Friday, August 30, 2013

Climbing Muscles? Perhaps

No More Ouch
When I began to do long hilly rides, I acquired a nemesis: the Mysterious Pain. This pain would get me even when my legs were strong and my energy levels were high. It would get me when least expected, ruining countless rides and limiting my progress. 

I have never experienced anything quite like it before. It wasn't so much of a pain even, as an alarming sensation of seizing, not so much in my lower back as below it. If you draw an imaginary horizontal line perpendicular to the top of the butt crack, the sensation was along that line, in two distinct spots on the left and right, symmetrical.

The first time I experienced it in earnest was during a 100 mile overnight ride to Maine early last summer. It came on around mile 70 and was so debilitating I had to stop on the side of the road and stretch every 10 miles to keep going. 

Mystery pains are a source of fascination to cyclists, and I talked about mine with a slew of local riders. At the time the consensus was that I had increased my milage too quickly and hadn't the upper body strength to handle it. So I spent the rest of the summer sticking to sub-100K rides, but doing them with more frequency to build up strength and muscle tone. I am not sure this had any effect. It may have worked subtly, but at the time I felt somewhat stagnant and dispirited. I wanted, very badly, to do longer rides. And I felt strong; my legs would seldom get tired on a bike. But this strange pain/ seizing sensation was like a brick wall I kept hitting: No sooner would I attempt a long ride with lots of climbing, it would return. 

This Spring I began riding more than ever. Short rides, long rides, paved rides, dirt rides, club rides, brevets... I thought I was riding a lot before, but now I was practically living on my bike. Disappointingly, the mystery pain was still there - though I'd now learned to manage it with strategically timed stops and stretching. On the 200K brevet, I'd pull over on the side of the road every so many miles so that I could bend over backwards and do some quick twists before continuing. That was all it took to stop the discomfort for the next so many miles, so stopping was better than not stopping: If I did nothing about it and continued riding it would only slow me down.

Having witnessed this riding next to me on the 200K, my friend Pamela suggested that the problem could be insufficiently developed "climbing muscles" - something she herself had experienced at one time. Rather than related to distance, the discomfort could be brought on by long stretches of climbing - which are of course more likely to occur on long distance rides. 

There were other suggestions from riding companions at this time: That my gears were too high. That my saddle was too hard. That my position on the bike was too aggressive. And that climbing seated was the real issue. 

At that point I decided to take an aggressive approach and try everything. The suggestion that my roadbike position was causing the discomfort worried me, because I otherwise found it so comfortable. But a few strategic rides helped me eliminate that as the cause: I was able to bring about the same pain on more upright bikes (even my Brompton) if I used higher gears when climbing for a prolonged period of time. So gearing had a lot more to do with it than position. I now also knew for certain that the source of the problem wasn't the long distance, but the long, repeated climbs. In Ireland I found that I could bring about the pain within as little as 20 miles, if they were "quality miles" with respect to elevation gain.

In short, the climbing muscles diagnosis seemed the most probable. But how to develop them? I was not willing to go to the gym to work on my "core," and so far just continuing to ride the way I'd been wasn't helping. 

Staying in Ireland took care of the problem. Here I did not continue to ride the way I'd been, but, with some guidance, began to do more focused riding - both faster and with more climbing - on a more or less daily basis. I learned how to use gears more efficiently. And I also finally learned how to stand out of the saddle and began practicing that every ride. 

One result of all this has been a subtle, but significant transformation to my body within a very short time period. The changes to my legs did not surprise me - after all, that is what we expect from cycling. But I did not expect the changes to my midriff. My abdomen has gone flat and there are these weird thin horizontal muscles wrapping around the sides of my torso, front and back - where the "love handles" used to be, if you will. I have never had muscle definition in this area before, and it all looks and feels absolutely bizarre, as if my body isn't really mine. But existential analyses aside, whatever's happened it has solved the mystery pain problem. No more. It's just gone - regardless of whether I climb standing or seated, in a low gear or high. Just to make sure, this past week I've made it a point to do hilly rides without getting out of the saddle at all, like in the old days (meaning entire months ago). But that seizing sensation below the lower back is now just a memory. 

So... climbing muscles. What are they exactly? I imagine some combination of abdominal and lower back muscles. For some they might be naturally well developed. For most they are probably average.  And for some, like myself, they could be underdeveloped - requiring lots of work to get up to par. Happily, I love riding and doing this "work." And I love it that this limitation is finally gone. 


  1. Sounds like you had weak abdominal obliques and iliopsoas, what body builders call the "Adonis Belt" - your training built them up. They are the kind of core muscles that atrophy in a chair-sitting world, but are easily developed with bootcamp style body weight exercises - side planks & russian twists.

    Thanks to a LOT of training to build lower abs and upper thighs, my 16 year-old soccer player son looks like he's had a pork tenderloins surgically implanted above each hipbone.

  2. I had a similar experience recently, with
    a similar love of "doing the work" and seeing
    magical results. I had been feeling debilitated
    after about 40 miles on hilly routes and sometimes had to soft-pedal home. However, my pain was in a different place -- a deep ache across the lower back, a few inches higher than the imaginary line you drew. Nevertheless I gotta tell what worked for me.

    One day while going uphill I tried pulling on the bars, plus rotating my sternum forward and up. The back ache went away. So cool. I think I had been letting my lower back just hang out, like a perpetual plank pose, and now I was giving it more support from my torso. The next day I had a new soreness around my neck and shoulders (which later went away) so I know I was using different muscles.

  3. Hi,
    Nice article; sounds to me like over-taxed sacroiliac ligaments.
    Now that your supporting musculature is stronger and your ligaments are more used to the strains (and any damage/swelling/etc. has abated) you shouldn't have any more trouble. Climbing in too high a gear out of the saddle can lead to piriformis syndrome and super-tight adductors, so take care to stretch and foam-roll these muscles out well after a ride.
    Your site is great, thank you.

  4. Alrighty I said it was about standing a million years ago.

    And there are a lot more muscles down there than the ones you list. Every sport works on core.

    It's about hip angle, steepness of hill, gravity and leverage on the lower back. Sigh, another 'revelation'... you gotta work on form to get stronger - merely spinning everywhere is a cop out.

    Love handles are fat, fat means you haven't optimized your body for the task. Simple.

    And gears - you have 20 of them and really nice shifters - go ahead and use them.

  5. You are so accurate vis a vis the gearing vs the drop-down. Frequently low back pain can be eliminated by simple moving to the lowest point of the drops for a mile or two - thus stretching the sore muscles.

    I've found, however, that as time goes by the pain moves from muscle groups to my brain cavity (mostly empty, I assure you). Although I rarely feel traditional muscle pain I get angrier and angrier at what I consider incredibly dangerous driving - running stop signs - rolling red lights - iPhones in every ear . . . it's awful and potentially deadly.

  6. Sounds like you've developed a bit of "core strength" - I didn't appreciate what that could do for my riding until I suffered a lower back injury and had to do a lot of core strengthening as part of my rehab in physical therapy -- the first time I got back on the bike was a revelation.

  7. Good for you! Would love to hear more specifics on what riding you did to help you. As for me, I've started doing at least one interval ride (up a 4-5min hill 3-4times with increasing intensity) a week. Was really surprised at how much my longer rides improved. Hard to get real excited about riding intervals but the reward is well worth the effort and then some.

  8. Yes! Pedaling out of the saddle opens new doors to climbing. I work on the 5th floor and also found that running up the steps several times a day improves some of the same muscles used during sprinting out of the saddle.

    1. Oomph it hurts just to read that. I've always hated walking up stairs, and if anything it's worse since I started cycling. Love walking up steep hills though.

  9. I agree with Somervillain that sprinting up the stairs must work similar muscles as I started walking up 12 flights of stairs at work a few months ago. After a few weeks of that I started sprinting them and I could make it to about the 9th, then eventually 10th, 11th and 12th floors in a sprint. It definitely worked my thighs, but also my core, perhaps because there's a lot of twisting to make it up the last few flights as the stairs narrow.

  10. ooops, hit send too fast. The point about stair climbing, was that it really improved my performance on the hills when riding not just from a cardiovascular perspective but also with my muscle stamina.

  11. Learning how to climb standing up was major, one of the basic skills in hill climbing, most of us take it for granted. But, it also sounds like a core issue, if you haven't been doing other exercises to build core strength, you would continue to have problems. I can understand not wanting to go to the gym, or swimming in chlorinated pools etc. That is all time and money you might not have. But as someone who bikes as much as you do, I would highly recommend taking up something that works for you. I had lost quite a bit of my core strength over the last year from no longer doing a heavy labour job and illness/injury kept me off my bike for longer rides. This was affecting my riding. My hernia got to the point of no return, was finally diagnosed so was banned from doing anything too strenuous. I thought while waiting for surgery I would try the 5 tibetan exercises. I always giggled when people mentioned them, but wow!
    Cheesy newageyness aside, they are basically 5 yoga-ish exercises that work the whole body. They take little time, are simple and no $ investment required. I did not expect anything, but the difference within a few weeks was amazing. I never do the first spinning dizzy inducing exercise and had to do some modified versions of two of the moves due to injury. I've been biking all my life, but it has been years since I've seen the abdominal muscles you mentioned getting until I started doing these basic exercises. Post surgery I am only starting to think about biking again, and have to rebuild my core, yet again. Also do daily squats!!
    I did some damage by riding a bike over the past year that did not have enough of range and geared too high for my geography. I thought I could do it even though my core was weakened. I live in a very hilly area so am accustomed to climbing be it mountain biking, road riding or just commuting on bikes with appropriate gearing. I know you were riding bikes with 29t as the biggest cog in your cassette. Even a 32t would help enormously, but really like Pamela's idea of 11-36 cassette!

  12. The answer is surprisingly simple: Pilates.

    As someone has already suggested, it's your your weak core muscles. Cycling uses them but doesnt develop them. Beginners pilates (there are several youtube videos) will solve the climbing muscle problem quickly and surprisingly easily.


    1. I did pilates for several years during my 20s. I was thin as a stick, but never developed much muscle tone.

    2. Believe doing the Tibetan Rites can help too with core strength. Though I rarely do the whole 21 reps every time. More like 15 or 13 or 17 regularly, depending on how I feel.

  13. I saw the difference when you posted the above pic to your flickr sets.
    I would have thought it a combination of the out-of-the-saddle climbing and Mt. Binevenagh. :)

    As a lifelong jouster with sciatica and core issues, I can relate.
    For me, the answer is side planks and some hula-hooping, as well as interval training.

    Congrats on getting a handle on it!
    (or is that losing a handle? Sheesh.)

  14. I had worked on core strength for the Greylock ride (which included a Pamela Blalock climb that was even harder than Greylock) and experienced back pain or something that resembled the start of a kidney stone. Maybe I didn't work hard enough before the ride but the pain went away quickly after finishing the climb and didn't reappear on the return trip.

    I think core is it. We all don't do enough of it, particularly me the last few months. And it shows on the long climbs.

    Like Somervillain, I sprint up stairs, even carrying a heavy bag. It helps.

  15. Do I understand you correctly to say that you fixed the pain, improved your riding, and got more comfortable on the bike basically by doing more aggressive hill climbing, particularly standing? Please let that be true. I hate "exercise" but I love riding a fixed gear up hills and have plenty of opportunity to do it.

    Is that basically your regimen?

    It would be good to have muscle definition again, too, in the midriff area after, what, 20 years (tho' I'm not fat at all, quite svelte, actually, for 58, he added plaintively) and if I can get them by more fixed gear climbing, then -- wow!

    1. Yes that seems to be what has done it. Noticeable muscle tone in the midriff, legs and upper arms. I ride every day and it is very hilly here, so plenty of opportunities to practice standing. On the days I don't do hills, I do all-out intervals on flats, in a high-ish gear.

      While I am younger than you, I cannot stress how difficult it normally is for me to build muscle tone, so it came as a surprise how quickly this happened.

  16. A friend of mine bought a new bike but like you experienced some discomfort in the lumbar area so went back to the bike shop to discuss possible adjustments to the set up to which the response from the old school retired racer proprietor was 'you're supposed to have a bad back - it's cycling'

    Over the channel riding out of the saddle is known as dancing, in the english speaking world ( this bit of it anyway) we call it honking so its another example perhaps that we anglophones still have some way to go in adopting the more poetic aspects of the sport..

  17. I love the cycling cap you always wear in your photos! Is it Rapha?

    1. It's usually one of two caps: GB components (white with black stripe, pictured here) and Pace classic cap (white with rainbow stripes).

  18. I've been off my bikes for weeks. Lower back pain. Diagnosis - twisted lower vertebra and a herniated vertebra, which has stiffened my back muscles and some vertebra. I'm getting the best chiropractic help - cold laser, traction, compression, kinesiology taping, cold/hot pads, plus taking D-Flame [an herbal anti-inflammatory and Omega 3 flax 3 times a day with food]. I've been lifting bikes onto my rack and not conditioning my upper and left side as much. My age and weight also probably played a factor. I was told not to lift more than 20 lbs when I'm well. I thought I'd pass this on as we all age. Condition your whole body, don't lift heavier bikes on your own [or too high] and reduce road shock as much as possible. If you injure yourself - seek the best chiropractic help fast. It can often correct a situation. Regular doctors will prescribe drugs and later send you to a specialist who will operate. Living with constant pain from scar tissue is often the result.

  19. Great news to hear! It was easy for me to learn to stand while climbing on my older nearly flat bar hybrid bike. Now, I have a newer road bike (with actual drop bars) and I have practically stopped standing when I climb (it seems harder to hold the handle bars steady, yet also since the bike is more light weight and has more gears, it just isn't necessary to stand when climbing hills). But I have stopped losing weight and even gained back a little (particularly in the 'love handle' area). Your article makes me realize that perhaps I am not working the same muscles as much, since I no longer "have to" stand to climb hills. I certainly plan to start standing when climbing hills again If I lose my love handles we shall know for sure that the benefits of climbing are great. Would you mind telling us approximately how many miles on average you are biking per day?

  20. I have definitely experienced back spasms in the same locations you describe. The 'seizing' effect can be quite debilitating, and frustrating as those muscles are contracting without any deliberate attention. Usually they go away on heir own, but core exercises do help...planks are my friend

  21. As far as climbing out of the saddle, don't forget to work the bike back and forth as you go. The advantage of out of saddle climbing is obtained when you use your arms to contribute. Just standing up leaving the bike vertical and waiting for your weight to depress the pedal is not the effective way to get up the hill out of the saddle. When you learn how to use your entire body to move the bike this way, you will develop better overall strength and go up the hills like a mountain goat. I am surprised by how many roadie-looking riders, in this hilly area, don't know how to do this.

  22. Its funny how the organization of body and mind works with (or against) itself. Could it be once you discovered that stand-up pedaling helped with your problem, you didn't have to use the technique because that which caused the pain knew you had it ready in reserve?

    That seemed to be my experience with Spring allergies which I once suffered miserably from until cheap generic Claritan became available. Ever since knowing this works I have rarely had to actually use it.

    I think eventually, however, something will have to give. With biking, desperately pedaling in what is essentially the fetal position - 2 diametrically opposed actions - is asking for trouble. After nearly a decade on the verge of tears from lower back pain, doctors gave me a choice between a very costly and chancy operation and riding a cruiser.

    Twenty years later that pain is long gone, and the only pains I have experienced are silly ones arising from small wounds to my pride when someone whisks by me as if I wasn't there.

  23. I used to have lower back/hip pain until I switched to platform pedals. The issue has been resolved.

  24. It sounds very much like you had a sacro-iliac or lumbo-sacral derangement, and were an extension responder. (Bending backward helped.) Working on your riding encouraged your core (transversus abdominus especially) to engage and stabilize the derangement.

    Good work!