Does Cycling Help or Hurt Your Lower Back?

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Modern life puts a particular set of demands on our bodies, specifically our lower back. As a result of this, low back pain with or without sciatica is one of the most prevalent conditions affecting the majority of society at some time or other. With this in mind there is a constant search for activities that will help alleviate the pain associated with a lower back injury. Importantly, low grade activity that is sensible is key in the earlier days to help mitigate unnecessary worsening of the back and weakening of the muscles. To this end activities like walking, cycling and swimming are often recommended. Are these activities all created equal though? 

Today, we’ll be taking a deep dive into cycling in general, as well as a dive into road bike cycling to explore the role this should or should not have in your lower back rehabilitation in the short to medium term. We’ll also explore the long term impact of such activities on lower back health. Taking an objective look at a leisure activity and sport that many find enjoyable, to discover whether or not it is good for your lower back health. We’ll also discuss some strategies that will help your lower back short term when you have pain, but also long term if you are an avid cyclist.

Understanding the strain on your lower back that modern life exerts.

Starting here is important for the substance of the article and recommendations later on. As discussed so many times before, the average working age adult spends 9.5 hours a day sitting. This is a tremendous imbalance, considering the average person is awake for about 16 to 18 hours a day. The action of sitting, assuming a good posture which is rather unlikely, generally slightly flattens the lumbar spine compared with standing, shifting the weight more through the discs of the low lumbar spine, as well as stretching out the ligaments and muscles on the back part of our spine.

Accumulating this pattern of strain over formative years in the workplace, by the time many reach their mid to late 30’s or early 40’s the toll begins to show. Lower back aching and stiffness, with or without the beginnings of sciatica symptoms arise. This is often occurring at the same time as the individual is gradually de-conditioning, i.e. getting weaker and less fit. It is important to note here, that the weakening and deteriorating fitness is not a “feature of age” as much as it is a feature of life’s progressive imbalance. Conscious work to combat this process through regular fitness practices works almost miraculously. So don’t count yourself out as “just getting old”. There are people out there many years your senior who started their fitness later than you who are fitter, stronger and healthier, so age is the last factor to consider.

This strain on your lower back however, is specific, it is a compressive strain with stretch on the back part of the spine, the muscles and ligaments. At some point or other, usually when carrying out an innocuous activity that you’ve done 100 times before, i.e. putting your socks on, the back goes. 

Take a moment to visualise the position you would be in when this happens, specifically your lower back. Have this in mind for the remainder of the article. 

Cycling in general, do you really need more sitting?

Take a moment to evaluate what a day looks like for you, are you the average person, spending 9.5 hours a day sitting, at home, at work, on the commute, meeting friends, with the family, having dinner, relaxing in the evening? One of the contributing factors to the degenerative processes and vulnerability in the lower back, specifically the L4, L5 and S1 regions, is the pervasive nature of sitting. It is in everything we do and strains those areas most. Let alone if we find ourselves slouching a lot and “sitting badly”. 

Even if you didn’t have a lower back injury, is cycling really the best choice of activity to partake in as a means of trying to balance out your daily life? Granted it is a great method of cardiovascular fitness, and when balanced perhaps in a triathlon it could be considered to be more acceptable as a choice in the healthy individual. There are still disadvantages but we will cover the specifics of road bikes later on. 

If you are someone with a lower back injury, or experiencing sciatica, the decision to rehabilitate is an intelligent one, and should be undertaken rigorously to return to good health and the things you wish to do. Rehabilitating in a sitting position however is not wise. This seated posture is invariably contributing to the condition of your lower back, and its vulnerability.

When your lower back is acutely painful in the early stages of recovery

In this stage, for some, the action of sitting will actually be painful, which is fantastic! This is giving your brain the appropriate signals that the compression of the injured structures is occurring and you should not do this. Like hopping on a sprained ankle – an equally bad idea. Unfortunately for others, not always, but usually with the presence of sciatica, the process of sitting is actually relieving. This is more difficult. The reason being, for these individuals, the build up of inflammation or presence of displaced disc material occupies the holes in the back of your spine where the nerves come out. Sitting with particularly bad posture, enlarges these holes, relieving the pressure. 

This is why it feels good. 

The real challenge here is that the bad posture contributes to the worsening condition of the lower back, it continues to stretch already stretched and damaged tissues, as well as compress the front of the disc, driving it back further. This is akin to being stung by stinging nettles, it is bad that you’ve been stung, you want to scratch, but the scratching breaks through the protective dead skin layers allowing the fibers from the nettles to penetrate deeper. The more you scratch the more exposed the deeper and more sensitive layers of the skin are, the worse the problem gets.

It is those who fall into that second category who are particularly prone to getting into cycling because it will feel nice during, it will be a method of exercising that provides relief. Understanding why it provides relief and why it is not good, explained in brief above, should hopefully help you have the confidence to move forwards in a more sensible, low back friendly way. We discuss these concepts of why you should not flatten your lower back more in the dedicated episode, something worth checking out if it applies to you.

Instead of approaching activities like cycling, rebuilding the supporting structures & mechanisms for your lower back is the right way to go. We talk about this extensively in the Back In Shape Program. But a simple place to begin is the towel exercise, probably the best exercise everyone can do for lower back health, not least because it supports the natural healthy position of your lower back. In addition to this, beginning to work on strategies to maintain a neutral spine and building strength to do so in a variety of positions, progressively, is one of the central concepts we teach in the program. 

In short, when you have first injured your lower back, purposeful rehabilitation to restore the health and integrity of your lower back should be your sole aim, rather than generic cardio exercises, and certainly not cardio in a position that resembles the very strain that caused your back pain in the first instance.

What role can cycling have in your medium term rehabilitation?

Do you thoroughly enjoy cycling? Is it preferable to many other forms of cardiovascular exercise? There are benefits from cycling beyond cardio. For many it is the social circles, for others it is a commuting tool, and let’s face it, probably better than sitting in the car or public transport. However, consideration of the simple fact that it is still sitting is important.

We discuss the process of rehabilitation and when the right time to add back in cycling is, suffice to say, we’ll assume you’ve done your rehab and are still doing it, and perhaps for this example, cycling is your method of commuting to work. 

Here we can make some concessions. Take a moment to consider your sitting position. Chances are you’re not on a time trial when commuting to and from work, so aerodynamics aren’t top of the agenda, and they should not be if you are one of those whose day is heavily skewed towards sitting. Additionally consider, your cardio exercise will be more profound if you are less aerodynamic, a double win, better for your back and your heart!

Set up your bike with the saddle lower down if you can, and the handlebars up higher, this reduces the flexion through the lumbar spine a bit. Avoid the use of cleats, or at least unclip them at traffic lights and stand up, giving your spine an opportunity to redistribute weight, strain and stretch through all the tissues. These simple disruptions help tremendously to offset one of the biggest issues with cycling. Making these modifications is more possible in the leisure cyclist, who’s on an upright mountain bike or brompton-style commuter bike. Either commuting to work or having a leisurely cycle around town on the weekend. This is not so possible for the cyclist out on their expensive road bike doing a 4 hour country ride on a Saturday morning.

The biggest challenge to overcome when cycling: your long term back health

It has always been a challenge to reconcile cycling. Especially those who do it in a more serious manner. The reason lies in how your spine works and the position adopted when cycling. Your lower back should have a smooth backward bending curve, a lordosis. We are built like this as it bestows both flexibility, strength and balance. The muscles are designed to work on this lordotic structure, the discs are designed to function within this position. The body however, is pliable, sustained stretch and repeated actions leave their mark. We know this as we utilize these features steadily in a process of spinal remodelling. This is whereby a sustained stretch through certain ligaments, leads to the restoring of the spinal curve. 20 minutes a day, for a period of 3 to 4 months in the average individual is enough to make around 25% increase in the curvature of the lower back. This is taking advantage of a process called creep in the ligaments. It is the ligaments, not the muscles, that maintain spine alignment and that lordosis mentioned earlier. 

When you’re cycling, you’re on a moving chair, you cannot just get up and move around like you can in the office. Granted on the leisurely cycle round town, you’re likely not in the “racing position” with maximal stretch through the lumbar spine for extended durations, and on the city commute you’re regularly stopping at traffic lights in most cases. But out on those country roads on your road bike, it’s a different story. 

The particularly avid amateur cyclist will be spending a significant amount of time in one stint in this position, sometimes many times a week, and it is difficult to counteract this without completely derailing the cycling experience. 

Sustained stretch is the biggest challenge to the amateur cyclists lower back health, Identifying this reality is the first step. The other “cyclists” mentioned earlier do not have to contend with this challenge in quite the same way, thankfully. 

How you can have a healthy lower back and cycle

Being an active person that has enjoyed sport all my life, nothing is more unpleasant than the notion that you cannot do this sport or that sport indefinitely. Sometimes we have to make concessions for periods of time and if you have injured your lower back then you need to lay off the cycling and work hard at rebuilding your lower back health. 

That being said, we need creativity to consider how we might manage the strains of cycling intelligently. We choose these sports as adults often because we can enjoy the sport itself and the wider community participation in the sport offers, it becomes an important part of our life. Ostracisation from this part of life because of our back issues can often be a real fear. 

In the closing part we’ll be talking about some strategies you can take to ensure you can continue to partake in your hobby for the long term, especially if you are an amateur cyclist. Yes some of this will involve a little time commitment on your part, but view it not as time that is wasted, but time that is invested in preserving your ability to enjoy doing something you love with your friends and family for the longest possible duration.

Step 1: Lower back injury immediate actions

If you have just injured your lower back, you need to get off the bike and start on the rehabilitation front, we have already discussed some principles earlier regarding this step. If you are struggling right now, check out the Back In Shape Premium Membership as that will help you get back on the saddle with the right exercises and education to get your back injury resolved and integrity restored as swiftly as possible. 

It’s worth noting this will include exercises and stretches, but it MUST include appraisal of your daily activities and working setup to optimise this for your back health.

Step 2: Returning to the saddle: get your back in a less bad position

When the time is right and significant progress is made with your rehabilitation you will consider adding back in your cycling. Begin with some modifications to the set up, yes this will mean that the aerodynamics are going to have to take a hit, but it is better than not cycling isn’t it? We know from experience you’re not going to ever get a road bike in a good position, but a less bad position is what you want to aim for.

Step 3: How you return to cycling after a lower back injury

This is important, beginning with short stints on the bike and incorporating breaks. For example, cycling for 5 minute stints. Remember we discussed the biggest challenge for the amateur cyclist is the duration in the saddle in that same position. Doing sets of 5 minutes on the bike, gives you periodic opportunities to break the position, get upright and change the stress and stretch mechanisms on your lower back. 

Remember, your lower back will still be going through the strengthening process so is still more vulnerable, in spite of the fact that the pain may be all but gone.

Step 4: Your resistance training should continue

You should have now come to the realisation that the simple resistance work you’ve been doing to build your lower back health is important to your longevity. This should be something that is continued as your return to cycling, and remains a feature, even 25 to 30 minutes 3 to 4 times per week would be acceptable. We have some great efficient routines in the program that will allow you to work the right areas to promote lower back health and resilience that will also help you on the saddle to generate lower body power. 

Continuing these practices will ensure as you ramp up your cycling, your back does not suffer as it did before. 

Step 5: Scaling your training on the bike

A good first step to make your cycling productive would be to continue to scale the shorter cycles in both number and intensity. It is an opportunity for you to make the best of the situation and work on your speed and power in the saddle, something that will no doubt be of benefit as you start to test out longer durations in the next steps. It’s always a good idea to “make the best of your circumstances” and look at what you can do, in this period. It is much better to take this approach than to jump back into the 4 hour cycles only to find out after a few sessions it’s been way too much too soon. 

Remember the biggest challenge is that sustained stretch that comes with the duration.

Step 6: Extra tips for your low back health

As you continue to scale your cycling back to be reminiscent of your normal cycling activities, the stuff you enjoy, remember that it is not ideal for the lower back. Some simple work to offset the rounded spine can really help. You might find the variation on the towel exercises placed at the upper lumbar spine as a great option to help you open out your spine after a long ride. This simple stretch can be done for a few minutes either immediately after the cycle or when you get home. Remember all we are doing is taking a conscious account of what is being done with our body during the activity and being a little more committed to offsetting this strain with the opposite movement. Restoring a degree of balance. You’ll likely find it feels remarkably good too!

We know that cycling is an important part of life for many out there, for the commute, for enjoyment, and for some it forms the very fabric of their social network and a practice that has many health benefits, even beyond the obvious. Cycling in the more amateur or professional capacity does however come with some degree of challenge particularly because of the duration of the endeavour.  If you’ve injured your back, then taking the steps we laid out above, involving a period of absence from the saddle is necessary, but a sensible return strategy is possible. With a proactive approach you can get firmly back in the saddle after a back injury, and perhaps, and with some new habits and complementary practices, you might even find out you perform better than before too!

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  1. This topic is a very relevant one for me. Because of sciatica I have been worried that I may not cycle again. I have stopped cycling for the time being, but I am now more optimistic about the future.

    1. Thanks for the comment John, it’s all about timing and if we are really into these sorts of practices for the social too, then making the amendments and having strategies to facilitate the process and offset some of the strain.

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