Injury Prevention

Preventing Lower Back Pain

Keep your lower back healthy with these smart fixes and prevention techniques.

Keep your lower back healthy with these smart fixes and prevention techniques.

Back pain is one of those injuries that triathletes typically tolerate and train through. That is, until it becomes a problem that can’t be ignored. Dr. John Ball, a chiropractor and endurance sport specialist, says “many triathletes continue to train with lower back pain and stiffness, and I don’t see them until the condition develops into a serious problem that forces them to stop their training.”

That serious problem is frequently an injury to one of the lumbar disks, leading to significant back pain—and even nerve pain in one of the legs. In some instances these more serious cases can present with unrelenting hip, hamstring or calf pain, tingling or “tightness” that is caused by pressure on a lower-back nerve. Like other overuse injuries, stress to the disks is cumulative and is usually the result of the repetitive bending and impact that is part of every triathlete’s daily training. Coach Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness warns, “Low back issues often arise when the athlete falls into the ‘more is better’ mentality of training, and only works on the engine, while ignoring the chassis of the body.”

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Dr. Stuart McGill, an expert in spinal biomechanics and author of Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, points to long hours in the saddle as a significant risk factor for the development of low back problems. This flexed position of the spine, exacerbated by the triathlete/desk jockey’s all-too-common long day of sitting at a computer or in a car, can weaken and injure the spinal disks.

McGill’s prevention advice starts with breaking up long periods of sitting. Additionally he recommends that those with back pain should be cautious about early-morning rides, when the fully hydrated disks are at their most vulnerable stage, and instead spend that time in the pool. Also, those returning to training after a back injury should reintroduce cycling slowly and use a less aggressive aerobar position.

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Back mobility
While we instinctively like to stretch the lower back when it’s sore, several studies suggest that mobilizing the spine is best left to physical therapists and chiropractors who can assess if it is needed.

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You don’t need Cirque du Soleil-type flexibility to stay pain-free. McGill recommends focusing on “tuning up” any asymmetries in hamstrings and hip flexibility to lessen stress to the back on long rides.

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Core strengthening
“Triathletes can be very fit but still functionally very weak in critical areas such as the core,” says Ball. He adds that it’s important to match the exercises to the problem, with the best results coming with a focus on lower back strengthening.

While McGill points to the importance of overall core strengthening for injury prevention and performance, he cautions against a reliance on crunches and sit-ups. In fact, the role of these exercises in avoiding back pain may be overrated; one study of Japanese triathletes found that those who performed more ab exercises had higher rates of back pain. Both experts recommend front and side planks as effective exercises for functional ab strengthening.

While back pain is common for athletes and non-athletes and doesn’t necessarily mean a significant problem exists, it can become chronic when left untreated. As Dixon says, “A ‘big engine’ is of little use if you have limited ability to stay healthy.”

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