Back pain is an unfortunate reality for many of us cyclists. When I was racing professionally, my back pain was so severe that it caused me to miss the first half of the 2008 season. My lingering back pain that resulted from a bad crash in 2007, Vuelta Espana, forced me to search for the process to create a pain-free back while cycling. The results inspired me to write my first book, the Core Advantage. But it doesn't take a crash in a Grand Tour for cyclists to experience back pain. It's a common occurrence for so many of us.
Have you ever been crushing your ride and then suddenly have to ease off the pace because your lower back muscles felt as if they were tied in knots? Or found yourself skipping workouts because you are suffering from excruciatingly sharp pain and numbness radiating down one leg? Or maybe you have a tightness in the upper part of your back that also is accompanied by shoulder/neck pain while causing your chest to tighten up, restricting your breathing when you go hard? Well, I can say; I have dealt with all three of the above. While all three versions of back pain are quite debilitating on and off the bike, there is a solution.
The solution to both preventing and recovering from back pain is to implement and follow a simple two-part formula: muscle group activation and specific cycling technique work. This formula works best when applied to your current training before and during your workouts. Whether you have had, or currently dealing with back pain or troubles, the time to take action is now. Here is how you do it.
Part 1. Muscle Group Activation (Pre Workout)
When identifying the "why" behind back pain, we have to look at the motion of cycling it's self. Cycling is a sport that utilizes many different muscle groups in a repetitive motion when pedaling. To perform one revolution of the cranks, an extensive range of muscle groups such as your quadriceps, calves, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors all engage to perform the motion. You also use muscles above the waist in your pedal stroke in your lower back, upper back between the shoulder blades, the shoulders, neck, arms, chest, and abdomen! The bottom line there are lots of muscles that CAN and should be used in cycling.
In a perfect pedal stroke, all of the muscles group would be utilized efficiently. The problem is that it often is not. The action of pedaling usually does not recruit all the optimal muscles on its own. There are many shortcuts your body can and will take to complete the pedaling motion using fewer muscle groups. Often the body chooses to use only the muscles that you have been using before the ride, major muscle groups such as your quadriceps and calves that are constantly firing for everyday motions such as walking. The body often ignores smaller muscle groups such as the glutes and hamstrings that aren't naturally firing because you have been sitting or even sleeping.
When key pedaling muscles are switched off, so are those neuromuscular connections. Without that brain-body connection, your body will take the path of least resistance and focus primarily on pedaling with the muscles that are already activated. This leads to them overworking, building up fatigue, breaking down, shortening due to muscle fiber damage/adhesions, and then pulling on tendons, and other muscle groups, often causing injuries of the adjacent tendons in knee or Achilles or the muscles in your back.
The way to avoid these injuries is by doing a simple, fast, and effective exercise routine that activates all the key muscles you need for cycling. By doing these exercises, you wake them up and connect a pathway necessary for your brain can follow. For the best results, I recommend doing these exercises as close to the start of your ride as possible.
Below are a few of my favorites that we use in our CINCH routine.
Step 2. Specific Cycling Technique Work (During)
When people experience back pain on their rides, many immediately blame the bike fit. I believe a proper bike fit is essential, riding (and pedaling) technique comes first. However, I would say the actual riding technique is the most ignored component of cycling performance, and bad technique is the most common cause of back pain. As a coach, almost no one comes to me asking to create a better technique on the bike! Instead, most sign up for coaching to improve their power. I believe this is simply due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of cycling techniques within the industry.
Your cycling technique is of two-fold importance. First, the optimal technique allows you to create more effective power for longer. Secondly, and the focus of this article is the proper technique prevents injuries that cause back pain. As we addressed earlier in the article, cycling is such a repetitive sport that an incorrect technique can result in overusing a muscle group. Improper technique can also put a strain on a muscle group that sets or holds a primary mover group.
While proper cycling technique is an entire book itself (an introduction to proper cycling technique can be found in my new book Cycling on FORM), I will share with you two things to help you reduce and or prevent back pain.
a) Isolate your pedal stroke and do focused training on each part separately: the upstroke and the downstroke.
Often people have a dominant downstroke leg, and the opposite leg becomes their dominant upstroke leg. While you can become efficient riding like this, and even have an equal left/right leg balance, this style results in a crooked pelvis causing back pain. The best way to create proper upstroke and downstroke technique is to practice low cadence intervals with a solid load (about 80 percent of your threshold power) for about four minutes in length — alternate one four-minute interval using only your upstroke and the next four-minute interval using only your downstroke. For the upstroke, focus on pulling up with your hip flexors, calves, hamstrings, and glutes. On the downstroke, concentrate on pushing down with your quadriceps and glutes. I recommend starting with one or two of these intervals twice a week and building to five.
b) Improve the strength and efficiency of your standing technique.
Back pain can also come from too much-sustained riding in the seated position. In this scenario, the back becomes overworked by overusing the muscles in the same position for countless hours. I have found that the overuse of the seated position comes from a rider feeling or being inefficient out of the saddle for sustained periods. They create a strategy of avoiding prolonged or frequent efforts standing by focusing on more riding time in the saddle to get stronger there. But it usually does not work in their favor, overworking the back resulting in knots, adhesions, and other painful overuse injuries.
So the way to create this efficiency is first to create the proper standing technique for sustained out of the saddle efforts. In this technique, there are three areas to focus your attention on. I call these points the Three Points of Power. These are the hands, core, and feet. Let's have a look at what you do with your three points of power in proper standing technique.
HANDS: Hands are located on the hoods, primarily using the thumb to make a firm grip; distribute weight equally on both hands. Opposite of the thumb, use the heel of the hand to bear the majority of your body weight—not the center of your hand. Doing so will help you lock in and engage the core.
CORE: The core is engaged by slightly bringing the elbow in on each upstroke toward the knee that is lifting up on the upstroke focus on pulling the knees up using obliques and hip flexors.
FEET: Your body weight should be supported directly on the balls of your feet for the entirety of the pedal stroke. For the downstroke, drive your pedal stroke down on the ball of your foot with your heel up, and your toe pointed down. On the upstroke, curl the bottom of the stroke with your toes, and then pull your heels up, focusing on your hamstrings, calves, and glutes. When you perfectly nail both the down and the upstroke, it should feel like you are dancing on your pedals.
Now to train this technique, I recommend creating intervals of sustained standing for periods 2-3 minutes in the zone of about 75% of your Threshold power at a low cadence of 50 - 60 rpm. I like to use a lower power number like this so that the rider can feel they are not holding their weight up in their legs. When the power is high, it is hard to feel the weight distribution as so much weight needs to be put into the legs to hit the power numbers. I recommend starting with three standing intervals of two mins each, building into five standing intervals of three mins each, three times a week.
Using this two-step process, I have successfully guided hundreds of athletes, ranging from novice to professional, to strong and pain-free backs. I recommend whether you are struggling with back pain in your cycling, implementing this process to your weekly routine. It will help you to eliminate your back pain as well as preventing potential injuries down the road.