Lower back fatigue... glutes, hamstrings, core or other?

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by flashd

Hi Guys,

I struggled with lower back pain/fatigue last year towards the end of races (mtb XCO, XC marathon and CX races, typically 1-3hr long). It's a dull ache around the lower back/upper pelvis. I had initially thought it was a core issue, but doing regular core work didn't seem to help an awful lot. Wondering if it's glutes/hamstring related.

I only seem to get it after an extended hard effort - mostly during races but I've had it a couple of times on rides if I'm doing something like 3x 10min efforts. But if I'm not pushing hard, I can ride for 4-5hrs without noticing it. It happens on both the MTB and CX bike so I don't think it's a fit issue.

I saw a physio at the start of the year about a separate issue who had pointed out that I had weak glutes, so I've been doing some gym work to help that (squat variations & RDLs). I'd thought this might help out the back issue but having done my first two races of the season this weekend/last weekend it seems it hasn't been fixed.

Any thoughts on what it might be and how to resolve?


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by stardusk

Don't know if this is helpful, but for me it was a change in saddle that solved a similar problem. I found that some saddles like my old prologo kappa evo were fine for riding a couple of hours, but after a while I would get some lower back muscle pain/fatigue. Getting a specialized avatar solved this problem. The avatar somehow seems to stabilise my pelvis and lower back better which reduces lower back muscle fatigue after riding hard for multiple hours. I also slide around less on the specialized saddle.

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by BikeAnon

Not that I have an answer (I have a similar problem)... I do have a question...

When the back pain kicks in pretty good, do you find it is your limiter? You have the will, heart rate, desire to do more, not breathing too hard, but putting the power down seems to be limited by your back? That's what happens to me.

Frustrating, when I look at "the numbers" and feel I should have the capability, but my back pain became the weak link.

And it's definitely a "fatigue" thing. Harder efforts earlier in the event don't hurt my back at all (that I feel).

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by jmaccyd

I was troubled by lower back pain on really tough days. Very muddy CX races, with lots of power seated riding, seemed to lead to failure of back as well as long Alpine style climbs. Never really got to the bottom of it but I am doing 3x15 mins of core strength work (specifically a program of planks) and took up yoga for a couple of hours a week (Iyanger yoga) It has helped me, and I think more the yoga, so that lower back pain is a distant memory more-or-less. I suspect my flexibility was my particular problem.

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by 11.4

How old are you? Or with more pertinence (and impertinence), do you have any sacral degeneration going on at your advanced age?

A couple things happen as we get decrepit ... excuse me, old ... excuse me again, mature ... in the lower back. One is that the sacrum starts to deteriorate, and for many of us the lower lumbar vertebrae as well. The sacrum never had much mobility to begin with, but you have a lot of muscles attached to it to support the pelvis, the femurs, the spine, you name it. It can be the epicenter of all kinds of obnoxious problems and the sorry truth is that in our decrepitude we aren't going to be able to do too much to the sacrum itself. As it weakens or gets sore, your hip muscles tend to want to go passive in response to sacral pain, so you have non-firing hip muscles or very weak ones. Then your hip adductors go, then some of your lower back muscles, and then it all basically goes to hell. The answer is to reverse that whole chain of deactivations. Cycling won't do much because it is part of what caused it (that plus sitting, plus other behaviors our hips and lower back really don't like and were never made for). There are some people who are into using bands to reactivate muscles, others who use pilates and all kinds of other methods, but I tend to be a bit more direct.

Get the hips going, first of all. They are by far the most powerful and nothing works right until they do. Dead lifts are great for that -- you don't need to be Arnold, just have good form and lift enough to make your glutes work. This is not like the muscles have no strength; it's that they were conditioned not to work to avoid pain nearby. Dead lifts don't mess with your sacral pain too much; just don't go too heavy. Plus, you get almost immediate results -- you should feel better within a week or so.

Next, go after the lower back and the internal stabilizer muscles. The approach I find that works well for many people is a Glute Ham machine. Do NOT hyperextend with it; that's not the point and it can hurt you. Just use it to do like a reverse sit-up. Depending on how it's adjusted and which machine it is (leverage is very different among different brands), you'll also get very fast response from it. For cyclists you can find it's one of the best ways to improve your cycling and reduce any pain anywhere below the neck.

Then start pushing all the peripheral muscles. If you can find a speed skater's slide board (or make one -- it's very easy and cheap), it's a great natural way to build ab- and adductors. Much better and much more fun than bands. Start doing some short plyo jumps -- just 12 inches or so, but very fast and without crouching at the top so you really jump a full twelve inches. Even the height of a flight of steps will do -- just jump the stairs two-legged.

By now your pain should have eased and you should be feeling pretty good about your riding and sounding insufferable as you explain to all your riding companions how they could reduce their own blighted pains. When you really want to be banned from your team ride, start doing pistol squats (squats on one leg only with the other leg pointing straight in front of you until your hip touches your heel). Those take more power than most power lifts, but the best thing is that they teach you coordination. And coordination is one of the hidden issues here -- your problem really started, with a certain reasonable probability, when you stopped making each side of your body cope for itself and let your butt sitting on a chair or on a saddle cause your sense of balance and coordination to go to hell. Then everything else went wrong. You can't do pistol squats until you have the muscles working again, but once you can do a pistol squat (even cheating by holding onto the back of a chair for balance) you are fixing the fundamental origin of your sacral pain, lower back pain, tight hamstrings, weak glutes, tight ITB, and the plethora of other things wrong with you.

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by Calnago

Well that was a depressing read :). I just wanna ride my bike.
Good info however.
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by flashd

Thanks for the replies guys!

@stardusk I don't think it's a saddle/fit issue, have experienced the same thing on 3 different saddles and on 2 very different bikes.

@BikeAnon absolutely, it's so frustrating. In my head I know I can go harder, my HR and lungs tell me I can go harder, but my back says no!

@jmaccyd yeh it seems the races that are real slogs brought it on a bit more - lots of seated climbing keeping weight back to hold traction.

@11.4 I'm 28, so probably (hopefully!) not hitting sacral degeneration just yet! Interesting read though, and those exercises are similar to what I had been doing for glute strengthening. I've been doing 2-3 sets of 15, starting to wonder if I'm better increasing the load a bit to build more strength in that area.

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by Rick

Is this the type of "glute ham machine" you were referring to ?
or more like this one:

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by AJS914

I'm curious about the answer as well.

11.4, I'm curious what your background is. I've been going through piriformis/sciatic issues and I think it's related to this topic.

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by Rick

For me: I get glute/upper hamstring pain right where is butt meets the top of the leg. Probably from an old injury; one side only. The "hamstring curl" pictured on the lower picture, seems to help that most. The upper one seems to get the lower back, but nothing associated with the butt or hamstring.

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by RyanH

Ive been getting lower back pain in races lately. For me, I think it's because I'm either descending with my butt not fully on the saddle or riding very hunched over with my forearms perpendicular to the ground on the hoods. Both of which are causing my lower back to carry weight.

Back when I had an mcfk saddle, I was getting lower back pain on regular rides. I was able to identify that I was subconsciously unweighting my backside since it became uncomfortable after 40 miles. While I think the symptoms are the same, I don't think the cause is. I'm going to be more conscientious of how I'm sitting next race and see if I can minimize the lower back pain.

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by toride

I went through the whole of last year strugging to ride for anything more than 15 miles due to terrific lower back, left glute pain. it'd go so painful i would be stopping more and more during a ride to stretch in search of some momentary respite for the pain,i was convinced i had piriformis so I was foam rolling at an Olympic level.

any way to cut a boring long story short i had a herniated disc, L5 i think (dont quote me on it) and i had the operation to remove to problem about 8 weeks ago and havent looked back (no pun intended) i'm back into some good rides and races, its hasnt quite reached full strength but I'm not far off.

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by AJS914

After 4 months I've finally had a few days pain free. I've been faithfully doing PT and stretches and exercises every day. The PT thought that if I could get an MRI it would probably show some disc issue. That is usually what she sees.

I've been getting a little sciatic pain for decades but it usually would go away in a few days to a week. I used to get it a lot more frequently before I lost 40-50 pounds. I can't even remember the last time. To be sidelined for 4 months has really sucked.

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by Berg

I used to have some problems with lower back pain and fatique, but then I slid my saddle forward about 15mm (using zero setback setpost), and that helped a lot! Havent really had any issues since. It is easy to try and see if it helps you. Of course you may need a 10mm longer stem to compensate.

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by 11.4

First of all, Rick, I'm talking about the first machine, not the seated leg extension in the second photo. And that exercise, done right, should be a huge glute and hamstring workout. If you're just feeling your back, you're not doing it right. I suggest you search YouTube for some good articles on the GHD or look at some of the weightlifting articles and threads on the GHD. Bear in mind that there are a lot of GHDs out there and most are horrible. The right one will make your glutes and hamstrings scream after just two or three extensions.

Second, piriformis. This is a common problem in cycling and i've never been sure just why. The piriformis muscle was of use to us when we ran on all fours. When we stood upright, it basically had to bend around some bone and compress the sciatic nerve under it. Evolution didn't do this particularly well, so it's entirely clear why the piriformis can cause bad sciatica for runners and others who do it upright. But here's the rub. When we're cycling, we're bent over at the hip into a position almost like walking on all fours (and if I'm having a bad day, it almost feels like that, but that's another story). So we should be de-tensioning the piriformis and releasing the sciatic nerve very nicely. I am imagining that when cycling, we're activating the piriformis a lot, as we should be to stabilize the hip in the cycling position, but we actually develop the piriformis issues afterwards when we stand upright and try to talk and walk like commonsense human beings. One reason for thinking this is that the same kind of thing tends to happen to the IT band and they tend to work as a pair when bent over. There are basic piriformis stretches and those are critical to managing piriformis syndrome.

Last, to the point about soreness near the hip joint -- we tend to get tendonitis of a variety of muscles at that point, both from the hard work we put all the leg and hip muscles to and also because -- just like with the piriformis above -- our anatomy in the pelvic area is still suffering from the evolution from four legs to two. In this case it means we are forcing tendons to move at angles they don't like and to slide across bone to do so. That's all it takes to develop tendonitis (or sometimes, more accurately, bursitis in bursae that are found over or under the tendons). Lots of rolling and very hot baths to loosen up those points, lots of stretching so the muscles aren't pulling the tendons tight over the bone, and watch the overuse (tendonitis doesn't go away if you keep antagonizing it, and treating with steroids is not a long-term solution).

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