Lower back pain in cyclists is incredibly common – and when the lower back becomes upset, inflamed and tight, it can have implications elsewhere.
The glutes and hip flexors can become affected, leading to all manner of knee complaints. Therefore, it’s important to look after the lower back.
The muscle that often acts as the instigator to all this discomfort is the QL: the ‘Quadratus lumborum’ (you get why people shorten it now, right?). We spoke to ex-pro cyclist and Osteopath to some of cycling’s biggest names, Alice Monger-Godfrey to find out more.
Alice runs her own clinic, AMG Osteo, but is currently on tour with team Dimension Data, looking after the bodies of Mark Cavendish and his team mates, so we reckon you’re in safe hands.
What is it and what does it do?
Explaining the location of the muscle and how it’s used, Alice tells us: “The QL is a deep back muscle that connects the twelfth rib to the lumbar vertebrae and the top of the hip bone. It's primary functions are to bend your body from side to side and bring your hips up to your chest which is exactly the movements required for cycling and therefore a muscle that is constantly being used."
So we know we’re using the muscle with every pedal stroke, but we’re also using a lot of other muscles. Why does this one cause problems in so many riders? Alice explains: “Due to the position our body adopts on the bike (flexed forward), this muscle is constantly being stretched and a great demand is placed on it to be working all the time. Thus it can get make the cyclist feel pain, tightness or discomfort in the low back and hip area."
More often than not, we feel the pain in one side more than the other. That’s because we don’t tend to use our bodies “symmetrically" as we might like to imagine. Alice outlines the issue, saying: “The QL is on both sides of the spine but as humans we are not and never use our bodies symmetrically. We all tend to favour one side of our bodies more, especially with cycling where we often sit more to one side therefore this places more demand on one side of the low back due to an increase is side to side "rocking" motion."
What do we do about it?
It’s all well and good understanding where this pain is coming from, but we probably want to go on to take steps to reduce the discomfort – both in the short and long term.
Thinking short term, when we’re feeling uncomfortable on the bike – the key is to keep moving. Alice says: “We cannot change the position and the posture we need for cycling but giving time for the QL to be in a more relaxed, neutral position can certainly help. Getting out of the saddle and trying to move your position on the bike allows the QL to be stretched and takes away a little of the load and tension.
“You can do this by moving towards the back of the saddle and lengthening your arms on the handlebars to stretch out the spine, and also place your hands by the stem in the centre of the handlebars and stretch your spine back as far as possible. Stay safe as you do this of course!"
Thinking longer term, it’s a good idea to adopt a regular stretching routine, and Alice has two suggested moves, both of which should be held for 5 – 10 seconds:
1) Knee hugs - lying on your back bring your knees to your chest but do not lift your neck off the floor or rock your knees from side to side. It is a gentle, subtle stretch that targets the back muscles and keeping the spinal joints mobile.
2) QL stretch - Alice has a video of this one here. Standing, place the right leg over the left (so both little toes are touching), take the right arm above your head and bend to the left hand side. Play around with the angle of the arm (forward and backward) to enhance the stretch.
The next step is to work on strengthening your body so you’re not overusing the QL. Alice says: “You don’t want to strengthen the QL, because it is being overworked already. It would be beneficial to strength your core muscles - abdominal and pelvic floor muscles - and improve hip flexibility."
We’ve got plenty of examples of great ways to work that core - here are just a few: