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For the last several years, I’ve experienced lower back pain when cycling and mountain biking. I’m pretty sure my discomfort and pain stem from a minor crash that resulted in a few bulging discs (which I didn’t find out about until a year later). Since then, my lower back hasn’t been the same and I’ve tried a bunch of different things to help fix and manage my pain on and off the bike.
While I know there’s no one-size-fits-all for back pain remedies, in this post I share a few things that I’ve tried or looked into that have helped me over the years. I’m still a work in progress, but I’m hoping that one day, with the help of these strategies and tools, I’ll be able to go for a ride and not have that nagging pain across my lower back!
Please note that I am not a doctor or medical professional. The following tips and strategies are what I’ve tried and what have worked for me.
Why cyclists get lower back pain
More than half of cyclists report lower back pain when they ride. That’s insane! Chances are if you’re reading this, you experience back pain as well.
So what’s the deal? There are a number of things that could be causing discomfort in the saddle, but here are a few of the most common causes.
Poor bike fit
Poor bit fit is one of the most common reasons for lower back pain when cycling. (However, it’s also important to point out that many pro cyclists have trouble with their lower back and they most certainly have proper bike fit).
If your bike isn’t set up for your body measurements, it can cause lots of problems. Small tweaks like raising or lowering the seat post, changing stem length, or even swapping bike sizes can actually make a big difference.
Proper bike fit should be the first thing you look into when trying to figure out what is causing your lower back pain (see ‘get a professional bike fit’ below).
Lack of care off the bike
Another reason cyclists get lower back pain is not taking care of their bodies off the bike. Cycling requires a lot of back flexion and hip flexor activation. So what are you doing to counteract those positions off the bike?
That’s what I thought… To compound this issue further, many of us – including me – sit at a desk when not riding a bike. Sitting requires more back flexion and more hip flexor shortening, making your lower back issues even more pronounced.
By incorporating some back extension exercises and hip flexor stretches, you might just see some improvement on and off the bike.
Physical injuries & ailments
Poor bike fit and not taking care of your body off the bike are the two most common reasons for lower back pain in cyclists, but of course, there are many more causes as well.
Bulging or herniated discs, spinal stenosis, a severe muscle strain or tear, arthritis, sciatica, etc… may also be causing problems.
If you’ve tried everything you can think of to alleviate pain and it’s just not going away, it’s probably time to see a doctor or physical therapist to make sure you don’t have a more serious lower back problem.
Tips for relieving back pain
Chances are, you’ve already tried a few things to help alleviate your back pain. There’s no one thing that will magically fix every cyclist’s back pain (I wish!) but are a few tools and strategies I’ve tried that have helped me.
If there’s something you’d add to this list, please leave a comment below – maybe it’ll help someone else!
1. Get a professional bike fit
One of the best ways to reduce lower back pain from cycling or mountain biking is to get a proper, professional bike fit done.
Many larger bike shops will have someone trained to do this. It involves taking measurements, looking at geometry, and talking about the specifics of your pain issues. A good bike fitter will then make adjustments to your bike to improve body position and posture.
In addition to (hopefully) fixing the pain issues, a professional bike fitting, which typically run about $200 per session, can also result in improved pedaling efficiency, increased power output, and more PRs!
If you can’t get a professional fit done, here are a few measurements to look at yourself:
- A seat height that is too high will cause your hips to rock back and forth when pedaling, potentially leading to back pain.
- A saddle that is too forward OR too far back can result in an unnaturally long or short effective top tube length, also potentially leading to lower back pain.
- Handlebars that are too high or too low in relation to seat height can put strain on your lower back.
- A bike that is too big or small for you can cause all the problems!
2. Start a stretching or yoga routine
I’m pretty sure that part of my lower back pain when cycling is due to the fact that I don’t stretch enough. I used to be a super dedicated yogi, practicing at least 5 days a week, but in recent years I’ve let my yoga practice fall by the wayside and now I’m paying the price.
I’m sure I don’t have to educate you on the importance of stretching (we all know we need to stretch more!), so if you’re looking for a way to incorporate more stretching in your life, I highly recommend using the Yoga | Down Dog app.
I’ve tried several different yoga/stretching apps and none of them really clicked with me until this one. I love how you can set the timer to however long you want (even just 5 minutes) and you can choose different music and practices and even select different instructors.
3. Address your anterior pelvic tilt
Unbeknownst to many cyclists, an anterior pelvic tilt can be the cause of lower back pain. What is an anterior pelvic tilt? Think of your pelvis as a bowl. If the bowl was filled with water, it should not pour any out when you’re standing up straight.
With an anterior pelvic tilt, however, the bowl would be tipped forward and water would spill out the front (conversely, if you have a posterior pelvic tilt, water would spill out the back).
Because many cyclists have tight quads and hip flexors from pedaling, this can draw the pelvis forward, resulting in an anterior pelvic tilt. Guess what that does to the lower back? It crunches the spine.
So what can you do about an anterior pelvic tilt? It can actually be pretty straightforward to correct, but you need to commit to doing consistent exercises and stretching.
4. Swap saddles
The science isn’t solid on this one, but you could try swapping your saddle to see if that helps with easing lower back pain. Especially for women, who tend to have wider sit bones, a wider saddle may support your pelvis better, reducing strain and stabilizing your lower back.
5. Cross-train & focus on building core strength
I know, we all just want to ride bikes every day, all day. But incorporating some strength training, particularly core strengthening exercises into your routine can really help with low back pain associated with cycling.
Biking is a great exercise for the leg muscles, butt, and back, but it’s not really great for the front side of the body, including the core (i.e. your stomach muscles). A weak core can cause the back muscles, especially the lower back, to work overtime, resulting in – you guessed it – back pain.
I started doing strength workouts 2-3 times a week and I have noticed a difference in both strength and stabilization. I use the app Movement with Julie and I love it. It’s geared toward women, but there are so many great strength apps out there to choose from.
I’ve heard good things about the Peloton app, but I haven’t really used it (I tried, but I went back to Movement with Julie). The Peloton app also has stretching/yoga classes as well, which is a double win!
6. Try an inversion table
When my back pain was really bad a few years ago, the only thing that gave me much relief was traction. I’d lay on my back with my knees bent and push my hands against my thighs to create a bit of traction in my lower spine.
Even if you don’t have bulging discs, an inversion table can be super helpful for a lot of people experiencing lower back pain from cycling (consult with your doctor before trying one!). An inversion table works by decompressing your vertebrae and stretching the muscles and tendons around them.
I invested in the Teeter FitSpine X3 inversion table and it has helped me a lot. Even just 5 minutes a day makes a big difference in how my back feels.
Shop Teeter Inversion Tables at:
7. Use a standing desk
Think about it: when you’re biking, you’re bent over at the waist which is exactly the same position you’re in when sitting at a desk. To help your muscles stretch and relax, it’s important to change up body positions.
If you sit at a desk most of the day (like me!), then it’s a good idea to either use a standing desk or have the option to stand up and work when you want.
I find that if I sit in my office chair for too long, my quads and hip flexors get super tight and sore and my lower back feels crunched.
8. Get a low back massager
I am absolutely in love with my TruMedic InstaShiatsu+ Neck and Back Massager and my only regret is not getting one sooner. I’ve tried massaging sore spots in my back with a tennis ball, a handheld percussion massager, and rolling on a foam roller, but none of those really helped me long-term.
The TruMedic back massager has been amazing and it’s surprisingly powerful. I use it after almost every ride. It’s also great for shoulder massages and I even use it around my calves and quads when they get tight and sore. 100% recommend!
9. Get an MRI
If you’ve done everything you can think of to relieve the lower back pain you feel when biking, it’s probably time to get an MRI. I didn’t get an MRI until about a year after my crash and I regret waiting so long. (Although, in truth, none of the doctors I saw thought an MRI would be useful since I didn’t have any pain going down my legs).
An MRI can give you a better insight and understanding into what’s going on in your lower back and hopefully get you started on a path to recovery whether that’s rest, physical therapy, or something else.
Looking for tips to improve your comfort and performance on the bike? Check out these related blog posts:
What has helped alleviate your lower back pain from cycling? What other suggestions or tips can you share? Let us know in the comments!