Why Do Cyclists Get Back Pain?

More than 1 in 3 cyclists will suffer back pain this season, but why does it happen?

why do cyclists get back pain?

It’s nearly inevitable, or so it seems, that if you ride your bike long enough, that you’ll suffer some kind of back pain. While there are a number of reasons why one may develop back pain, cyclists and triathletes tend to share a common thread of a contributing factor:

Long periods of time spend in a forward-flexed position.

While I recently appeared in BICYCLING MAGAZINE’S article on Herniated Discs, there are a few more pieces of background information that will significantly help you get out of, or stay out of back pain. 


Why Does Back Pain Happen?

While there are a number of reasons why back pain can occur, for many under the age of 45 it comes down to 2 primary things:

1. Mechanical failure of tissues- due either to overload or to trauma

2. Instability

These two items tend to be the starting point, from which a number of changes can occur.

For those over the age of 40, the pain has an increase in possibility of happening due to arthritic changes.

For this article we will focus on the instability and why it occurs often in cyclist. 

Again, the following is NOT the only way in which pain can occur, but is simply one of the more common.

2 Common Causes of Tissue Overload

When most people think of a back injury, the first thing that comes to mind is lifting something really heavy, or bulky, leading to a sudden, instantaneous injury.

However, while this is one way, these types of incidents tend to account for a smaller percentage of back injuries, with many more occurring from one of the following:


  1. Lifting smaller sub-maximal load with inadequate rest between efforts, leading to an eventual tissue failure

  2. Prolonged periods of time with the tissues in a stretched or strained position without a rest, leading to tissue creep, and eventual tissue failure

This second one is where most cyclists and triathletes find themselves on the bike, as they hold the forward-flexed position on the bike for long periods of time. 

This leads to the tissues and muscles of the back and spine to stretch, something called “tissue creep”, similar to leaving a laffy taffy candy out in the hot July sun, and then pulling it from both ends. The taffy will stretch, and you won’t be able to return it to it’s original state without it looking funny.

The human tissues re similar, except that in general the tissues will eventually return to close to their initial resting length- but it takes time. . . well over 90 minutes in many cases, as show by research done by Dr. Stuart McGill back in the 1990’s, when they looked at this exact item.


What Can You Do To Prevent Lower Back Pain?

Every single back pain case is different, as every one of us is built and shaped differently:  From the size and shape of our spines, to our strengths and how we move.

That being said, simply being stronger- as in the more weight we can move for a deadlift, squat, or back extension- actually has a very poor connection to helping us maintain healthy, viable spines!

In fact, it is strength-endurance of the muscles of the spinal column and posture, that is important. 

The devil, of course, is in the details of HOW you perform each exercise, that ensures you’re building a good, strong, robust back. 


Here are the “McGill Big 3” exercises, show exactly how they need to be done, which may help you build a strong spine. Be advised, that is you’re unable to perform any of these with the techniques as described, there are variations to meet you where you are, but it’s best to meet with a specialist to assess your strength, weaknesses, and determine your needs. 

The McGill Crunch (Curl-up)

Side Planks, Top Foot Forward

Bird-Dog (Progressions)

More On Why Cyclists Get Back Pain

While we’ve really barely scratched the surface on back pain in cyclists, we’ve now given you the basic a understanding of why back pain occurs for cyclists (most common reasons), and a few exercises that can help you avoid developing back pain.

If you’d like to learn more about back pain in cyclists, take a listen to episode 90 of my Strong Savvy Cyclist & Triathlete Podcast, and be sure to sign up for the HVTraining free weekly newsletter.

Until next time remember to Train Smarter, Not Harder, because it’s all about you!


Menachem Brodie

Menachem Brodie

Coaching since 2000, Menachem Brodie has been working with athletes in a number of settings, and a broad variety of sports.

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