Mountain Biking and Back Pain: How to Prevent It and Cure It!
Note: Before doing anything to do with your back make sure something isn’t really wrong such as a bulging disc, slipped disc, fractured disc, etc. See a doctor and make sure your body can handle these therapeutic exercises before you start.
I have finally rid myself of the back pain that has bothered me most of my adult life, but has been really annoying in the last ten years (I honestly thought all mountain bikers had some back pain, it was the price we pay for having so much fun!). Before I share my cure with you, I want you to understand three important things. First, back pain is a symptom; the cause may not be your back. We are going to fix the causes, not just rid the pain. Second, the “cure” I have found is a process, a process that will require effort at least five days a week the rest of your life. Third, if you follow this process you will be rewarded by getting a lot more out of your life, not just more fun on your mountain bike. You will have more energy and in general, be in a better mood.
It isn’t as simple as all the clichés you hear from trainers, “you just need a strong core”, “you don’t need a strong core you need a stable core”, “you should do yoga”. Well, I had a super stable and strong core, I did lots of yoga, but I swear both core exercises and yoga hurt my back more than they helped. Part of the reason both core work and yoga hurt was my technique wasn’t perfect, but mostly they hurt because my body was messed up!
Having a great massage therapist and really good chiropractor helped greatly in the short term (both gave me exercises, and pointed out that I slouched and need to sit upright!) I just wasn’t ready to change my lifestyle, are you really ready to change?! It will take work!
For me the pain had gotten so bad that I really lost my lust for riding and wasn’t truly enjoying my life as much as I used to. Coming from a guy who has turned his two biggest passions in to a rewarding career, that’s saying a lot. I was more successful than ever (in terms of helping more students, providing good income to my coaches and office staff, providing myself with a good income and finally less work and travel) yet, the back pain was draining me. So I took a month off (from coaching, I still did a lot of work over the internet) and went to Bali to immerse myself in yoga, meditation and anything else my teachers would recommend. This proved to be a smart decision, sometimes it is really hard to focus on yourself at home, everyday life gets in the way. You have to mow the lawn, remove those dead plants and plant some new ones, the door squeaks, your truck needs new tires, your family is coming for Christmas and you have no furniture (okay, that last one might just be me), but you get the picture. If you can’t take a month off, no worries – I have done the research for you!
The process starts with giving your body a break and letting it unwind. Mountain biking is terrible for you without other exercises to keep you in balance, and it can really tweak your body. I used to be proud that I rode so much that massage therapists could tell which leg was my trailing leg when they massaged me. Remember tennis players like Jimmy Conners and John McEnroe in the late 70’s and 80’s? Their serving arm was way bigger than their other arm. Well mountain biking is similar, but it tweaks the biggest, strongest and often the tightest area of our bodies, our hips. Most mountain bikers including World Champions like Greg Minnaar and Steve Peat ride with a favored foot forward or as Hans Ray calls it, “your chocolate foot”. Just like water skiers and snowboarders most of us ride either regular foot (left foot forward) or goofy foot (right foot forward). Neither way is “correct” or better than the other but when a regular footer tries to ride goofy he doesn’t feel as comfortable as he does with his left foot forward, the same for a goofy footer when he rides switch foot. Skill wise we have always recommended you stick with your normal stance as it is very difficult to get use to riding with your awkward foot forward. As far as your body is concerned though, this might not be in its best interest. For now, commit to taking at least two weeks off the bike (which is good this time of year anyway).
Next, find a good coach; yoga instructor, qualified and educated physical trainer or physical therapist. All three of the exercises I recommend are great for your back, but the exercises need to be done properly (and I can’t watch you to see if you are doing it right!).
Step one: myofascial release! I have known about myofascial release through foam rolling for years, but there are ways to get more and better release, or as my teacher called it myofascial unwinding. She described myofascia as being like a giant spiderweb that wraps all of your muscle. I really like this description, though there are many other great descriptions that are much more detailed, this is all you really need to know, this isn’t a dissertation on myofascia. After years of beating on your body, mountain biking, weight training, crashing, snowboarding, being stressed, running, crashing, sitting funny, crashing, sleeping funny, etc. that giant spiderweb has a lot of snags in it. Ever notice that if you pull on one section of a spiderweb it affects the whole web? Well it’s the same with our body; twisted myofascia in our right leg can pull and wind the myofascia all over our body. Denise (my teacher) used a combination of myofascial release techniques using tennis balls and yin yoga to unwind us. Yin yoga was new to me, it is the yin to the yang of most other forms of yoga. In other words, yin yoga is all about relaxing our bodies and it is great even after a hard ride (when a regular yoga class would be too much).
How to do step one, myofascial release:
Buy a tube of tennis balls! Lay on them one or two at a time! Well, it is a little more detailed than that. It is the placement of those tennis balls that are important.
I always start with one tennis ball on either side of my spine, the balls are a few millimeters apart or even touching (I have seen this done with two tennis balls in sock tied so they can’t move more than a few millimeters apart, but don’t feel this is necessary). To start, lay flat on your back (on the ground or your yoga mat) and plant your feet on the ground so your knees are bent. Then place the tennis balls on either side of your spine where the spine and pelvis meet. If this feels fine (no pain) slowly slide forward letting the tennis balls roll up your spine, stopping whenever you feel pain. A healthy back will be pain free, anytime you find pain you have found a knot, or tight spot in your myofasica! Stay there! Breathe, deep, diaphragm breaths, maybe sliding forward and back or side to side less than inch but staying where the pain is the greatest. As you breathe you should slowly feel the tightness start to release (may take 3-10 minutes) once the pain goes away or when you simply can’t take the pain anymore keep moving forward until you find new painful spots where you will stop and repeat. Do this all the way up to the base of your skull. Throughout this process use your legs to lift your tailbone of the ground for more pressure and lower your tailbone to the ground for less pressure, let the amount of pain you can tolerate be your guide.
Once you have gone along your spine from your pelvis to your skull, move the tennis balls so there is one under the lower tip of each of your shoulder blades. This can really hurt! Use the same process as before, rolling the balls from the tip of your shoulder blades to the top and stopping where you encounter pain and staying in that painful spot until the pain goes away or you can’t take it anymore. Keep in mind, we are all wound up differently, you might have no pain in the same spot a friend is in agony and vice versa.
Now we are finished with our back and can start working on where much of the pain is coming from; our hips, IT Band and gluteus maximus! With your legs still bent and feet planted on the floor prop yourself up using your arms so your upper back is off the floor, this time place just one tennis ball under your right buttock, pretty much anywhere. Again we are going to slowly roll top to bottom and left to right (as we roll to the right we will end up on our side) searching for pain and staying where we feel pain (this is going to hurt!). Make sure you hit every inch of that right buttock and pay special attention to the line where the the hip and buttock meet (after months of work I still have pain here, a lot less than I used to and my hips are so much more mobile, but it still hurts!). Now, after you are done crying, switch to the left buttock and repeat.
Do you love those tennis balls yet? Good, because we still haven’t worked the most fun part, your IT Band! Yea! This is going to hurt!
Here is an image showing you where your IT Band is:
This time we will be lying on our side and we can use both arms and legs to increase or decrease the amount of pressure on our IT Band. Lay on your right side, take one tennis ball (aka little yellow torture device) and put it under the middle of your right hip (middle front to back) and start where the hip and back meet. Slowly roll the ball down your IT Band from your hip to your knee. Again, stop where you have pain and hangout there until the pain goes away or you can’t take it anymore. When your right leg as had enough switch to your left. Now that you hate me, we are done with the painful stuff… until tomorrow.
Step two: psoas release! Denise also taught psoas release, her acronym is Storer Of All Stress. The psoas major is a long fusiform muscle that connects the vertebral column to the brim of the lesser pelvis. Here is an image of it:
As you can imagine from examining the image above a tight psoas can really mess with your back. Some yin yoga classes address this issue and Denise taught me one great way to release the tension in your psoas. As Denise’s acronym suggests, we store a lot of our stresses here; stresses from work, our social life, near misses and out right crashes, etc. Humans tend to hold on to stress, while animals shake it off! Ever nearly hit an animal with your car and watch what the animal does once it feels safe again? It literally shakes it off, from head to toe the animal shakes and releases the tension! We can relearn how to do this and we can utilize a few techniques that I will explain.
How to do step two, psoas release:
Buy a yoga block. They can be found at your LOCAL yoga studio, or LOCAL sporting goods store, or Target. Buy a box of tissues.
Lay face down on your yoga mat or blanket and place the yoga block just below your rib cage (right where it says “psoas minor” in the psoas image above). Place the block at its lowest height, so it is going as far as possible left to right across your body. If this feels easy you can stand it up in its second highest position (on edge, still as far as possible left to right across the body). Use your arms to manage how much weight is on the block, using pain as your gauge. Lay here and breathe for five minutes! Now you know why I mentioned the tissues. You will be surprised how much mental and emotional stress you had stored up in your psoas and when it starts releasing many cry. In Denise’s class nearly all the women brought tissues and I wished I had the first time! There is of course a massive amount of physical release that happens too!
Step three: Yin Yoga!
Find a great teacher in your area! I can’t stress this enough! Reading books and manuals like this are terrible ways to learn physical skills and exercises. You can’t ask a book a question and the book cannot watch your form and correct it as needed!
Denise’s Yin Yoga classes usually started with 20-30 minutes of the myofascial release and psoas release exercises like the ones mentioned above (plus a few more for your neck and shoulders) then we got into the actual Yin Yoga.
How to do step three, Yin Yoga:
Now for the actual Yin Yoga exercises that eased the pain and kept it away. I will explain my favorite Yin yoga poses for helping back pain, but highly recommend you take a few classes under the instruction of an expert. Here is a little about Yin yoga from a local studio: “Yin classes focus on the cultivation of long (3 – 5 minute) holds in postures to stretch and open the tissues of the body and cultivate the flow of fluid and energy (chi or prana) through the body.”
An added bonus to holding poses for so long as in Yin Yoga is it helps you learn to meditate, which helps you learn to stay in the moment on your mountain bike!
Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)
Sit with your back straight, legs straight out in front of you, draw your right knee into your chest, and place your right foot on the floor outside your left knee. Draw your left foot in toward your right sitting bone. Bring your right hand behind you in line with the center of your sacrum and wrap your left arm around your right leg. Inhale, press your right foot and hand down as you lengthen your spine, exhale and twist to the right, initiating the movement from your belly but continuing the twist throughout the whole spine. Hug your right knee into your left shoulder. Feel the stretch in the outer right hip. Hold for 3-5 minutes. If your hips are especially tight and you notice your left sit bone raising off the ground you can also do this pose with your left leg kept straight out in front of you and work your way up to having your bottom leg bent under the top leg (as pictured below). Repeat on the other side.
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose)
My favorite hip opener. From Down Dog, bring your right shin forward and down so that your right foot is in front of your left hip and your right shin is nearly parallel to the front edge of your mat. Your bag leg should be extending straight out of your left hip and not angled out to the side. Flex your right foot. Stretch your left thigh back as you draw your left hip forward. Inhale, lengthen your belly as you exhale and fold over your right leg. If your right hip does not easily reach the floor, place a folded blanket or block under your right sitting bone. Hold for 3-5 minutes. Repeat on the other side.
Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard Pose)
From Down Dog, step your right foot between your hands to a lunge position. Bring both forearms to the floor inside the right leg. Keep your inner left thigh lifting and resisting. As your left heel reaches back, your heart opens forward to create length in your upper back. You can modify the pose by bringing your back knee down or placing your forearms on a block. Hold for 3-5 minutes. Switch sides.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog)
Lying face down on the floor place your hands under your chest, and on an inhalation, lift your chest by straightening your arms while lifting legs a few inches above the floor if this is accessible to you. Make sure to keep your shoulders up and back and only rise as high as you can comfortably go.
Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Lying face down on the floor place your hands under your chest, and on an inhalation, lift your upper body away from the floor. As you exhale, bend your knees and draw your hips back toward your feet laying your torso on or between your thighs. Lay your arms alongside your body, palms facing up.
Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose)
There are many different versions of this, my favorite is the one pictured below. From a forward lunge (starting with right foot forward then repeating with left foot forward, my direction are assuming right foot is forward) hinge forward at the hips, inhale and reach as far in front of you as you can. Then exhale twist to the right, look up toward the ceiling if it ok on your neck and place your left elbow on your right thigh. Bring the right hand to meet the left hand in prayer position and push down with your right hand twisting your torso to the right.
Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana (Plank Pose)
From Downward Facing Dog, draw the torso forward until the shoulders are over the wrists and the whole body is in one straight line. This is very similar to the position you would take if you were about to do a push up. Press the forearms and hands firmly down, do not let your chest sink, press back through the heels. Keep the neck in line with the spine and broaden the shoulder blades. Hold for 30 seconds.
Vasisthasana (Side Plank)
From plank pose step your feet together and press your weight down through your right hand and forearm. Then, roll your body to the right, balancing on the outer edge of your right foot. Stack your left foot on top of your right foot and keep your legs straight. Beginners can lower their right knee and shin to the mat, keeping their hips lifted while building strength in the arms and torso.
Extend your left arm to the sky, reaching through your fingertips as you lift your hips and firm the triceps of both arms. Feel the muscles across your shoulder blades flex. Firm your thighs, and press through your heels into the floor.
Bring your body into one straight line. Gaze at your top thumb. Press down through your bottom index finger. Hold for up to 30 seconds
Salabhasana (Locus Pose)
Get out your exercise mat. Lie on your belly with your arms along the sides of your torso, palms up, forehead resting on the floor. Turn your big toes toward each other to inwardly rotate your thighs, and tilt your pelvis so your tailbone presses toward your pubis. Almost like you’re anchoring your pelvis into the floor.
Exhale and lift your head, upper torso, arms, and legs away from the floor. You’ll be resting on your lower ribs, belly, and front pelvis. Firm your buttocks and reach strongly back through your legs.
Raise your arms parallel to the floor and reach back actively through your fingertips. Imagine there’s a weight pressing down on the backs of the upper arms, and push up toward the ceiling against this resistance. Reach your shoulder blades towards each other.
Gaze is towards the floor with your neck straight and long. As you improve you can slowly bring your gaze forward, keeping the neck long. Hold for 30 seconds.
Why these exercises work:
Myofascial release, psoas release and Yin yoga helped greatly with my nemesis, hip mobility. Most mountain bikers have terrible hip mobility and this is a major factor in causing back pain! Most of us tend to slouch (curl our lower back) when we ride instead of hinging forward at the hips with a straight back. This is another big contributor to back pain! The problem is we need a lot of hip mobility to be able to hinge so it all starts with myofasical and psoas release.
Notice I added the core strengthening exercises last! Because my body was so tight and out of alignment some of these exercises made my back feel worse. Don’t focus on core strength until you “fix” and open your body with all the release methods above! A strong or stable core (stable core is a core that can resist forces that want to move it) is a big part of ridding yourself of back pain but not the only part!
Another problem most of us face:
Now that I was starting to unwind, literally! The astute yogis and yoginis I was practicing under noticed another problem I have and they made me really aware of it, I had terrible posture.
I have always slouched! Many tall people start slouching when they are young so we don’t tower over our friends. I still have to think about sitting up straight 5-6 times an hour, everyday! This is perhaps the biggest cure, slouching really makes the back tight! Focus on sitting with a flat straight back, not slouching nor arching forward, just doing this engages your core muscles. Most chairs are terrible for your back. If you have to sit for long periods find a “posture chair” or sit on a Swiss ball and take breaks to get up and stretch your back.
After all this my back was feeling great, but how did I keep it that way when I returned to riding? I didn’t, I went back to slouching (42 hour trip home, planes, trains and automobiles) and had back pain before I even made it home. Then I started back up doing the work above and within two weeks the pain had gone away. Shortly after I had to fly home for a family emergency and between the stress, the flight and more long car rides the pain returned. Then I started back up doing the work above and within two weeks the pain had gone away. Anyone see a pattern here?! Again this is a life long process, not a quick fix!
Bike mods that can help you hinge better and ride pain free:
Wow, probably eight years ago this month I was teaching our first San Jose area camp and on the first day I hurt my back so bad I thought I was going to have to cancel the rest of the camp. Luckily, for me one of the students, Curtis Cramblett, was a physical therapist and he was able to work some magic on my back and then teach me how my bike set up was leading to my back pain. Turns out, I had my seat tilted back (like a bike shop taught me years ago, with the seat tilted back you slide back to the fat part of the seat and take your weight off your hands, works like a champ, on flat ground!) so when I was climbing the seat was tilted way back (because now my bike was tilted back). This rearward tilt made my hips rock back making it impossible for me to hinge forward, I had to curl my lower back when climbing! So he suggested I lower the front of my seat (tilt the seat forward) and this would enable my hips to rotate forward so I could hinge better. This alone nearly eliminated my back pain! At the least, it certainly reduced the severity of it.
Now! And the future of your back:
Currently, in addition to working 40-60 hours a week (often standing while at the computer and taking tennis ball rolling breaks if I must sit for a long time!), I’m doing five yoga classes a week, two to three 45 minute workouts, my own yoga practice, riding and rolling around on those yellow torture devices (tennis balls) for at least 15 minutes a day. If I can do it, you can do it!
Great article with a series of exercises on Yin yoga.
More detail on Myofascial Release
More info on the Psoas