Today I am stoked to launch a new section “Health Matters” to the site, and the first and most common flatland related injury is lower back pain that we get crouched over our small bikes. Well what do you do about it? How do you recover? Do you rest? Do you work out? What specifics, can you do get back on the bike quicker and prevent injury again? Without further a due, I’ll pass you over to Scott Hagnas!
Flatland and Low Back Pain by Scott Hagnas.
Low back pain is a fact of life for many riders, especially those who have a lot of years in the game. This mirrors the general population, and in fact, the reasons are pretty much the same for both riders and non-riders.
Before I go any farther, I want to say I am not a doctor and I cannot say for sure why your back might hurt. The truth is that no one has all the answers to back pain or can help in every case. It’s super complex and many things can contribute to back pain. As you’ll see in this article, the cause of your back pain may actually be due to other areas of your body that aren’t working properly.
With that said, there are many things you can do to improve your situation if you are dealing with back problems. There are many factors that can cause pain, and we’ll go over some of them, along with some self assessments and exercises you can try. These may help if you are not in a situation of acute pain. If you are experiencing back spasms, nerve issues, serious pain, etc, I strongly suggest going and seeing a health professional first. These exercises could make it worse in some cases!
We’ll focus on 5 main factors that riders might experience:
1) Poor mobility of the spine.
2) Poor mobility of the hips
3) Lack of control or stability of torso (core)
4) Poor breathing mechanics
5) Excessive overall stress
1) Spinal mobility: our spines are meant to flex, extend, side bend, and rotate. Modern life does not require us to move our spines thru full range of motion, and neither does riding Flatland in most cases. Since we don’t require this movement often, our body “forgets” how to move in this way and we get stiff and immobile. The problem is that an immobile spine can’t accept or transmit forces well. Also, most likely, you’ll have some spinal segments that don’t move much at all, but then have others that take up the slack by moving too much. These joints then take too much workload and degenerate or are injured as a result.
Can you move well? The Cat/Camel and the Quadruped Rotation are good tests to start with.
Use the Cat/Camel with band assist or partner as shown, and do the T-Spine rotations from the test to improve. The standing version can be used also if you have trouble flexing your low back. These can & should be done daily, 2 sets each of 5 reps to start. Go slow & focus on control!
2) Our hips are (or at least should be) quite mobile. This is especially true for Flatlanders! Good hip mobility will make tricks easier and will even help you escape slamming in some cases. The most important reason though will be to spare your back. If your hips don’t move well, you’ll be forced to use your back to get the needed motion. This makes your back do work it’s not really designed to do and adds to the strain on it.
Here are a few tests (definitely not all, but enough to start):
• sit in low squat
• shinbox switches
Your goal is to work to a comfortable 5 min in the Low Squat and the ability to do smooth & upright switches in the Shinbox. Every other day works best starting out, though you can do them daily after you get some practice.
3) Core stability: a common misconception is that if you have back pain, you have a weak back and it needs to be strengthened. This is rarely the case – in fact, it’s more likely your back is too strong for it’s own good and it’s trying to do the work of your hips and abs too. Learn better control of your torso, then strengthening your hips and abs. This will let your back work more as it was intended.
Here are several tests:
• hinge control (ability to control hips & back independently)
• leg lowering (anterior core strength – aka abs!) – 10 reps without any back arching
• Side Plank (core/postural endurance) – 90 sec + each side AND less than 8% side to side difference
• Sorensen (core/postural endurance) – 2 min
All of these tests can be used as specific exercises. Do them 2-3 times per week, 2-3 sets each. Do more sets on the side plank on the lagging side, if any.
4) Just breathe. Yes, most of us breathe poorly. This is from a combination of factors, but the long hours we spend sitting is a big one. Where this starts to contribute to back pain is when we are stuck in a condition of constant inhalation and extension – the ribcage is lifted in the front and the pelvis is tipped back the opposite way. On each inhalation, the low back contracts as a breathing muscle, along with upper chest and neck muscles. This will directly increase tension and guarding in those areas and make pain or flare-ups far more likely. Lots of heavy strength training usually compounds this problem if specific steps are not taken to counteract it.
• basic resting posture
• observe breathing pattern
The Low Squat w/Breathing is a great drill to tone down the back muscles and re-train your breathing pattern. It’s also a great de-stressing drill. Do 2-3 sets of 5 breaths, multiple times daily at first.
5) De-stress. Your back, especially if it’s already sensitized (you’ve been dealing with episodes of pain), becomes a barometer of your overall stress levels. When our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) gets triggered, as it often does in 21st century life, it directly increases tension in our muscles. If you have an area that is already on high alert (like your back), it can take next to nothing to set it off and lead to debilitating spasms. Our body only has so much capacity to handle stress, and many things add to the load. Think of it like a bucket: work adds a little stress, maybe our relationship or kids add more, maybe you have been riding or working out more than normal lately and this is adding to the bucket. Extra frustration in a session fills the bucket to the top and your nervous system now has your muscles on high tension. Not only will your skills be off from this, but now any little wrong move may trigger your back. This is why people will lift something heavy earlier in the day with no problem, but then injure their back picking up a pencil!
While lots of things come into play here such as getting more/better sleep, getting a better job, eating better, etc, breath work can be a powerful way to reduce overall stress and improve your recovery from exercise and riding.
Where do you stack up? Sit relaxed and breath normally for a few minutes. Then, take one big inhalation and then start a stopwatch and begin to exhale as slowly as possible, until every bit of air is out. You want the long, slow exhalation to last as long as possible – stop the timer once you finally must inhale. What did you get?
Here are some numbers: (from PowerSpeedEndurance, a great resource)
<20 sec - Poor. High arousal and stress sensitivity. 20-40 sec - Average. Moderate to high arousal state. (stressed) 40-60 sec - Intermediate. You want to be here at minimum. This improves quickly with training. 60-80 sec - Advanced. Healthy pulmonary system, fairly low arousal. (lower stress) >80 sec – Elite. Excellent control, low arousal, high recovery.
To improve, setting aside 5-10 min to practice your breathing will have a powerful effect on your overall stress and recovery. Here’s one approach you can try. Do this about 4 days/week.
Half of your exhale time from the test above is “X”. (if you got 60 sec on the test, you’d use 30 sec as X here)
We covered a lot of ground here! These are all just beginning steps, but taken together they can go a long way. A basic program might look something like this:
• Low Squat w/Breathing – 2 x 5 breaths
• Cat/Camel – 2 x 5
• T-Spine Rotations – 2 x 5/side
• Leg Lowering – 3 x 5
• Low Squat – accumulate 5 min with as few breaks as possible
• Shinbox Switches – 10-15 per direction, slow & smooth
• Hip Hinging practice – accumulate 20 quality reps
• Side Plank work if needed
• Breathwork from above.
If you have any questions or are interested in an individualized program specific to your needs, don’t hesitate to reach out!