Back pain when cycling can be caused by a number of things.
The most common are.
Excessive reach to the handlebars
Too large of a drop from saddle/bars.
Saddle too high
Leg length discrepancy
Excessive reach to the handlebars.
Excessive reach to the handlebars stretches the body outside of its natural comfort zone and puts a huge amount of stress on the lower back and shoulders.
Drop from saddle/bars too great.
This puts a lot of pressure on the lower back and shoulders and causes the back to arch creating bad riding posture. It can also put to much weight on the hands creating numbness after a while in the saddle. It is important to remember that just because you are low at the front it doesn't necessarily mean that you are aerodynamic. If your body is not naturally flexible or you suffer from bad posture especially in your lower back then you could be creating a wind trap or parachute effect on your body. Remember the rule adjust the bike to the body and not the body to the bike. Everybody is an individual and no body is exactly the same, if you have two people who are 5.10" in height that doesn't necessarily mean that they will ride with the same position or even ride the same sized bike. There are many factors to consider.
Longer total leg length = Higher Saddle height
Longer Femur length = More Saddle set back
More back flexibility = bigger drop to the bars
Shorter torso = Shorter reach (shorter stem length)
Back issues from injury etc can cause a huge difference in position with the saddle to bar drop being almost 0 in some cases with the aim putting as little pressure on the back as possible and making a long ride an enjoyable experience and not a painful one.
Saddle too high.
This causes the hips to have a side to side movement and puts excess stress on the lower back and around the pelvis.
Leg length discrepancy
If you have a leg length discrepancy (one leg shorter than the other) then this can cause certain problems with the lower back if one of your legs stretches at the bottom of the pedal stroke due to it being shorter then this can have a similar effect to having your saddle too high.
Q I get knee pain when running and more recently i have started getting knee pain while cycling! Is this the same issue?
A The most likely cause of your knee pain would be iIliotibial band syndrome (ITB syndrome for short). A tight ITB can cause lots of issues when running such as causing friction and pain to the outside of the knee joint, at the lateral epicondyle - the end of the femur (thigh) bone. The ITB crosses bone and muscle at this point; between these structures is a bursa which should smoothly interact with very little friction. However, when inflamed, the iliotibial band does not interact smoothly, and unfortunately pain is the result. It is very important if you are suffering symptoms of ITB syndrome that you see your physio so that he can give you a program to help fix the problem, Treatment involves lots of stretching, massage and treatment is usually very successful.
Q I get very numb hands when cycling. Is there something i can do to stop this?
A if you are suffering from numbness and tingling in the hands you may need to have your position checked, excessive weight distribution to the front end of the bike puts a lot of pressure on the ulnar nerve which is a nerve that runs the entire length of your arm to the hand, pressure on this nerve will cause tingling and numbness. Correct balance on the bike and good weight distribution between you hands and core muscles are very important. A good padded set of gloves is also a must and remember to keep your arms relaxed when riding as this will help take the road vibration away which can also effect the ulnar nerve.
Q A friend of mine said i need to be able to see my front hub when i am sat on a bike!! is this true?
A This simple way of judging reach was thought of back when bike fitting was in a very primitive form, These days the measurements used for bike set up should be based more on the bodies natural angles and flexibility due to the fact that every person has very different dimensions.
Q I have been told that i have to keep my heels down when i ride but why do i find this difficult no matter how much i try.
A Everybody has different levels of body flexibility especially through the lower leg i.e. calf and the Achilles tendon. The more flexible you are through these areas the more likely you will be able to keep your heels lower when you ride. I would be more focused on keeping your pedal revolutions consistent rather than put too much emphasis on wether your heels are up or down, remember to ride naturally, have your saddle height set with your heel at its most natural point to ensure that your knee is at its optimum angle for comfort and increased power.
Q My Back and shoulders always hurt when i ride my road bike but not my mountain bike! Why is this and does this mean i should stop riding my road bike?
A The set up on your road bike is most likely much lower at the front end than your mountain bike putting excess pressure through your lower back and also straining your traps and shoulders. It is important to remember that the average cyclists drop from saddle to handlebars is between 3cm-7cm depending on their body dimensions and general fitness/flexibility. I would recommend having an experienced bike fitter taking a look at your existing set up and possibly raising your front end to relieve the strain on your back, I am sure this will make a huge difference to your riding enjoyment.
Q I have been told i will fit a 54cm frame, does this mean any frame that size will fit me?
A I wish it was that simple. Unfortunately every bike manufacturer will measure their bikes in a different way, also there are many other factors to consider which are just as important as the general size, these include seat angle (This can alter a top tube length by more than a couple of centimetres in some cases) Head tube length is also an important factor. Somebody with longer leg length and shorter less flexible torso will need a front end that is a lot higher than somebody that has shorter legs and a longer more flexible torso.
There are lots of people out there performing bike fits in one form or another, unfortunately a lot of the fits i wouldn't personally call a bike fit, more of a basic adjustment or the cycling equivalent of a Mcdonalds fast food meal.
I have compiled a top 10 of things to look for when looking for a fitter. There are some good knowledgeable fitters out there. Its important also that the fitters are up to date with all the modern tech know how - bikes are changing and so are fitting techniques.
Craig Baldwins top 10 things to look for in a bike fit.
#1 Definitely don't go for the cheapest priced fit, in the service industry time = money so if you have an $80 bikefit you are going to get $80 value for money.
#2 Do your research on the fitter not the shop that your booking in with. Google is a very helpful tool, google your fitters name and check out his credentials. Ask around your cycling buddies and see who helped them.
An experienced master fitter will have a minimum of 300 - 400 fits under his belt. A fitter with this kind of experience will have seen and had the opportunity to fix the majority of bike fit related issues, as with any job you never stop learning so experience is the key. I hate to say it but there are so many gung ho fitters out there that fit everybody the same way using the same methods - not a good practice when you want results. Bike fitting is a science and every human body is different.
#3 Modern dynamic measuring tools i.e not the plump bob or geomeometer. although these methods were the favorite back in the day it is now 2016 and we have software that enables us to check all these measurements digitally and more importantly dynamically (when you are actually riding and not at a stand still)
Why do we need software? Why does an astronomer need a telescope? For more accurate results, the human eye is accurate to roughly 7 degrees - not bad but not good, its actually the equivalent of a football field in bike fit terms. Software allows us to get this tolerance down to i 1-2 degrees.
#4 Video analysis/motion capture - the human eye cannot work within the accuracy range needed to fine tune a fit, at best the human eye can work within 7-8 degrees of an angle and this is the problem. Video software or motion capture enables you to place real time body angles on to the client as they are riding. we have up to 75% more accuracy over your standard "eye ball" bike fit.
#5 Look for a full 360 fit - Side on measurements are what people think of when having a bike fit and i think most people out there have experienced the 15 minute "that looks about right" fit. When performing a bike fit we should look at everything both sides ,front and back. one of the most overlooked areas in a bike fit are the feet. Your feet are the main contact point on the bike and over 86% of the worlds population have some kind of pronation, pronation will effect your alignment which in turn will effect your power and comfort.
#6 Size cycle - The size cycle is a fully adjustable bicycle that allows the fitter to accurately find the riders optimal cycling position. If you have a bike that is a bit small or a bit too big then it will be pretty impossible to know where we need to end up, basically lots of guess work. With the size cycle we can find our desired end result and then adjust the existing bike ask close as we possibly can.
#7 Make sure your fitter actually records and stores your finished bike measurements. The last thing you want after spending hours perfecting your position is to have something move and not know where it needs to go back to. If in doubt just ask at the time of booking, it will save you a lot of frustration
#8 Look for a fitter with a dedicated space or studio away from the main area of the shop. It can be a little awkward trying to have a fit when you are slap bang on display in the middle of a busy sales floor, not ideal and definitely not professional.
#9 When looking for a new bike try to use a fitter that is not brand bias or affiliated with one or two bike brands, get an outside opinion from a good fitter to see if the bike you are looking for will even fit your body, you can then make your purchase full of confidence.
#10 Patience - sometimes certain issues take time to fix so a good fitter will realise this and generally book you in for what is known as a follow up appointment. Follow ups are needed to tweak your position over time due to injury, changes in flexibility etc. Check when booking that this is a service that is offered.