Lower Back Pain & the Triathlete

Triathlon training and racing takes its toll on the lower back.  Long hours on the bike, the pounding of the road when running. Throw into the mix on top of your training are work, and everyday life that adds on the stress and strain to the lower back and spine.

Statistics show that between 60-80% of all North Americans will suffer from lower back pain at some point in their lives.  With the number of people in the workforce in sedentary jobs where sitting is the primary posture (and we don’t use good posture when we sit), spinal muscles weaken due to lack of endurance and strength, and a failure of these muscles to maintain good posture when sitting occurs.  Over time, this puts more pressure on our spinal discs, which can cause premature degeneration of the spinal disc, and bones of the spine.  This is commonly called Osteoarthritis of the spine and results in a weakness of the core ligaments, spinal discs, and muscles of the spine, and pain.  Other consequences of sitting long hours at work or driving without frequent breaks to stretch our legs and back are tight hamstrings, calves, and tight hip flexor (Psoas) Muscles.   Other repetitive types of jobs where frequent bending, lifting, twisting are required, also cause tremendous stress on our bodies and spine and can also result in damage to our muscles, and spinal discs.  More severe disc injuries where there is swelling (bulging) of the disc, or leakage of the disc material outside of the discs (herniation) can really hamper training when symptomatic.  If you have a bulging or herniated disc the swollen disc puts pressure on the spinal nerves and can cause severe pain in the lower back and leg causing sciatica.  Some disc herniations can be so debilitating that surgery may be required to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.

So what can you do to prevent back pain and a disc injury?  The answer simple but it requires a constant effort.  If you are in a job that requires a lot of sitting or driving, get up frequently (2 times per hour).  Stretch your hamstrings, back, and hip flexors holding each stretch for 10 seconds. Do this all day long if you can.  This will prevent further tightening of the muscles of your back, and legs.  Also, stretching prior to physical activity is recommended for 5 minutes after a brief warm up.  Exercises that strengthen your core and spine, and build endurance in these muscles can be yoga or Pilates based in addition to traditional back and abdominal workouts.  Just doing sit ups do not strengthen your core.  Prone back extensions, hip extension, superman lifts all train the backside of the body.  Abdominal workouts should focus on strengthening the oblique and transverse abdominal muscles in addition to the 6-pack rectus abdominus muscle.

How do you recognize when you have a more serious back problem versus muscular pain from a hard or long work out?  Pain that doesn’t go away within in a few days could be the sign of a more serious muscular injury, osteoarthritis, or a disc injury.  Pain that shoots down the leg from the lower back or hip is sciatica.

What else can be done to heal an injured back or prevent a back injury?  Getting the proper medical attention as soon as possible can save you a lot of training time lost down the road.  Massage therapy, chiropractic, physical therapy, and acupuncture, can help heal injured areas better than doing nothing and hoping it goes away.  If you have tried a home care program that has included stretching, strengthening, and rolling on a ball or foam roller, and still are not getting better seek out some form of treatment.  Ignoring the pain and running or biking with pain can cause the body to accommodate for pain or weakness. If you train too long with an injury you may end up injuring some other part of you that is compensating for your injury.  Then you have two injuries to deal with not one!


Dr. David Ness is a certified sports chiropractor practicing in New Paltz, N.Y.  Dr. Ness is the official chiropractor and Active Release Techniques provider for the Vassar College Athletic Dept.  Dr. Ness  has worked at the Lake Placid Ironman event as part of the ART treatment team since 2004.  Dr. Ness has been the ART provider for the Hudson Valley Tri Club since 2005 years providing free ART care after club races.  Dr. Ness also provides treatment at NYTC races around the NY metro area, and continues to work as part of the SOS Triathlon post-race care team, and at American Zofingen Ultra Duathlon.