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Protect Your Neck and Back While Biking: 4 Tips for Spine-Safe Cycling

Whether you’re an avid cyclist who rides dozens of miles each day or a casual cruiser who simply enjoys a relaxing ride now and then, bicycling offers an excellent, low-impact aerobic workout that can help you manage your weight while strengthening your muscles and promoting flexibility and mobility as you age. All of these translate to an exercise that is generally good for your back—so long as you do it in a way that avoids unnecessary muscle strain and injury. With this in mind, below are a few important tips to ensure you’re gearing up in the healthiest way possible for your spine.

If back pain is keeping you off the road, it may be time to consult an expert like Dr. Chetan Patel at the Spine Health Institute. He and his medical team can determine the reason for your pain and recommend a treatment plan that’s tailored to your specific needs and preferences. Call our care coordinator at 866.986.7497 or click on the “book online” button at the top right of this page.

Not surprisingly, riding healthy starts with your choice of bicycle. Bear in mind that different types of bikes have different riding positions, and choose a bike that is in keeping with your physical condition and skill level. For example, riders who are new to cycling as well as those with chronic back or neck pain should avoid expert-level road bikes designed with “dropped” handlebars that are below the height of the seat. These skinny-tire cycles are designed for speed, but require a riding posture that’s not well suited to someone whose neck and lower back muscles lack the needed strength and flexibility. Keeping your neck in excessive extension and your back in excessive flexion for a long period of time can be painful for even those lacking neck or back problems.

On the other hand, mountain bikes, with their fat tires, shock absorbers and straight handlebars that are positioned just higher than the saddle, are a more comfortable fit for some people. But keep in mind that the bumpiness of actual mountain biking and the forward-leaning posture that these bikes require can put considerable stress on your back, neck and joints.

Cruise in Comfort

Depending on your needs, a better choice may be a cruiser type of bicycle, which allows for an upright position where your body weight is more evenly distributed with your spine in a straight line rather than at an angle. The cruiser’s large, comfortable seat, wide tires, and handlebars that are positioned well above the seat and much closer to the rider all put less strain on your back and neck. These bikes are ideal for short-distance riding on flat surfaces, since they generally lack both shock absorbers and multiple gears – but many hybrids are out there that incorporate such features for more regular riders. Of course, if you really want to avoid straining your back, a stationary cycle or recumbent bike may be more in line with your needs.

Right Bike, Right Fit

Now that you have the right bike for your needs, it’s essential to ensure that it is “fit” properly to your body. A bike with a seat that’s too high or too low, handlebars that are too far away from your body, or pedals positioned so they don’t allow for proper leg extension will keep you from having the correct riding posture and cause unnecessary strains and injuries. An expert at your local bike shop can help you determine the proper frame size for your height and make whatever adjustments are necessary to ensure that your legs, back and arms are at optimal angles while you’re riding. Keep in mind that many people have a slight difference in the length of their right and left legs, which can lead to improper hip movement that strains the ligaments and muscles of the lower back if not properly compensated for via seat and pedal-height adjustments. While a leg length discrepancy may be small so that you don’t normally notice it, it can be enough to cause problems.

Work on Your Flexibility and Strengthen Your Core

While biking itself does little to strengthen your back muscles, having a strong core and good flexibility is key to avoiding back pain both during and after a bike ride. This is because your core muscles are engaged in keeping you balanced and upright every time your hips tilt as you push down on a pedal. It’s easy for these muscles to become fatigued during even a short ride if they lack conditioning. Two ways to help you build core stability are abdominal bracing and bridge exercises; Pilates and yoga also both offer core-strengthening maneuvers that can help bike riders to avoid lower back pain. Just as important, new riders who have little flexibility in their back and hamstring muscles are much more susceptible to strains and other lower back problems. Seated toe reaches, hip crossover stretches and hamstring stretches are all excellent ways to loosen those muscles and keep you injury-free on your next bike ride.

Adopt a Healthy Riding Style by Loosening Up and Gearing Down

You may have the perfect bike for your body and rock-solid core muscles, but if you don’t ride correctly, you can still experience lower back pain. The first rule of riding properly is to be sure and warm up your muscles before rolling down the road. As with any exercise, stretching and warming your muscles keeps them loose and less prone to injury. Second, try not to grip the handlebar too tightly, and maintain a slight bend in your arms while you’re riding. This will allow your body to better absorb bumps, dips and vibrations that jar your back. And finally, don’t overdo it. Riders who push themselves in the higher gears, particularly while going uphill, may not realize they are straining their lower back due to the increased angle and greater pedal resistance.

Want to learn more about how to protect your back while exercising? Read our latest blogs on spine-safe jogging and tennis! And if your back is keeping you from competing as you’d like, don’t hesitate to call The Spine Health Institute and arrange for a consultation with Dr. Patel. Simply click on the “book online” button at the top right of this page.

 

 

References

7 Steps to Pain-Free Cycling (6/22/2010). Retrieved from bicycling.com:  http://www.bicycling.com/training/health-injuries/7-steps-pain-free-cycling

Avoid Lower Back Pain When Cycling (n.d.). Retrieved from WikiHow.com: http://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-Lower-Back-Pain-While-Cycling

Bike Fitting Basics (n.d.). Retrieved from REI.com: http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/bike-fit.html

Back Pain and Sports (n.d.). Retrieved from MedlinePlus: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000519.htm

How to Avoid Lower Back Pain When Cycling (n.d.). Retrieved from Active.com:  http://www.active.com/cycling/articles/how-to-avoid-lower-back-pain-while-cycling

How to Pick the Best Bicycle for You (4/21/2014). Retrieved from DailyBurn.com: http://dailyburn.com/life/tech/best-bikes-guide/

Bike Dynamics-Bike Fitting Specialists-Aches and Pains (n.d.). Retrieved from BikeDynamics.com: http://bikedynamics.co.uk/backpain.htm