Back in Action

Big leg muscles and a strong heart don’t mean anything if your back is weak. Matthew Barbour reveals how to stay problem-free as the cycling season progresses…

Cycling might give you the cardiovascular system of someone 10 years younger, but if you want to carry on riding injury-free into your dotage, you need to look after your back.

Dr Michael Lanning, a Harley Street chiropractor who specialises in cycling-related joint and spine injuries, says the back, or more properly the abdomen, is by far the weakest link for the majority of riders. “Cyclists have huge leg muscles but don’t have the torso strength to support and resist the forces which the legs can generate,” he explains. If the torso is weak, that force doesn’t go into the pedals but is dissipated in flexing of the abdomen. “Look at tired riders – every stroke generates an ‘s’ curve in the back, causing fatigue and muscle spasm.”

Here then, is how to prevent that happening – or, if you’re already suffering a niggle or two, how to stay problem-free.

Upper classes

Neck and upper back pain is most often caused and exacerbated by riding position and technique, explains elite cycling trainer Andy Wadsworth. Riding on drop handlebars for long periods will not only increase the load on the arm and shoulders, it also hyperextends the neck.

“Prolonged hyperextension leads to ‘trigger points’, small rubbery knots that form in muscle and adjacent fascia muscle sheaths, which send pain signals to the brain and contribute to a pain- spasm-pain cycle,” says Wadsworth.

If the reach is too long (virtual horizontal top-tube plus stem length) for the rider, or if aero bars are used, hyperextension is a near certainty, he says.

Setup straight

If you suffer from neck pain you should also inspect your bike setup and fit. You might find you have to raise the handlebars, change to handlebars with a shallower drop or reduce the reach by using a stem with a shorter extension.

Riding with unlocked elbows and regularly changing your hand position from the drops to the hoods can spread the load on key muscles and help too.

Lower orders

With your lower back, the problem is most likely linked to your pelvic position, a weak core and crash damage.

“I see so many riders who spend hours and hundreds of pounds sorting out their bikes after a crash, but don’t think twice about their bodies,” says Joy Potts, an osteopath specialising in sports injuries. “Without you realising, it can cause the pelvis to become twisted and make your legs different lengths, issues which create muscle imbalances and put huge pressure on your lumbar spine as you twist your abdomen for power.

“Always, always get a professional once-over after any crash,” she says. “As with neck pain, focus on bike setup. “If your saddle’s too high, you’ll rock side to side causing the muscles between your pelvis and lower back to spasm,” she says.

“Put your heel on the pedal at the six o’clock position and sit on the saddle – your leg should be almost straight and you shouldn’t have to rock your hips to pedal.”

Pelvic position is paramount, she says. “Tight quads will tilt the pelvis forward, while tight hamstrings will tilt it back; in both cases, your lower back will over-arch and do the work of your much bigger core muscles.”

Core message

Pushing bigger gears or overdoing your hill sets can overly fatigue the glutes and hamstrings, again leading to pain. “The key message is you need to strengthen your core away from the bike before your back takes the strain, and focus on stretching to maintain pelvic position even when you’re dog-tired.”

These moves will help you to keep your back strong and injury-free this season.

1. The Bug
Targets Core muscle groups in your lower abdomen
Do it 3 x 10 breaths

Lie on your back with your arms reaching up towards the ceiling and your hips and knees bent to 90 degrees. If this feels too difficult, you can support your legs on a gym ball or on the arm of your sofa.

Making sure your spine is flattened gently against the floor and your pelvic floor is lifted, hold this position as you gently breathe in and out. Repeat three times for 10 breaths, resting for a minute between each set.

You should feel this in the tummy not the back; if you have back pain, wait until you’re stronger or reduce the time you hold the position.

Arm floats As you breathe out, slowly raise your left arm over your head, then breathe in and return your arm to the start position. Repeat with your right arm and alternate each arm for 30 seconds, increasing to one minute as you become stronger.

Leg floats As you breathe out, slowly lower your left foot towards the floor, but only as far as you can while keeping a neutral spine. Breathe in and return the hip to the start position. Repeat with your right foot. Alternate legs for 30 seconds, increasing to one minute as you become stronger.

2. The Cat Stretch
Targets Spine and core flexibility and strength
Do it Unlimited – repeat little and often

Kneel on all fours with your knees a hip distance apart and your hands a shoulder width apart.

This stretch can also be done sitting on your bike.

Imagining your pelvis is a bucket filled with water, tilt your pelvis forwards and backwards for one to two minutes as if you were tipping water out of the front and back of the bucket.

3. Crucifix Stretch
Targets Lumbar spine and hips, buttocks, back muscles and hamstrings
Do it 2 x 10 to 15 reps

Lie on your back with your arms stretched out at right angles to your sides and both your legs straight, as if you’re on a crucifix. Keep the length of your arms in contact with the floor at all times.

Lift your right leg 2 inches off the floor and swing your leg over and across your left leg so the toes on your right foot are sliding towards your left hand. Only swing your leg as far as you can comfortably.

Return your right leg to the starting position and repeat with the left leg. Do two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

If your flexibility is poor or you’ve had a flare up of lower back pain, bend your knees, keeping your feet on the floor, and roll your knees from side to side.

4. Dynamic Hamstring Stretch
Targets Hamstrings, piriformis, tensor fasciae latae and calf
Do it 10 to 20 reps in each position after every ride

Standing with your feet together, take three small steps (heel to toe) so you stop with one foot in front of the other.

Lean forward and slide your hands down your front leg to your ankle. The forward movement should come from your lower back and your hips.

Take three more small steps so your other foot is in front, and repeat stretch. Repeat 10 to 20 times.

The next stretch starts in the same way – take three small steps but turn the toes of your front foot out with the outer side of your heel in line with the big toe on the back foot. Repeat 10 to 20 times.

The final stretch starts in the same way with three small steps, but this time turn the front foot in instead of out.

5. Thoracic Extension Stretch
Targets Spine and chest
Do it Daily for 15 to 20 minutes

Use an exercise ball, or roll up a small bath towel so it has a diameter of 10cm to 15cm and secure with rubber bands.

Lie on the ball or, if using a rolled up towel, a bed with the towel positioned lengthways down your spine, from the base of your neck to the middle of your back.

Raise your arms to either side of your head and let them hang or rest on the bed. If this is too much of a stretch, support or rest your arms on pillows to reduce the pull across your chest.

6. Walking Lunges
Targets Quads, core and hip flexors
Do it 3 x 15 to 20 reps

Step forward into a lunge position, bending the front knee and ankle to 90 degrees, which will help you keep your knee behind your toes. Keep your weight on your back leg and clench your buttocks.

Dig and plant your front heel into the floor and step through the other leg forward into the lunge position. Keep your steps wider than your pelvis as this will increase your base of support and stability throughout the exercise.