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Beneficial Intervertebral Disc and Muscle Adaptations in High-Volume Road Cyclists


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: January 2019 - Volume 51 - Issue 1 - p 211–217
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001770

Purpose Cycling is widely practiced as a mode of transportation, a leisurely pursuit, and a competitive sport. Approximately half of cyclists experience low back pain. Yet, there has been limited study of spine tissue adaptations due to cycling.

Methods To investigate potential risk factors for spinal pain, we compared 18 high-volume cyclists (>150 km·wk−1 for ≥5 yr) to 18 height-matched nonsporting referents. Participants had no history of spinal pathology. Magnetic resonance imaging was used to quantify intervertebral disc (IVD) morphology and hydration, and psoas, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, and multifidus muscle size and fat content. Endurance of trunk muscles (flexors and extensors) was measured, and physical activity levels were assessed objectively using accelerometry.

Results Cyclists’ IVD showed prolonged T2 time (+10.0% ± 17.3%; P = 0.021), implying better IVD hydration and glycosaminoglycan content, compared with referents. Lower thoracic and upper lumbar IVD T2 time were longer in cyclists (P ≤ 0.029) but not at the lower lumbar spine. T2 time differences were larger in the nucleus pulposus compared with the annulus fibrosus. Cyclists showed larger psoas muscles with less fat content compared with referents. Cyclists also exhibited longer isometric trunk endurance times (P ≤ 0.036) and higher physical activity levels (osteogenic index, P = 0.038).

Conclusion Despite previous studies reporting higher than average prevalence of back pain in cyclists, the high-volume road cyclists in our cohort showed no anatomical or functional deficiency in spinal structures. By contrast, we found evidence for beneficial adaptations to the IVD and psoas muscles in high-volume cyclists compared with referents. These data support the notion that cycling is not detrimental to the spine, rather, by contrast, may be associated with beneficial changes at the spine.

1School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria, AUSTRALIA;

2Imaging at Olympic Park, Melbourne, Victoria, AUSTRALIA;

3Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, AUSTRALIA;

4Bone and Joint Research Laboratory, Division of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Department of Medicine, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, CANADA; and

5Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, Gerontology Research Center, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, FINLAND

Address for correspondence: Daniel L. Belavy, B.Phty., Ph.D., School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria, Australia; E-mail:,

Submitted for publication April 2018.

Accepted for publication August 2018.

© 2019 American College of Sports Medicine