain during that same period of time.
For 41 percent of the cyclists, this back pain was strong enough that they sought medical attention. Why is cycling so hard on the lower back?
One reason cyclists experience pain in the lower back is because they're in the same position for an extended time. This creates strain on the lumbar muscles as they work to hold that posture.
The position of the body can contribute to increased back pain as well. For instance, cycling requires you to bend forward. This forward flexion while seated places a higher load on tissues supporting the lumbar spine. Ligaments in these tissues contain pain receptors. Stress the ligaments, pain results.
Poor posture while cycling can also lead to pain in the lower back area. Hunch too far forward and the spine is misaligned. Sit more on one side of the seat than the other and it can create a muscle imbalance.
For riders that already experience pain, it's not uncommon for that pain to get worse. Research reveals that riders with pain in the lower back tend to experience more muscle fatigue. This fatigue is most prominent in the right trapezius medial and erector spinae muscles. When these muscles tire, cycling becomes more difficult. Tired muscles also mean that posture is more easily compromised, further increasing the risk of back pain.
Strengthening the muscles in your lower back help them better support the spine when cycling. This support makes it easier to keep good posture, both when on the bike and off. It also reduces your risk of pain in other areas. For instance, postural adjustments can often ease riding-related neck pain.
Stronger low back muscles also mean that you'll be able to pedal for longer periods of time. The muscles in your lower back don't become as easily fatigued. They're able to withstand lengthy rides on your favorite paths and trails.
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Certain exercises can help reduce the likelihood of back pain for cyclists. They fall into two basic categories: those that build strength and those that improve flexibility.
The stronger the muscles in the lower back, the more they're able to support the body when in a forward position for extended periods of time. Exercises that fall into this category include:
Bridges - works lower back, glutes, and hamstrings
Pelvic tilt - works lower back and hip flexor muscles
Lying leg lifts - works lower back and hip flexors
Superman pose - works the entire back, glutes, thighs, and shoulders
Flexibility helps reduce back pain by decreasing tension in the muscle. This reduced rigidity keeps the lower back from tightening up while in a forward-leaning position.
Exercises that improve flexibility for cyclists include:
Rotational trunk stretches (both lying and seated)
Low back muscles aren't the only muscles used when cycling. Pedaling also requires the use of your core. So, strengthening your abdominal muscles, glute muscles, and hip flexor muscles will benefit a cyclist as well.
To strengthen muscle in your abdominal area, incorporate crunches and planks in your exercise routine. Squats, deadlifts, and lunges can be added to work muscle in the glutes. Mountain climbers and straight leg raises strengthen hip flexor muscles.
Building core muscle helps take pressure off the lower back. Not only does this reduce the risk of back pain, but it also limits fatigue on any one muscle or muscle group.
If a client has lumbar spinal stenosis—which is when the spinal canal narrows in the lower back and compresses nerves running down to the legs—they may actually find that cycling provides some relief.
The bending forward required on a bike helps relieve the pressure on the lumbar spine. This helps ease the pain in the lower back. Thus, recommending cycling as a form of exercise can benefit this type of client.
Strengthening back muscles and working the core both go a long way to reducing pain in the lower back. Here are a few more tips that will help as well.
The term "bike fit" refers to setting up the bicycle for a specific rider to ensure maximum comfort and performance. The four factors to consider when addressing bike fit include:
Pedal position. When cycling, the ball of your foot should not be behind the pedal spindle. Instead, it should rest a little in front of the area where the pedal connects to the bike. This helps prevent fatigue to the Achilles tendon.
Seat height. If your seat is too high or low, your posture will suffer. This can result in back pain. To make sure your seat height is appropriate, place your heels on the pedals, directly over the spindles. Your heels should be able to remain on those spindles during the entire pedal stroke. If they don't, your seat needs to be lowered.
Handlebar height. Cycling in an upright position—where the thoracic spine and lumbar spine are able to stay straight—can help alleviate back pain. Raising the handlebars up with a stem spacer helps enable this type of posture.
Handlebar position. The position of the handlebars is important as well. Ideally, they should support a slight lean forward. This reduces the strain on your lower back while also easing the tension on your neck and wrists.
What is your posture like when cycling? Are you leaning too far forward, placing more strain on your lower back? If so, using proper form can help alleviate pain issues.
The best riding position involves relaxing your shoulders and bending your elbows, but not bending your wrists. Your low back should also be relaxed but straight. When pedaling, your knees should be pointing forward, not out to the sides.
If you like to ride on bumpy terrain, shock absorbers can help ease the impact on your spinal column. This will reduce your risk of back pain simply by protecting your spine's vertebrae and discs.
Shock absorbers for the front forks of your bike are a good investment. You can also get these types of accessories for your seat and hands. The more you can minimize the impact on your body, the lower your risk of back pain.
Help your clients engage in a sport they love while lowering the risk of back pain and it can bring even more cyclists to your fitness business. Your company grows based on the results you're able to provide.
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