Cycling is a low impact sport, but the repetitive movements and sustained posturing can still be hard on your back and spine. There are several factors that can affect your spine while you ride:
- Your bike fitting: Improper bike fitting can lead to a number of issues. For example, if your seat is too high it can cause you to shift from side as you reach for the bottom of the peddle stroke. This increases your spinal rotation and potentially strains the lower back. Another example is low handlebars. Riding low puts you in a more aerodynamic position, reducing wind resistance and making you more energy efficient. However, this can also put increased strain on the neck as you look ahead, while causing the rest of your back to flex more. If your back begins to bother you, try bringing the height of the handlebars up a bit. If you aren’t sure if your bike fits you well or you find yourself struggling as you ride, you can schedule a bike fitting consultation with a qualified professional.
- Your hip muscles and joints: Your posture on the bike puts your hip flexor muscles in a shortened position. If you work a desk job, your hip flexor muscles are already in this position for many hours of the day. The main hip flexor muscles have attachments to the vertebrae of the low back, so this tightness in your hips muscles can cause pulling on the spine. To counteract this, stretch your quads and hip flexors after every ride. It’s also important to maintain the mobility of your hip joints. Your body requires an adequate amount of bend in the hip, especially the more forward flexed you are on the bike. Decreased motion at the hip joint causes increased motion of the low back and may result in repetitive strain on the spine.
- Your core strength: The strength and endurance of your core muscles will help stabilize your spine on the bike, preventing excessive repetitive movement. Core strengthening should be part of your routine for safe and efficient cycling. This can include a range of exercises and habits, from planks and Pilates to simply being mindful about your posture. Good form is critical to getting the most out of your conditioning and avoiding injury, so always consult a qualified practitioner before trying any new form of exercise.
- Your approach: Riding in gears that maintain high tension and require less pedal revolutions may seem like a good way to generate speed. But the increased tension means that your body has to work harder, leading to fatigue including the muscles needed for stability of the spine. Furthermore, if your resistance is too high then your cadence will be too low because you have to push harder, and it is less energy efficient. A cadence of 80-95 rpm is ideal. If you’re a serious cyclist and you’re looking to improve your time, schedule a session with a certified coach who can help you develop an effective strategy that doesn’t increase your risk of injury.
Andrea Minsky is a doctor of physical therapy at Hospital for Special Surgery Rehabilitation. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and her doctorate in physical therapy from Rutgers University. Andrea is a USA Triathlon Coach and a Board Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist. Her interests lie in orthopedic and sports-related musculoskeletal conditions. She believes in injury prevention and strives to keep her patients active and safe.