Lower back pain is one of the most common conditions suffered by 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 treating lower back pain.
Looking through a therapeutic lens, yoga takes a holistic and integrated approach to pain relief. There are a number of factors involved, including breath-work to calm down the central nervous system and relaxation techniques designed to reduce tension in tight muscles. Then there are the biomechanics. Typically, with this sort of recurring pain, a series of muscular imbalances has developed over time, and these imbalances are pulling you out of alignment and this is what is causing your pain. With lower back pain specifically, the typical set up is tight hips and hamstrings and a weak core and glutes. This is pretty common amongst the general population and is, unfortunately, massively exacerbated by your sport.
THE PERFECT STORM FOR LOWER BACK PAIN
Your body can move in and maintain an almost infinite number of shapes—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—not stopping to reorganise your body before jumping 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 TO STRETCH: Hips, hamstrings, IT band, groin, glutes and piriformis.
- MUSCLES TO STRENGTHEN: Lower back, abs, obliques, hips and glutes.
- JOINTS TO MOBILISE: Spine and hips.
- STRUCTURES TO RE-ALIGN: Pelvis.
When your spine is in neutral, 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, whilst allowing for the least wear and tear.
When you get on your bike, you come out of this S-shape, rounding at the mid and lower back.
In this position, the lower back muscles that run parallel to and support your spine (including the 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 your 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 and you round your mid-back, the muscles that support your thoracic spine tense up. This stiffness in the mid-back, combined with a lack of mobility in the hips, puts pressure on the lower back, which has to compensate, rotating 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 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, causing 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 or 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 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 sport 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 pulling their weight.
Tight hamstrings pull the pelvis back into a posterior tilt, rounding the lumbar spine and further straining the lower back muscles.
5. WEAK AND UNBALANCED CORE
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 twist.
Unless you have a well-rounded training program that includes dedicated core work, it is likely that your core is weak, or at best, unbalanced. This might be because you sit too much or with bad posture, because you work on strengthening your superficial abs (6-pack) at the expense of the rest of your core—the lower back, obliques, quadratus lumborum, deep abs and pelvic floor, because you don’t breathe down into your diaphragm and/or because cycling sports don’t require it as much as other activities.
6. TWISTED PELVIS
Without a strong core and with potentially tight hamstrings, hip flexors, groin and glutes, the pelvis is often pulled out of alignment—forward or back (into anterior or pelvic tilt) and also twisting, tugging at the lower back.
TAKE CARE IF YOU SUFFER FROM LOWER BACK PAIN
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 purely 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, stop. In yoga, discomfort is embraced, pain is not. Start off with some gentle movements and basic stretches, before moving on to strength-building poses and greater complexity.
YOUR 6 VIDEOS
- Flexibility 2: Calves and Hamstrings
- Flexibility 3: Spinal Extension
- Flexibility 4: Spinal Rotation
- Flexibility 5: Tight Hips
- Strength 2: Lower Body
- 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