Back Pain From Cycling
Part 1: Does Stretching solve back pain from cycling?
Chances are that you either know a cyclist who has back pain from cycling, or you yourself have suffered from it at one point or another. Many well meaning folks have told us to “stretch it out”, but does that really solve our back pain from riding?
We’ve all been there: We finish a long ride, our backs and shoulders feel tight and achy, and we’ll try anything to get some relief, any relief. Since my early days of riding, I’ve been told, and have heard others been told “Just stretch after a ride, and you’ll be ok.” This has progressed to “foam roll or trigger point your legs and you’ll be fine.”
While this advice comes from a place of well-meaning, stretching and trigger point massage may help you feel better for a short time, but it does not even come close to actually resolving the cause of the issue itself: imbalanced muscles due to our sport.
Let’s take a look at what muscles are doing while we’re out there performing our sport, and why some may think that stretching & trigger point is the answer.
That’s what she S.A.I.D.
Bicycling, as a sport in and to itself, or as a part of the sport of triathlon, significantly changes the positions and working ranges of motion for our joints and the surrounding muscles.
This is a necessary adaptation to any and every sport, and is a major principle when it comes to training.
It’s called the S.A.I.D. Principle:
“Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands”
There are specific repetitive movements and energy demands that we must do to get stronger/ more efficient if we are to improve at our chosen sport… You can’t become the best cyclist possible by rowing a lot. While the two sports or rowing and cycling may compliment each other’s energy demands & have somewhat similar positioning, we MUST have the specific muscles and movement patterns become more capable of doing the SPECIFIC movements, if we are to progress.
Throughout Part 1 today I’ll share with you a few of the stretches we’ve been using here at Human Vortex Training the last 12 years as a part of our Healthy Cycling program.
These are not the only exercises we have, and if you’d like to learn more you should subscribe to the HVTraining YouTube Channel, as we are constantly releasing new videos with great info, and exercises.
In Part 2, we’ll go over Strength Training exercises & Trigger points to help you rebalance your body so you can keep grabbing KOM’s and cruising longer, stronger, and more comfortably.
What imbalances does cycling create?
For our sport of cycling, we are put into positions that leave the following muscles working in a lengthened position:
Mid and Lower Trapezius
Erector Spinae (We’ll include all muscles of the spinal column here)
Quadratus Lumborum (lower back muscles)
Flexors of the neck
Having these muscles working in lengthened positions for extended periods of time, like the hours we spend on our bike, will lead to these muscles losing what strength they have through their full range of motion, as they adapt to being in lengthened positions, and the increased demands placed on them in these positions.
On the other side, we have a number of muscles that become shortened while cycling, or which work primarily in shortened positions. This leads to changing the ranges of motion at the joints as well.
The “Tight” Muscles that many think stretching will solve our back pain from cycling
The muscles that become shortened include:
Hip Flexors (Psoas and Iliacus)
Chest muscles (especially the pectoralis minor)
Extensors of the neck
Having these muscles shortened for extended periods of time and working in those shortened ranges of motion, leads them to having shorter “resting lengths”, or how long they will be when we are at rest/not using them to work.
You may be thinking these changes are a bad thing, but in fact, this very mechanism of the human organism- adapting to the working demands we place on out body- has led us to be able to survive for however many thousands of years, as we’ve adapted to the stressors and demands placed on us.
The Future of Fitness Podcast guest Max Shank had a great quote about it in his interview. You can view it here.
If we want to get better on the bike, we MUST have these muscles become better/more efficient at doing their jobs. Working in shortened positions is a part of this. However, what we DO need to teach is for those muscles to be able to work through their entire range of motion when we are not on the bike.
This is where the challenge is, especially today as we spend so much time in a seated position, at our desks/ café on our computer. We must find a balance, and this is where strength training, trigger point, and stretching come in to play.
What exactly does stretching do?
Stretching, especially post-exercise stretching can help us to remind a muscle where it needs to be at rest in order to carry out normal functions, and that the sport we are doing is not the only thing we need it to help with each day. This is important because:
Joint Position Dictates Muscle Function
How a joint it positioned will determine what effect a muscle acting on it will have on it.
If I have my arm straight to my side and am holding a heavy bag in my hand, my Bicep will act to bring that bag up to my chest, as long as my elbow stays to my side.
However, if instead of keeping my elbow to my side, it instead moves forward (as in my arm stay straight), instead of being the prime mover (muscle doing most of the work), my bicep will now be a stabilizer, while my shoulder muscles do most of the work.
That big change in what my bicep is doing happened all because my elbow moved a few inches while I raised that bag, instead of staying at my side.
Stretching a muscle will help us to decrease the amount of tension it is carring. That tension can occur for a number of reasons including, but not limited to:
The muscle is tired and has been working to fatigue (Think about getting off the bike immediately after doing a VO2 Max effort up a 7 minute HARD climb. Your hip flexors, back, and quads are all super tight and take you a few steps to be able to stand tall)
The muscle has been working hard to stabilize a joint while an adjacent joint moves (Think about those hip flexors we just mentioned: They’ve been trying to stabilize your spine while you’ve been climbing)
The muscle has been in a shortened position for a long period of time (Think about sitting on a packed subway train with no space to move. When your first stand up, you feel those muscles stretch)
These are just a few examples, but gives you a good idea of why that muscle is carrying tension: It’s either trying to do it’s job more efficiently, it’s been stuck in a shortened position, or it’s too weak to meet the demands being placed on it, so it shuts itself down as a protective mechanism against serious injury to the joint it’s meant to protect.
Understanding muscles: What ARE their jobs?
Muscles have 3 primary jobs in the body. They are, in order of importance:
1. To protect a Joint
2. To stabilize a joint while an adjacent joint moves
3. To move a joint
These jobs become much harder to do, when we take a joint out of its ideal or naturally occurring position. This is exactly what happens when we are riding our bike for long periods of time: Some muscles shorten and other muscles lengthen. This throws off the balance at the joint, which leads to changes in how the muscles at that joint function.
Understanding the 3 jobs of muscles and their order of operation is really important in how we understand stretching, trigger pointing, and strengths roles in helping alleviate discomfort on the bike, and unlocking better performances.
Back pain & Cycling
To help us understand better what we need to ACTUALLY do to resolve pain from tight muscles from riding, we’re going to focus in on a common problem for cyclists:
With October just starting, we see many riders now swapping out their road bikes for their Cyclo-cross bikes, and of course, the inevitable “my back hurts.. must be ‘cross’ ”after their first few times at ‘cross practice.
Is it ‘cross, or is there another villain in this story?
While we like to point the finger to what we see as the “big change” (riding ‘cross), this change has actually just exposed a much deeper issues (no pun intended):
Shortened/ weakened Psoas
Lengthened/weak glute complex
Poor breathing patterns
Poor thoracic mobility (Rib cage)
Poor head position
Put these together, along with jumping on and off a bike seat……Oh, What’s that? You’re ALSO doing max effort short sprints that place extreme demands on the muscles and the energy systems that the vast majority of riders avoid training or even doing during the summer?
Now you have a recipe for pretty much guaranteed pain and discomfort.
As the saying goes:
“But other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?”
Stretching will solve my back pain, right?
For our example of lower back pain, we do want to include some post-activity stretching, working to get those shortened muscles to relax back towards their more “normal” resting lengths. This often helps us feel better immediately as it removes some of the tension those muscles have balled up, as we’ve been out pushing ourselves to the max.
But this is like a cold-patch for a pothole.
As those who have lived in Pittsburgh, or really anywhere in the Northeastern US can tell you, while the cold-patch on a pothole helps for a week or so, but it’s not long before the original pothole is even bigger and there are more cracks in the road, leading to more hazards.
The same goes for only stretching to get rid of pain.
What we really need to do it to stretch the shortened muscles, and strengthen the opposing, less used muscles. This will allow us to better return or maintain balance at that joint.
But it doesn’t come easy!
Much like making progress in your fitness on the bike, we must be consistent in our routine of Strengthening, Stretching, and Trigger pointing.
Stay tuned for Part 2, as we’ll dive into Strength Training and Trigger Point to fill out your self-treatment program.
Have you, or do you have back pain?
What did you find that surprised you?
Let me know below in the comments!