Relax the Back!
After taking a hiatus from training the past few months, I was out for a run a few days ago and realizing how, despite the fact that I have gotten quite out of shape, I was actually feeling more relaxed and efficient with my running than I have in some time, and that I was actually able to last for much longer than I maybe *should* have been because of that. I got to thinking about how important maintaining a nice, relaxed back can be for us as triathletes, especially with good efficient breathing and run form, even though it is VERY easy to overlook this part of our body in favor of other more obvious culprits in to injury and impeding physical performance (hips, quads, shoulders, hamstrings, etc. etc.).
So, I went to the expert, David Vargas, LMT, for his thoughts on the matter. Here's what he had to say:
When discussing back pain as it pertains to a triathlete, I find it best to stick to the prime culprits. Though pain may occur in both the upper and lower back as a result of poor posture/weakness, I'll briefly discuss the benefits of strengthening, mobility and stretching.
We'll begin with what I feel to be the most important muscle in any athletes career, the Hip Flexors (Iliopsoas complex). Originating at the transverse processes of the lumbar spine/iliac fossa and attaching at the lesser trochanter or the femur, this muscle complex is responsible for both flexion at the hip and external rotation of the femur. Whether you're initiating a revolution on the bike or movement to begin a run, this muscle is the first step... get it?! First step. Now that I got that out of my system, in all seriousness, this muscle can lead to increased hyperlordosis of the lumbar spine if shortened, leading to body mechanical distinction and possibly LBP. Now you're asking, "why don't I just stretch it ?!". That would be a fair point had it just been a shortened muscle issue. This muscle is typically in a flexed position for most of the day, due to sitting at a desk. We then carry this sitting position onto the bike, making it both short and strong, reinforcing the faulty recruitment patterns. In addition to stretching, I would also recommend pin and stretch of the muscle with a certified practitioner, to restore normal length and function. In addition to this, exercise of the glutes and hamstrings can counter the "psoas" and provide better balance and symmetry to the area.
The next two muscles typically present in a combo package which may lead to patellofemoral and ITB Syndrome. When performing Sagittal plane motion for prolong periods of time, The Tensor Fasciae Lattae and Glute Medius get fatigued quickly and can't keep up with muscles primed for that forward/back motion such as the quads/glutes/hamstrings. The TFL itself deposits into the Iliotibial band, a band on non contractile connective tissue attaching at proximal, anterolateral aspect of the tibia. Most people would say I have right IT Bands, but the truth it, it lacks the capacity to get "tight" of its own accord. Much like a rubber band, it has to be drawn taut by an external source, in this face , the TFL. This causes a chain reaction whereby the ITB, now taut rubs against the lateral quad and lateral hamstring, increasing inflammation and getting the area to begin adhered. This leads to a stronger lateral pull on the fascia surround the patella, which draws it out of orientation, leading to knee pain. Going back to the level of the hip, the TFL and Gluteus Medius need to remain within a certain standard of function as to not hinder the femurs ability to rotate properly during motion. This may lead to altered gait, and a funky revolution on the bike. Luckily, keeping these muscles healthy and supple is pretty easy. A lacrosse ball to the area, followed by hip stretching and strengthening via banded work (such as monster walks) can relatively quickly bring the area back to where you need to be.
The final muscle I want to mention is the piriformis. A muscle originating at the sacrum and attaching at the greater trochanter of the femur. This muscle is he strongest lateral rotator of the femur and is located over the sciatic nerve. This point is important due to the fact that if shortened enough, it can compress the sciatic nerve, leading to sciatica. Working on general hip mobility in addition to figure 4 stretches can to a long way in terms of keeping this muscle to under control.
Again, when discussing muscles and condition which may have a direct bearing on tri sport, I can spend the rest of the day listing off a whole bunch and their effects on the body. At the end of the day, it your job as an athlete to take health into your own hands to be proactive and stay ahead of injury. A mixture of targeted mobility, stretching and corrective exercise can not only add longevity to your career as an athlete, but also add exponentially to your quality of life when it comes to activities of daily living, and ease of movement.
Moral of the story, it's important to take the time to be sure that your WHOLE body is working in harmony to prevent pain and maximize your efficiency, training, racing, and RESULTS. If you're feeling any pain, tightness, or less than efficient in a specific area, think bigger picture. David gives some great tips here, but I'll add that a session with a good massage therapist like David can not only help alleviate acute pain / issues, but also help you identify problems that you might not even realize could be contributing.
A lot of us take a break form body maintenance during the "off" season when problems don't present as immediately due to reduced training load, but NOW is really the time to get your body in good shape for when training does pick up. So, be sure to keep getting in your massage, strength, and stretching (and feel free to reach out to me if you want David's contact info!)!