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Coach's Column - Riding Through Back Pain with TJ Woodruff

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |April 3, 2013 12:49 PM

Coach's Column with Travis Woodruff - Riding Through Back Pain

Question:  "What can I do to help out lower back pain when riding?  Iím finding that my back gives me problems before my legs and lungs do.  I have had a bike fit done so what else can I do?Ē

Answer: More cyclists than not will experience low back pain while riding at some point.  For some it might be a rare occurrence and only problematic after doing their longest and/or hardest efforts. For others it can be more problematic and affect more rides than not, regardless of the intensity or duration.

A bike fit can certainly help, but adjusting the bike setup is only part of the equation.  It is just as important to consider how you sit on the bike once itís been properly setup for you. The best bike fitters will certainly consider your posture and how it relates to the adjustment of the bike too. Not all 5í10Ē riders with 32Ē inseams will require the same exact setup.   

Much of the issue concerning low back pain is related to spinal posture.  Our spines have three natural curves, the cervical (neck), thoracic (mid-back), and lumbar (low-back). Strong, athletic movements all originate from a Ďneutral spineí position where the cervical and lumbar spine curve slightly inwards and the thoracic spine curves slightly outwards.  From this position we can act, react, and adjust to just about any challenge coming our way. This holds true for all activities, bike riding included. Think about the ready position that a basketball player will use while playing defense or the pose a short stop will take just before the batter makes contact with the ball.  Mountain bikers also need to be able to assume their attack position. Doing so puts you and your muscles in the driverís seat so that you can actively ride the trail instead of simply reacting to the trail.

Without a neutral spinal position a riderís ability to maneuver the bike will be compromised. Theyíre likely to suffer undue amounts of low back stress too, since this is where upper body and lower body muscular forces will find a weak link.  There are several good sources online with simple instructions to help you find your neutral spinal position. Most will apply to a sitting position, such as this set of instructions . On the bike the same principles can apply as you aim to eliminate posterior pelvic tilt which most often leads to too much rounding of the lumbar spine.

There are a couple of snags that weíll often run into when trying for a neutral pelvic tilt.  First, cyclists tend to have chronically tight hamstrings and hip flexors.  Since pedaling is so quad-dominate, many riders donít fully activate their glutes while pedaling. Simply sitting on your saddle as if it was a chair and then arching your back towards the handlebars wonít cut it.  There has to be some amount of anterior (forward) pelvic tilt in order for a neutral spinal posture to be achieved on the bike.  However, chronically anterior rotated hips are all too common off the bike, especially amongst those of us sitting at a desk with an office job. Chronically tight hip flexors will elongate and tighten the hamstrings. Itís often the case that tight hamstrings are really the result of tight hip flexors. Identifying the cause of your flexibility or strength woes will really help you out on the bike, so take the time to make it happen. Our strength coach, Danny Sawaya, from Evolution Fitness in Tucson has a great post relating to tight hip flexors and/or hamstrings.  He includes some videos with this link which contain some simple testing and flexibility exercises that you can use while troubleshooting your own flexibility.

First make a real world assessment of your flexibility. If your hamstrings are tight and your back looks rounded while riding, realize that youíve got some work to do off the bike. Youíll want to figure out if itís actually tight (and shortened) hamstrings or perhaps itís your hip flexors that are tight, thus causing you tight (and elongated) hamstrings. Strengthen your core, learn how to active your glutes and really put these muscles to work.  Improving your functional strength will make you a healthier person and a faster mountain biker!  Itís imperative that you know what it looks and feels like to have a neutral spinal position on the bike.  This is the training that the pros do, but donít talk about too much. Thereís no glamour in it, but maintaining the muscles that are otherwise problematic will allow you to log the miles with fewer woes along the way.

A common bike setup related issue that affects oneís ability to achieve a neutral spinal position is the height and reach of the handlebar, relative to the saddle. If the bars are set too low and/or far from the saddle a rounded back position might be the only option. In this situation the rider will have a harder time controlling the bike and much of the stress will be directed to where the spinal curvature is too great.

Take a look at your bike fit. If your flexibility isnít the best then you probably donít want your bars set super low and long. Check your bar height and stem reach. Make sure that you can grip the bars without having to roll your shoulders forward to do so. Keep those shoulder blades pulled back and assume your neutral spinal position. From here not only can you pedal hard, but youíll also be able to maneuver the bike with authority, and generally be ready to shred.  That long and low position that all of the euro roadies love doesnít work so well when youíre trying to rip singletrack. 

Cycling will always put a lot of stress on the low back, but if you can learn to assume a neutral spinal position on the bike and keep diligent with an appropriate mix of functional strength work, youíll be able to ride pain free and with more confidence and speed on the trails.

Travis Woodruff is a USAC Level I (elite) certified coach who holds a B.S. in Kinesiology with emphasis in Exercise Science. Heís coached riders to five MTB National Championship wins and has over 10 years of personal racing experience. Since 2005 heís competed as a pro mountain biker and has coached full-time. His business, Momentum Endurance LLC, is based out of Tucson, Arizona where he hosts wintertime training camps.


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