Unfortunately, lower back pain is rampant amongst mountain bikers. Luckily for you guys, this is where yoga excels. According to a recent paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that yoga is at least as effective as physical therapy for healing lower back pain, so it’s definitely worth a shot.
Yoga takes a holistic and integrated approach to pain relief, incorporating breathing techniques to calm the central nervous system and progressive relaxation to reduce tension in tight muscles. In this article, I am going to focus on how yoga can help at the level of biomechanics. Typically with this type of persistent pain, a series of muscular imbalances, that has developed over time, is pulling you out of alignment and causing your pain. At the lower back, the common pattern is tight hips and hamstrings and weakness in the core and glutes. Unfortunately, this is exacerbated if you also spend much of the day sitting down at work or to travel.
THE PERFECT STORM
Your body is capable of performing an impressive diversity of movements and postures—but not for too long, under load or at the expense of variation. You can run, jump, spin, throw, kick, punch and body-pop, but if you ride up a mountain with a rucksack on your back and then hurtle back down, negotiating gnarly rocks, roots and drops on the way—without stopping to reorganise your body before you jump straight back into your everyday life—your body can only take it for so long.
When it comes to lower back pain, these are the areas we need to address:
- Muscles and joints to stabilise: Lower back, abs, obliques, hips and glutes.
- Muscles to stretch: Hips, hamstrings, IT band, groin, glutes and piriformis.
- Joints to mobilise: Thoracic spine and hips.
- Structures to align: Pelvis.
When your spine is in a neutral position, there is a slight inward curve at the back of your neck and at your lower back and a gentle outward curve at your mid-back. These sections are called the cervical, lumbar and thoracic spine, respectively. This alignment is optimal for balancing flexibility, stability and stress absorption, with the least amount of wear and tear.
When you sit on the bike, you come out of this natural S-shape, rounding at the mid and lower back. In this position, the lower back muscles that run parallel to, flex and extend, and support your spine (including the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum), are over-stretched and become weak; they tighten up, contracting in an attempt to protect themselves from tearing; your upper body weight hangs on and strains the ligaments at the lower back (that are not designed to provide support for your spine); and excessive force is put through the front of the intervertebral discs, increasing the risk of disc bulging or herniation.
As your arms come forward, you round your mid-back, over-stretching the muscles that support your thoracic spine. This creates stiffness in the mid-back which, when combined with a lack of mobility in the hips, puts pressure on the lower back, which has to compensate and rotate more than it is designed to.
In the seated position, your hip flexors—the muscles that cross the front of your hip, including the psoas—are in a chronically shortened position. On the bike, this is accentuated, as the hips are in even greater flexion.
The hip flexors are also required, alongside the quads, to generate a considerable amount of power over a sustained period, which further tightens and shortens them.
In time, you lose flexibility in your hip flexors as the muscles respond to a message from your brain to remain in the position in which you put them most often. This lack of flexibility limits access to free and fluid range of motion in the hips.
Furthermore, as the psoas attaches to the lumbar vertebrae, when the hip flexors are chronically tight, they tug at the lumbar spine, increasing lower back pain and potentially injuring the discs.
Due to a process known as reciprocal inhibition, as the hip flexors contract, their antagonists—the glutes (buttock muscles)—relax, to protect them from tearing. If you are also sedentary for much of the day, your glutes can become ‘lazy’ or disengaged. This is known as gluteal amnesia.
When the glutes don’t fire properly, you have to rely on the adjacent muscles to stabilise the core and hips—the hamstrings, lower back muscles and adductors—and these muscles tighten up as a result.
Many of us suffer from tight hamstrings as a result of a lifetime of sports without stretching, a sedentary lifestyle, or that’s just the musculoskeletal structure we were born with. Whatever the cause, pedalling exacerbates tight hamstrings, especially if the glutes are weak and not doing their share of the work.
Tight hamstrings pull the pelvis back into a posterior tilt, rounding the lumbar spine and further straining the muscles of the lower back.
The core is like a corset. It is designed to stabilise your lower back, hips and pelvis, protect against damage to the lumbar disks and allow you to easily bend backwards, forwards, side to side and rotate.
Unless you have a well-rounded training program that includes dedicated core work, it is likely that your core is weak, or at best, imbalanced. This might be because you sit too much or with bad posture, because you work on strengthening your superficial abs (your 6-pack) at the expense of the rest of your core—the lower back, obliques, deep abs and pelvic floor, because you don’t breathe down into your diaphragm and/or because cycling sports don’t rely on it as much as other activities.
Without a strong core and with potentially tight hamstrings, hip flexors, groin and glutes, the pelvis can be pulled out of alignment—forward or back (into anterior or pelvic tilt) and also twisted—tugging at the lower back.
Yoga is not designed to replace professional medical advice. If you are injured, please make an appointment to see a really good physical therapist. They can advise you on which poses are and are not suitable for your rehabilitation. Stretching is not always necessarily therapeutic. The wrong intensity, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, could potentially derail your healing, so please be careful.
If you experience pain in any of the poses, please stop. In yoga, discomfort is embraced, pain is not.
15 IN 15
I have put together a series of 15 videos, designed to relieve lower back pain, for subscribers. Here is the link to sign up: https://mailchi.mp/yoga15/15-in-15-lower-back-pain
YOUR 5 CLASSES
- Flexibility 2: Calves + Hamstrings
- Flexibility 3: Backbends
- Flexibility 4: Twists
- Flexibility 5: Hip Openers
- Strength 3: Core
Please let me know if you have any questions and share what is and isn’t working for you.
Photo credit: Boris Beyer