Friday, May 02, 2008

Back Pain on the bike - Why? Perhaps "Isometric Contraction."

The snow is going away and the westerners that have put many days on the skis are jumping on their bikes. The muscles of the back have been used a lot so they are not use to just being in one static length.

Some of these riders have not taken any time in between sports to give the lower back a rest.
They can't wait to get on their new bikes and can't wait to go fast, so they spend every day on the bike.
It seems like more and more people are getting into the bike fitting, especially for time trial and triathlon. They read and look at pictures and think that being more aero is better. However, being more aero can cause extra tension to develop in the muscles if there is a bad fit or really long hours in the saddle. Plus, the jarring caused by rough road surfaces can also lead to muscle pain. Trigger points become active in awkward postures aggravated by fatigue, cold spring temps, or mental tension.

Many times, a cyclist will have low back pain from a reflex from a stimulated part of the body. Even the racers have low back pain at times. The human spine is, for the most part, compressed while upright or sitting with maximum pressure at the base of the spine due to the upper body mass. There is no question in that most of what we do in our modern lifestyles involves sitting and slumping forward, and, yes that includes cycling! I think we are all aware that the vital stabilizing muscles of the lumbar spine are weakened in sitting and slumping postures.
Inadequate spinal movement causes stiffened segments and vertebral discs dry out. The joint then stops working effectively and the spine develops stiff links like those that develop in your bike chain! Sooner or later, stiff links will cause segmental dysfunction and most of the time it occurs in lumbar 5/ sacral 1. The stiff links can cause trouble by aching or even becoming serious, incapacitating pain. Disc dehydration is a failure of the disc which may protrude or rupture and irritate the adjacent sciatic nerve (sciatica).
Correct and active management doesn't have to affect your performance on the bicycle or your enjoyment. You can pull too hard on the handlebars in a hard effort, or rotate your hip too far forward, or sit on the saddle in the wrong place. Without the correct focus and without conscioulsly relaxing the upper body, you might have to get off the bike in a hurry!
Aerobars used for tt & tri bikes can increase tension in the muscles from being stretched too low or having too short of a reach. These issues are too common as many just do what they see from others.
Isometric contraction (L. contractio, a drawing together) is a muscular contraction without movement of the joint. The muscle is neither lengthed or shortened but TENSION can be measured. Again, there is no joint movement and the length of the muscle remains unchanged, but the the muscle can be contracting with increased tension.

Every rider should think of their muscles as he/she thinks about the heart, which is also a muscle. Muscles need to rest and can't be "on" the whole time. When in the heat of the race or the ride, the rider should take advantage of opportunities to sit straight up and get some blood back to certain muscles, to turn them "off" and hyperextend the back (slow and carefully bend a little backwards). Even long hours at a desk or a long car drive can cause too much tension.

Low back pain among cyclists is mostly caused from a chronic state of isometric contraction during a ride, or even switching from a road bike to a tt bike. A bad bike fit or bad information on how to "address" the saddle, or jumping onto a new tt or tri bike can all lead to lower back issues. Poor adjustment of a saddle, leg-length discrepancy, or bad cleat placement can also cause issues. It is always helpful to stretch and change position on the bicycle frequently and use lower gears, especially on long climbs. Off the bike, practice spinal stretching exercises and work on your core stability muscles e.g pilates.
Medical treatment such as muscle relaxants, prescribed bed rest, or manipulations by trained professional can be effective in treating stubborn muscle tension. But, understand this can be a conditon that lasts for a few months and you will likely not recover overnight.
A little understanding can allow you to go a long way!
Most cyclists are so focused on going fast that they forget that the upper body is a counter weight for which the lower body works under. The back is the link between the hips and the upper body. This is really important to understand, especially for those on tt & tri bikes.

Strengthening exercises will improve the performance of the lower back. But just a simple understanding that the muscle can lock up in a isometric contraction by the skin alone is worth knowing! The knowledge that comes from a professional fit instead of "eyeballing" and "guesstimates" might just keep you in the game longer.
"All I know is what I herd" does not work for everyone. Picture a herd of cows "nose to tail" and they are all bulls. You understand what I mean!
There is a lot more to our fit than meets the eye, and we don't just eye it!

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