When I was 24-years-old, I was late for work and dashed to the car in the rain. My arms were full and I slipped going down into the garage and bounced down a flight of stairs on my backside. After 6 months of chronic back spasms and misdiagnosis, it turned out I had slipped two discs in my lower spine.
Lower back injuries are actually pretty common, and it’s not just a symptom of getting old. My mate Jack was in his early twenties when he was slammed by a large wave and sustained a similar injury. If you even have a slight curve in your spine, it makes you prone to back injuries because you’re a bit off balance in the first place.
As a mountain biker, being stretched out over the length of the bike puts strain on your spine. If you have a herniated disc, it basically means that there is a bulge pushing into the main nerve that runs up the spine, which causes serious spasms if other muscles aren’t taking up the bulk of the strain.
I’ve had to achieve pain-free riding from two angles. Firstly with bike set-up by choosing smaller bikes and using short stems to keep me more upright, and secondly by improving my core strength.
After about five years of really struggling with my back, what helped was focussing on core strength training using a mixture of Pilates, kettle bells and dynamic strength exercises. In particular, doing body weight exercises and lightweights with high repetitions was what worked for me.
If you’re someone who’s not really keen on joining the gym, but still want to start mixing in core-strength training between your rides, a great resource (which is admittedly female orientated) is called Popsugar Fitness. On the Popsugar Fitness website you will find downloadable workouts with basic body weight exercises that you can mix-and-match depending on what you want to strengthen. I also use the HIIT workout app to time myself doing exercises, which is pretty useful when you’re a daydreamer like me who forgets to keep count.
I have had a couple of disasters while training, doing an awkward move with poor form (funnily enough I was twisting and throwing a Pilates ball against a wall, not even something heavy), but I have also learned to deal with ‘undoing’ spasms through massage, dry-needling, stretching and now with an electronic muscle stimulator which is the bees knees!
Not only does a stronger core result in effective pain management, it also seriously helps in keeping all your power central over the bike. You’re consequently able to drive more power into your pedal strokes, while keeping your upper body upright and able to deal with hits on the bike without veering off into the bushes. Much like the difference between a well-maintained 4×4 versus a farm bakkie with a chassis that feels like it’s about to disintegrate, our core strength can really improve our ride.
In terms of cross training tools, as an Enduro and Downhill rider my bikes are long travel, and they don’t make for the most effective training bikes when you want to start building up base fitness. I am not a fan of tar road riding, but I do love long rides on forestry roads and one of my 2017 tools is going to be a shorter travel bike for training. Liv offers the Obsess Advanced, a lightweight hardtail with 100mm of travel, and most recently the Liv Pique Advanced 2, which is a badass 120mm bike that will service the best of both worlds (training and racing) if you want a dual-suspension, lightweight bike to munch up single track. Riding different bikes combined with a good core strength regime, I am really hoping to up my fitness game in 2017.
The key to core strength training though, if it’s a new thing that you want to try, is making sure you start slowly, build strength incrementally and to check that you’re holding the right form by looking in the mirror or doing a workout with a trainer before heading off on your own. It really is a great way to mix up your training and to get an endorphin rush in the middle of the week when riding isn’t always an option. Happy tummy crunching!