Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Valuable lessons in spine maintenance

I have not ridden my bike in about a month. This is partly due to the fact that I was visiting Republic of Ireland and England for nearly two weeks (my brain is still on London time, which explains why I was up and writing this starting at 4:45 a.m.), but mostly because my first few rides on my new ROS 9 resulted in severe back pain.

I was able to ride the Castell Grind 100k without issue, but I have had to cut short all my trail rides after about an hour due to an aching lower back. It was unbearable and the pain would last for a few days. In an attempt to address this scientifically, I started listing variables that could cause this:
  1. new bike is fitted differently
  2. new bike is heavier than my old one
  3. I am overly stoked on the new bike and riding harder/ differently
  4. my body is mangled and this has finally manifesting itself in back pain
I concede that 1 through 3 are possibilities that should be addressed. I might end up paying a professional bike fitter to fine-tune my fit, but that seems like on unnecessary expense in my life right now. The new bike does fit a little differently, and it's slightly heavier, and I have been trying to manual and hop this bike quite a bit.

I took to internet message boards to help me narrow down what is going on and was told to set my bike up exactly like my old bike, fit it totally different, get a longer stem, a shorter stem, raise my handlebar, lower my handlebar, push my seat forward, push it back, get a softer seatpost, lower my tire pressure, and several other bits of advice that contradicted each other at every turn.

I have learned a lot about bike fit as a result of this pursuit, and also learned that everyone on the internet is an "expert," but more on that later.

[I preface everything else I am about to write with this caveat: I possess no medical expertise and an amateur understanding of bike fit and physiology. The following is based on my personal experiences, observations, and bits of knowledge I have gleaned from experts of varying levels of credibility. Take it all with a grain of salt and consult with a medical professional and/ or bike fitter for more information.]

That leaves my body, something better left to a medical professional. I have a history with back injuries from two car accidents, riding BMX for over 15 years, sitting for a desk job, manual labor, etc., and I have had mixed experiences with chiropractors. Despite what some people say about the practice (one person recently told me that they are all "chiroquacks"), I am convinced that no amount of stretching, exercise, "yoga" activity, bike fit adjustments, or painkillers are going to help if the spine is out of whack and a good chiro is the best person to deal with that.

On the advice of several local mountain bikers I know, I visited a nearby chiropractor a few weeks ago. He's a cyclist and his practice does everything, starting with x-rays and getting into adjustments, massage, physical therapy and training and he even does bike fittings. I was not terribly surprised to learn what his exam told me, but it's not terrific news.

My x-rays showed that I have a few issues going on:
  1. my neck does not have a natural, healthy cervical lordosis. Instead, it curves slightly forward (kyphosis) and cantilevers my head in a forward position. It's subtle to the untrained eye, but it's definitely there. Some of the joints in my neck don't move very well and my head tilts slightly to the right, which is apparent in photos.
  2. My lower back has some vertebrae that don't move freely. My lumbar lordosis is not quite what it ought to be.
  3. My pelvis tilts forward and is not laterally level. I have an anterior pelvic tilt, which could be the result of several factors and habits I have.
  4. My sacrum is tilted forward several degrees.

Since I was a child, despite being active and vaguely athletic, I have never been able to bend at the waist and touch my toes. Like many cyclists, have overdeveloped quads (front of thigh muscles that push pedals down) and weak, tight hamstrings, which somewhat explains the pelvic tilt and back pain. (I found an excellent article on Livestrong that describes this exact issue.)

Cycling likely exacerbated the pelvic problem to the state in which I find myself today. The muscles in front of my legs are strong and pulling down, keeping the weak muscles in back under constant tension, like a teeter totter with a really fat kid on one end. When I cantilever my upper body over the front of a bicycle and hammer on the pedals for hours, relying on my quads to do most of the work, it strains the lower back and, surprise!, it starts to ache miserably.

The chiropractor has me on a schedule of adjustments, training with a physical therapist and some home practices that will correct my spine over time and make it last.

Treatment is not cheap and it's unnerving to add this bill to my monthly expenses (I really need to find a way to earn more money, getting old is expensive and expensive is getting old), but I am convinced it's a good investment in my future health. I would rather make sacrifices now than have severe back problems in a decade or two that could keep me from working and enjoying life. At 35 years, I am not old, but I need to be intentional about these things.

In part II, I will explain what I have learned about bike fit and how I am learning to make my bike best accommodate the limits of my body.

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