Lower back pain in cycling?

In a 2001 study at the German Sport University Cologne (Froböse et al. 2001), more than 800 athletes were surveyed on their discomforts when mountain biking. It was found that more than a third of the participants (35.5%) suffered from pain in the lumbar vertebrae. Due to their more sportive position, it can be assumed that this share is even higher for road bike riders. What are the causes of these discomforts and how can they be alleviated?

The whole position on the bike is a main cause for whether and if so which discomforts appear when cycling. The bike’s set up is thus central as it directly affects the back pain, especially in the lumbar vertebrae:
Back pain can worsen if the bike’s set up does not match the rider’s anatomy. From our analyses it seems that a frequent cause for this is a too big distance between saddle and handlebar or a too big difference between the height of the saddle and that of the handlebar. Both cause a hyperextension of the lumbar vertebrae and thus unnecessarily strain the intervertebral discs, the vertebral joints and the muscles. This is often reinforced by two factors:

1) Weak abdominal muscles (as the back’s counterpart muscles)
2) A low pelvis flexibility, which causes the pelvis to remain upright when changing the seating position

In contrast a correct bike set up reduces such problems by taking these factors into consideration and fitting the bike to the rider. A shortening of the saddle handlebar distance can relieve the back as much as a reduction of the saddle’s height compared to the handlebar.

General athletics training

The rider can actively achieve a further improvement by adding regular athletics training to his routine. This should preferably target the muscular weak spots, thereby strengthening the body and enabling it to better and longer absorb the acting forces. In case of problems in the lower back, the focus should be on the abdominal muscles and the erector spinae muscles.

I. Froböse, B. Lücker, K. Wittmann: Überlastungssymptome von Mountainbikern. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Sportmedizin, Jahrgang 52, Nr. 11 (2001)

Daniel Schade