Mountain Biking and Back Pain, The Final Piece of the Puzzle!

If you have been reading my blog for awhile you probably know that I have been suffering from back pain for the last 10 years or so. I had found some temporary cures and a lot of pieces of the mountain biking and back pain dilemma but had not found something that got rid of the pain for good. I have found the problem and the solution to my back pain! Since many of you have asked I will share the cure I discovered. Remember, I am simply a mountain bike skills coach so I left the details up to the experts.

It all started with this article aptly titled Why Your Approach to Fixing your Low Back Is making It Worse : BTW, I have no relationship with this website other than owing to them my sanity as this article and the ones below fixed my back pain!

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’m still doing a lot of the exercises/stretches I have blogged about in the past as I feel they are important to this process. By process, I do mean process, you will have to do your version of my back routine daily (some pieces twice a day if/when you notice your back pain starting to flare up). My original mountain biking and back pain post can be found here:  

The new exercises I have found MUST BE DONE BEFORE all of the exercises in my previous article. As a matter of fact, most of the stretches and yoga postures in my previous article can exacerbate your back pain if the new exercises aren’t performed first. It turns out mountain biking isn’t the pain culprit in my back pain, it is all the sitting I do, while writing articles like this and driving from camp to camp (or driving, flying then driving again!).

The main new “exercise”, lying on your back with your feet and legs up a wall. Sounds hard and complicated, huh?! Seriously, one of my students emailed back, “that’s it” and replied, “yes”. It seems to simple and easy to be true but this “exercise” is life changing!

mountain biking and back pain

This simple exercise will eliminate most back pain! Photo courtesy of Breaking Muscle dot com

For details on how to do this correctly (doing almost any exercise incorrectly can lead to more damage than good) and why it works so well please read this article: I do the above for two to fifteen minutes at time one to three times a day and always for at least two minutes before doing yoga or any back, hip or core stretches. When driving long distances I will often pull over and do this and yesterday I did between rounds of working on my bikes (as by back always starts to hurt when working on my bike).

The second one is lying on your back with your feet and lower legs hinged over something at knee level, like a couch. More details on it in the linked article above. Honestly, I don’t do the other three exercise in the article (but I probably should). The angle of the knee bend is really important so I don’t want to most a photo, I want you to read the linked article and do all of these exercises correctly!

I have also been working on my standing posture using the exercise in this article: I added in this posture exercise and now I can stand through a two hour concert with no back pain! This allowed me to stand for two hours, on a concrete floor at a concert without ever having the urge to stretch my legs or feel any back pain! I had not been able to do that since my early thirties!

The next piece of the puzzle is rolling out your gluteus medius with a lacrosse ball. I thought I had written a blog article on this but apparently I haven’t. Here is a video describing this process: when he mentions “it’s easy to find the muscle” he means when you touch it it will hurt a bit!

My routine, I start with 2-15 minutes of the legs up the wall exercise (easy and relaxing, great time to meditate)  then I do 5-10 minutes of gluteus medius rolling on a lacrosse ball (OH, the pain!, you may want to start with a tennis ball). Then I do the exercises in my previous article linked above. It takes an hour a day on average but I feel it is worth it!

I really hope this helps you! Please post your results here or email me, would love to hear if/how this is working for you.


mountain biking too much

Mountain Biking Too Much?

For most of my thirties and forties I was mountain biking too much! How can that be you ask? Well, let me explain.

From the time I did my first race until very recently I was completely obsessed with mountain biking, it was my life. I moved into my van and took my summers off from work to race and train full time. Then I spent my winters coaching snowboarding during the day and DJing nightclubs at night to pay off all the debt I racked up in the summers chasing my pro racing dreams. I didn’t have time for things I used to love. Couldn’t go skateboarding (might get hurt and not be able to ride), no time for playing in rivers and creeks (all my time was spent training or recovering), not much time for a social life (have to go to bed early to recover and feel rested) basically, little to no time that wasn’t mountain bike focused. Eventually I quit snowboarding and moved to Boulder, CO to ride year round. Another way of thinking about this was I was completely focused on the future (except when riding) and often didn’t fundamentally enjoy my day to day existence. Don’t get the impression I was depressed or sad doing this, at the time I loved it, but, it was all I knew. Life can be better! I didn’t do intervals because I enjoyed the feeling of getting stronger and faster, I did them so I could hopefully win a race six to 12 months in the future. Oh, and you know what I did EVERYDAY? I rode my bike! For most of us, mountain biking is an escape, for me it was an everyday routine, that surprisingly I didn’t burnout on until years of doing this.

To some of you this might sound like a dream life and at the time, for me, it was a dream life. Looking back though, I missed out on a lot and became very unbalanced. Compare this to some of my former teammates like Ryan Sutton and Kain Leonard who were not only much faster than me, they had more balanced lives than I had. They spent the winters skiing and snowboarding, they made time for a social life. In the summers they still played off their bikes, playing in rivers, riding dirt bikes and they maintained a social life, sometimes, gasp, they missed a big race to stay home with their girlfriends. I remember thinking, “you’re missing your big chance! You could make it as a sponsored athlete!”. Kain is now married to that girlfriend and they have two kids, probably worth missing a race or two for that!

Would you miss family reunions for a bike race? I did, many of them and a few dear friends’ and close relatives’ weddings too. All so I could race my over priced kids toys! Are my three World Masters Championship medals worth all I sacrificed to get them? No way! Standing on those podiums was glorious, but, really, who cares? I honestly don’t even know where those medals are right now. Racing mountain bikes is great if you have the life balance that my teammates did or the balance of Steve Peat (who has found the time to get married, have a child and from his videos do silly and fun things off his bike too).


mountain biking too much

In Third Place at the 1999 UCI World Masters Championships, a moment of glory not worth what I sacrificed to get there.

I remember feeling guilty when I didn’t ride, sometimes I still do, “you’re a mountain bike coach, you should be out riding!”. Where, I know this might sound blasphemous but there is a lot more to life than riding bikes. Don’t be like me, focus on a healthy, balanced life and keep mountain biking as a healthy part of that life. Make time for friends, play in rivers, go surfing, travel without your bike, attend friends’ weddings and keep mountain biking special, not something you must do everyday. I realize that mountain biking can be addicting, for me and for most “lifestyle” riders it is our meditation (the only time time our busy minds go quiet and we are actually living in the moment) and that it keeps us sane and happy but, relax, learn to actually meditate and make time for friends, family and other pursuits.


Mountain Bike Crash

Mountain Bike Crash, Coming Back From An Injury

Coming back from an injury, mountain bike crash or setback

I have gotten a lot of emails about this tough mental process and so far this year we have had six student cancellations because they injured themselves less than a week before their camp!  I think this is an area where many people struggle, certainly for me I have had a mountain bike crash or two (okay more like 10!) that effected my performance for months. (Most of the following was written in 2008, I have updated and edited it)

In the middle of writing this I wrecked, hurt myself pretty good and three weeks later (last weekend at the Colorado State Championships) I came back from it. This ordeal reminded me of a big point I almost left out. Those of you that have taken a camp from me know that I stress focusing on what you want to do, not what you don’t want to do. Well, my first run back (my first ride after three weeks off the bike was downhill practice at a race) I was a little worried that I might not be completely healed and didn’t want to re-injure myself. With this mindset I was thinking and focusing on not falling! After two sketchy runs I realized what I was doing and knew that my focus on not falling was hurting my confidence and making me focus on falling (the brain has to think about falling to “not fall”). I switched my focus to “ride my best and have fun” (which has nothing to do with falling) and my next three runs were better and better each time. This is a crucial step in coming back. It may be hard but you must focus on what you want to do, which is ride your best. Focusing on what you don’t want to do continues your focus on the negative which continues to depress your confidence. This is a vicious circle which is hard to break out of but it is very important if you want to overcome a setback.

“I have failed a lot more times than I have succeeded” that piece of wisdom comes from Michael Jordan. I will certainly agree with that, in my thirteen years as a pro racer I have won only two races. At the NORBA Nationals in the 1990′s only the top 70 pros qualified for the final, I finished 71 in the qualifiers four times and 72nd twice, ouch! In 2003 I had a frame snap in half while doing about 40 miles an hour at Angel Fire, that really hurt, four broken ribs and the wind knocked out of me. Events like these can quell your desire to ride or fire you up to learn from the event and try harder. How you deal with adversity is up to you and since you have sought out instruction I will give you some ways to overcome frustrating experiences and use them to become stronger.

Crashes, setbacks and mistakes are part of the learning process and can actually be a big step towards improving. The first thing to do is find the cause of the set back and determine if you were at fault or not. In the frame breaking incident I was definitely not at fault but in the qualifying 71st races I was at fault. As friend and fellow competitor Alex Morgan said, “Gene, for guys like us the qualifier is the race”. He said this because he saw me coast the last straight into the finish (to save energy for the final run) and two or three pedal strokes was all I needed to have finished in the top 70 and gotten a final run. Easy fix, next race treat the qualifier as a race and do my best.

If the mistake/crash was your fault fix the problem and then tell yourself, “well I fixed that problem, that will never happen again” and go back to having fun. If you crashed because you were over-trained, get some rest and prepare with more recovery for your next ride or race. If your mistake happened because you lost focus (the most common cause of wrecks), mediate and/or use imagery to improve your focus. Find reference points to keep your focus in that section of the course.

Sometimes the problematic event wasn’t your fault (like when my frame broke). In situations like this fix the problem (in my case I got a new, stronger frame) and again consciously put the problem behind you “well I fixed that problem, that will never happen again”.

Both of the comebacks strategies above require reprogramming both the conscious and subconscious brain. You have to literally replace fear with confidence using repeated logical reasoning to overwhelm your negative thought pattern.

Sometimes it is a series of mistakes that shakes your confidence or it just seems like dumb luck, such as when you you crest a hill and a big rock has rolled into your line. You see the rock but it is to late to change your line so you hit it and flip over. I hurt my leg pretty badly when this happened to me in Big Bear a few years ago. To over come this fall I used a combination of therapies, I used a “past history search” and imagery to rebuild my confidence. A “past history search” is simply remembering the times you rode successfully and confidently. I did this while imagining the drop where I flipped over at Big Bear. In all my previous runs I had nailed that section so I “rewound” my imagery and played the wreck over in my head. The first couple of times I visualized cresting the hill, seeing the rock and flipping over but then tucking and rolling without getting hurt. This made me feel a little better and more relaxed. Then I imaged seeing the rock, steering around it and making the section and could feel my body relax and my confidence start to return.

A past history search is a great confidence booster anytime you are feeling down, no matter what the cause. Sit back in a comfortable chair, close your eyes and relive your best moments. This will restore your confidence and really make you feel good about yourself.


How do you get your confidence back quickly, in the middle of a ride or race? A state change, forcing a smile, puffing your chest out and standing tall are simple ways that help regain confidence quickly. As is a little positive self talk, “that wasn’t like me, I am a really skilled rider, I have been riding really well, I am going to get back on my bike and ride like I own the trail!” These two methods combined can be very powerful.

Anchoring a performance cue is pro-active and powerful way to control your confidence a

Mountain bike crash

BetterRide student Jen Hanks knows about coming back from a setback, she came back from cancer!

nd help you quickly overcome setbacks. A performance cue is a short phrase and/or physical action (such as touching your thumb and middle finger together) that is associated (anchored) with a physiological state, feeling or emotion.

To anchor a personal cue you use a past history as mentioned above and add a few steps. Sit back in a comfortable chair, close your eyes and relive your three most confident events/moments of your life. When you won the spelling bee, conquered “widow maker hill for the first time”, finished your first race, won for the first time, etc. As you are reliving these moments really feel the emotions you were experiencing at the time, feel your back straighten as you proudly look out into the crowd. Feel your face flush as you can’t hold back a happy, satisfied grin, truly relive those moments. When you are feeling the positive, confident emotions created by reliving these moments “anchor” those emotions by doing the physical action you have chosen and/or repeating the short phrase you picked. With repetition you will anchor the feeling so strongly that by simply saying and or doing your performance cue you immediately enter the state that you have anchored.

Lastly, if you aren’t injured, remember to laugh, you are human, you make mistakes, big deal. Marla Streb put it best when I was trying to console her after a poor performance. She said, “Gene, its only a bike race, it not like we are saving lives”. That is good perspective.

“A champion isn’t someone who wins all the time. A Champion is someone who can suffer great adversity and come back to win again”

Yes, no matter which of the above methods you use it will take work but all things worth having (like peace of mind) require work. Knowledge is worthless without action!

Student Joey Schusler practicing on trail

Mountain Bike Cornering Foot Position Part 2

Wow, I seemed to ruffle a few feathers with my Mountain Bike Cornering Foot Position Part 1 post. I was simply asked a question from a student and I answered it. I was not intending to offend anyone and certainly it was nothing personal. A couple people said that I had “harsh criticism for Shaums March” which is interesting to me as I didn’t mention his name, and I simply stated my opinion (and Greg Minnaar’s) on cornering.  Shaums is a friend of mine who have great respect for and some of what I know about cornering is from getting friendly arguments with Shaums and then testing his theories verses my theories. I believe that a good deal of what Shaums and I believe about cornering is the same with two exceptions (that are closer to one exception explained two ways): 1. Shaum’s has said dropping and putting all your weight on the outside pedal is a bad habit, which I disagree with and say that sometimes your goal is 100% of your weight on the outside pedal (those times mentioned in my previous post) 2. Shaums has said (in his rebuttal of my post) that you always want your weight equal on both pedals throughout the turn, which I agree with A Lot of the time but NOT all the time.

Also remember, other than dropping your inside foot which is dangerous and off balance, foot position is not as important as vision (looking through the corner), braking before the corner, hip placement and upper body position. Focus on getting the BIG Picture skills dialed before the smaller picture skills.

What matters with foot position in corners is your goal in that corner. Sometimes your goal is to set an edge, other times it is to pump the corner and gain speed, other times it is to keep the wheels on the ground in a rough corner. I am defining a corner as being approximately 80 degrees of direction change or more. Often on trail there are wiggles (20-75 degree minor changes in direction) when your foot position doesn’t really matter (no need for foot down). The last thing I want a ride doing is thinking on trail, “is this a foot down corner or a foot level corner?” so we teach most riders to focus on dropping your outside foot and most/all of the time you enter a corner where foot down is not required your subconscious “auto-pilot” simply doesn’t drop your foot. Our goal is to get you to understand and do the skills we teach (there is huge difference between understanding and doing! Understanding is worthless if you can’t do!) and for students with limited practice time we have found this is the best way to get them to do (and think less). Rarely will dropping your foot when you didn’t need to hurt you but 100% of the time if your feet stay level when you should of dropped and weighted the outside foot you WILL Slide out!

Short recap, I (and Greg Minnaar) believe that when your goal is to set an edge like a ski racer and corner a full 90% or more at the highest possible speed in a smooth corner you want to drop the outside foot and put 100% of your weight on that foot. Doing this gives you; more traction, a lower center of mass, 155-175 mm of leverage, easier separation from bike when big lean angle is necessary and more leverage using your skeletal structure for support instead of your muscles (to fight the G-forces in a corner).

Mountain bike cornering foot position.

Greg Minnaar Cornering outside foot down.


Mountain Bike Cornering Foot Position

Greg Minnaar hauling tail in our camp!

I have been told by so many riders, racers and students that you keep your feet level in berms! Again it depends on your goal, berms have little to do with foot position. If your goal is dig the tires into the berm for maximum grip at max speed you are going to drop and put 100% of your weight on that outside pedal, like Greg Minnaar in the photo squence above (which, when we shifted our focus to pumping corners Greg entered the berm slow enough to not worry about traction, kept his feet level and he gain an amazing amount of speed!). If you are going slow enough that you want to pump the corner and gain speed (which means you obviously aren’t worried about sliding out) you will keep you feet level.

Much of the time, when you are on twisty trails with a lot of 50- approximately 79 degree “bends” you goal is to keep equal weight on each pedal and stay fluidly in balance (feet are level to the ground but outside foot moving “down” in relation ship to your bottom bracket). Also, in rocky, rooty or braked bumped corners where your goal isn’t to set an edge but to keep the wheels on the ground you will corner feet level. Again, there is no time to think on the trail so with enough drills this will become second nature, switching from foot down to feet level hundreds of times in a ride. Watch Danny Hart in this sick run alternate between the foot down and foot level in the corners on his World Championship winning run below.  At 21 seconds in (1:27.4 on the freecaster clock on screen), 41 seconds in and 50 seconds in (1:56.3 on freecasters clock on screen) Danny plants the outside foot for maximum traction. On quite a few other corners he is foot level.

Some examples. Saturday I rode the McKenzie River Trail and since it basically follows a river there weren’t to many full 90 degree corners so for at least a minute on one descent I realized that my feet were level through 8-10 “turns” then, a very high speed a 100 degree left turn appeared and I dropped that outside and railed the turn. On Sunday I rode the Alpine trail in Oakridge, OR which had many more 90 degree high speed corners so I was dropping my outside foot way more than I was on Saturday on the straighter trail.

Learning to corner feet level AND foot down is important to reaching your best as a rider. There is no one way for all corners but there is definitely a better way for each individual corner.

Next week, part 3 the advantages and disadvantages of riding switchfoot (switching which foot is forward in corners) for cornering.

We spend three hours on cornering in our camps! This is a lot of information and it is much easier to explain, demonstrate and have you practice it in person than over the web! This is meant to be brief and to the point, not every bit of cornering information I have.