Biking and Back Pain: What You Need to Know

Whether indoors or out, starting a biking regimen can be good for your back—as long as you do some prep.

As we approach the six-month mark of a global pandemic, many of us are getting creative with our workouts. Many gyms are still closed to the general public (or perhaps you don’t feel comfortable going yet), and that means you’re likely turning to at-home exercise.

Biking and back painBiking can be a great low-impact exercise choice, especially if you have back pain. Follow our tips to make sure your cycling workout is safe and effective.

Biking has been considered a reasonably safe activity since the outbreak started. In fact, according to the NPD Group, bicycle sales have seen double and even triple-digit increases since March.

While a face mask on busy paths should be considered (it’s even required in some areas), here’s something else for you to ponder: how your back pain could be affected by your biking routine.

Whether biking is a newfound hobby, an activity you’d like to ramp up, or an old friend, you’ll need to think things through before hitting the trails or jumping onto your Peloton to avoid developing or aggravating back pain.

Olumide A. Danisa, MD, chief of the adult spine division for Loma Linda University Health, is here to share essential steps to creating a safe and back-healthy biking routine.

Understand Your Back Pain First

Biking has a lot of good things going for it. It’s a type of aerobic exercise that can boost overall body health. With regular training, it can improve performance of the heart and lungs.

Dr. Danisa adds, “Other body regions, such as the spine and the rest of the musculoskeletal system, also benefit from such fitness.” In fact, he believes it’s an even better form of exercise than jogging or aerobics. “Biking is less jarring on the entire body,” he explains, “especially the spine.”

Although Dr. Danisa says that in most cases, back pain during cycling is rare (“Except when working at a pace or intensity level beyond a person’s capability,” he says), you’ll need to investigate the cause of your back pain before biking regularly. For some conditions, such as degenerative disc disease, biking can be beneficial. Those with lumbar spinal stenosis can experience relief in the back and leg while biking since it’s an exercise in which the back is flexed.

On the other hand, Dr. Danisa says that if someone has spinal instability, such as spondylolisthesis, “forward flexion can exacerbate back and leg pain.” That’s why it’s key to seek out a diagnosis before committing to frequent cycling.

Talk to Your Doctor

Whether you’re hoping to land on a diagnosis, or you’ve already been diagnosed, it’s important to speak with your doctor ahead of cycling.

“Before starting any exercise regimen, it is imperative to visit your doctor to determine if you are healthy enough to engage in such activity,” Dr. Danisa stresses. “Back pain sufferers are no different in that regard. Once cleared by their physician, most people—even those with chronic mild back discomfort—should be able to initiate bicycling exercise.”

Create a Reasonable Regimen

In addition to covering the safety basics of outdoor cycling—wearing a helmet and highly-visible clothes, getting your bike serviced, and adding reflectors and lighting—you should come up with a training plan beforehand. Dr. Danisa says that with any exercise, one should have a training plan to ensure sustainability and minimize injury.

“Start with an achievable distance or time goal and then build upon that as you become more fit,” he says.

He also notes that for both indoor and outdoor biking, it’s essential to warm up and stretch. “This includes the back, which needs the time to loosen up,” he shares. He goes on to say, “Use a comfortable bike seat or saddle at the proper height for your body type and inseam. Near the end of the ride, a cool-down is also advisable.”

Be Mindful of Form and Mechanics

“As far as biking technique, no one particular form is ideal or superior,” Dr. Danisa says. “You should always be in a position where your spine is comfortable. Typically, bicycle-riding is low-impact, and it should be fluid in motion. Anything that alters fluidity, such as poor posture, jerky motion of the neck or spinal column, or ill-fitting equipment can cause poor mechanics and ultimately increase risk of injury.”

Consider Indoor Cycling

Indoor cycling could be safer when compared to outdoor cycling in two respects.

First, Dr. Danisa thinks there are simply more variables when it comes to outdoor biking. He says, “Whether attending a spin class or riding solo on a stationary bike, indoor cycling is in a controlled environment. Accidents are rare. Outdoor biking, in contrast, occurs on the road, bike path, or terrain where there is potential for accidental injury.”

Second, if you’re following along with a cycling workout, the warmup, pacing, and cooldown will be built in as opposed to you doing it on your own outside. You can also choose a workout in line with your fitness level, something that can keep back pain in check.

“Participants can pick the intensity level of a specific class and have goals such as workout duration, peak heart rate, or resistance level,” says Dr. Danisa. “The classes follow a common pattern: a warmup, a specified workout, and finally a cooldown.”

The only downside is that you could miss out on the mental-health benefits of being outdoors.

“Biking is an excellent form of exercise,” Dr. Danisa concludes. “It promotes cardiorespiratory health, is low impact, promotes blood flow and strength to the body’s muscular core, increases motion to the joints of the lower extremities, and can ultimately improve spine health.”  

Resistance training more your thing? Check out our guide to lifting weights and back pain.

Updated on: 08/11/20
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