Common pain points
Cycling for hours on end overloads the muscles in the upper back and neck which reduces the blood circulating, and the amount of oxygen and nutrients that can get to the working muscles.
Lower back pain is very common amongst cyclists. Being too stretched out, or having one leg slightly longer than the other is often the cause.
The most common overuse injury/complaints reported by male and female recreational cyclists in one study were the neck (48.8 per cent), followed by knees (41.7 per cent), groin/buttocks (36.1 per cent), hands (31.1 per cent), and back (30.3 per cent). Female cyclists were almost twice as likely to develop neck and shoulder overuse injury/complaints.
Better posture on your bike
A professional bike fit, when you go to a bike shop or specialist and they adjust your bike to fit you, is highly recommended for anyone who's considering making cycling their main sport or way of training. A bike fit will include the following adjustments/tweaks:
• Seat and handlebars: The height of both the seat and handlebar will be fitted to suit you and your biomechanics (how your body moves when you're active) – as will the distance between the handlebar and seat.
• Legs: At the six o'clock position your knee should have a slight bend, i.e. at the bottom of your pedal stroke.
• Feet: Your footwear will need to be adjusted to ensure you have enough forefoot support to stop your knee 'collapsing' inwards at the 3 o'clock position.
• Upper body position: Your upper body needs to be aerodynamic, but remember this matters less on a four-hour ride compared to a sprint, so learn to adjust your bike seat as and when required. Your shoulders and neck should be relaxed, not bunched up, and you shouldn't feel you're over-stretching either.
Straighten up at work
Slumping in a bad position over a desk all day shortens your hip flexors and puts stress on the lower back – both of which you need to use to cycle well.
Make sure you have correct posture at your desk:
• Be posture conscious: If you feel yourself slumping, or slouching, lengthen your spine, and get up and walk around.
• Sit properly: Let your hips move as far back as they into the chair, adjust your seat height so that your feet are flat on the floor and knees at the same height (or slightly lower) than your hips.
• Try a stability ball: Alternate long desk days in your chair with sitting on a stability ball. Doing this will engage the postural muscles and double up as exercise. Don't expect to be able to last all day on the ball, as it would be a lot of work for your core.
What to work on in the gym
It's important for any cyclist who's deskbound to add core, mobility and flexibility work to their weekly exercise plan. Cycling, like running, puts you in a rigid, forward-facing position. To counter this, try the following exercises:
• Waists twists: Put your hands on your hips, keep your hips facing forwards and turn your waist from side to side, consciously drawing in your abdominal muscles, and lengthening through spine. Do around 20 twists.
• Side bends: Stand tall and reach one arm down the side of the body reaching down the leg as far as is possible, and repeat on the other side. Do around 20 side bends.
• Core work: A strong core helps keep your back strong and improves your posture. Core is the focus in a Pilates or yoga class. Take-home exercises include twists in yoga and one-legged balancing poses. A side plank is a good exercise to work the muscles in the waist and back. Ask your Pilates teacher to show you how to do this.
• Swimming: Don't just do front crawl – try backstroke, and butterfly, too, to mobilise all the muscles in the upper body, and challenge your body to move in different ways.
Supplements to keep you in the saddle
Glucosamine and chondroitin, have anti-inflammatory effects and can help prevent and treat existing joint/back issues. Two studies on cyclists and soccer players have shown glucosamine may prevent the wear and tear of collagen – a fibrous protein found in cartilage and other tissues.
Devil's claw extract can also significantly improve back pain and stiffness. A Cochrane review of studies said one trial of devil's claw, taken at a standardised dose of 50mg or 100mg of harpagoside, reduced lower back pain more than a placebo. A standardised daily dose of 60mg devil's claw, reduced pain at about the same level as a daily dose of 12.5mg Vioxx® (an anti-inflammatory drug now discontinued).
To stay flexible you could try omega 3 fish oils which reduce inflammation. Also try krill oil which helps keep joints moving, but also gives you vital antioxidants, important when you exercise.