There is nothing more painful and "power zapping" then lower back pain and/or upper body fatigue. This type of pain can take you from a top 3 finish in mountain biking to a DNF in no time! You will NEVER reach your true potential if this is an issue, so getting it situated is key to your success.
Whether you are racing shorter cross country race or longer 4+ hour endurance events, racing mountain bikes can be very challenging. You are pushing your body beyond it’s limits and often times it reacts with pain you might not experience often. If you find that you are running into the same specific lower back and/or upper body fatigue at every race then it is a good idea to look into what might be the main underlying cause for this. Unfortunately there is no “one size fits all” recipe for this. Every athlete is unique. There might be one single cause for the pain, but there also might be multiple reason for it. Looking into the following four areas can help you identify the problem and move onto racing your bike faster in the near future..
The four main areas you should look into are the following:
1. Bike setup
This can be both a combination of your position/fit on the bike, and simpler changes such as tire pressure and shock/fork pressure.
If you haven’t had a bike fit and you are running into lower back pain and arm pain often, then now might be a really good time to look into a bike fit done. Find a good bike fitter in your area by asking friends and your LBS. Typically the best fits are from experienced fitters. No matter what business or method they use, the more fits they have done, the more likely they will spot any issues you have, and make proper adjustments. Ask friends and other racers for advice.
The other areas of bike setup that can make an immediate difference in fatigue for longer rides/races are tire pressure and shock/fork pressure. You can easily make these adjustments yourself. Adjusting these pressures can give your bike a natural “give”. Having a natural “give” can help you handle the bike better, absorb the bumps/hits better, and put less fatigue on your body.
Here’s a few ways to set these up properly:
2. Core and Upper Body Strength
Having a weak core and/or upper body can also be a good reason for lower back pain and arm pain in mountain bike racing. If you feel this is an issue, then now is the time to attack this weak point.
Here are a few exercises you can do now to address strength training, and more specifically, core and upper body strength. All these exercises can be done at home, 2-3 times a week.
Core(if you don’t know the exercise, you can find videos of them by Youtube searching!):
Bicycles: start at 2 sets of 20-25 reps each leg
Alternate Leg V-Ups: start at 2 sets of 10-15 reps each leg
Planks: hold plank position for 30-90 seconds, 2-3 sets
Superman: 2 sets of 15-20 reps
Russian Twists: 2 sets of 20-30 reps, weighted or non-weighted, your choice
Push Ups: arms at same width of your bars to mimic specificity of bike handling, do 2 sets of 5-10 reps
Wide Grip Pull Ups: 2 sets of 5-10 reps
This is a very general strength routine. The goal of any strength routine should be to make it tougher than it has been in the past. If you haven’t done any recently, than start easy with this specific routine. If you have been strength training in the past, then you might need to add more to your routine than this.
Lower back pain can often be due to tight muscles, especially in your hip flexors. If you don’t stretch currently, then get into a good routine now. Stretching not only can help alleviate pain while riding, but it can also help prevent injury, and allow you to be more comfortable on the bike.
Yoga is something I recommend trying if you haven’t already. If you want something a little less intense then yoga, then start off by picking all the major muscle groups for a stretch routine, and hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds, and repeating it 2-3 times for each stretch. Do this 1-2 times a day.
A few key areas to focus on for lower back pain are the glutes, hamstrings, hip flexor (which attach to the lower back!), IT Band, and quads. If lower back pain is an issue it would be a good idea to do about twice as much stretching on these muscles to help alleviate any tightness in the hips, and lower back that might be caused by tight muscles in these areas.
4. Race Specific Long Rides and/or Short XC Type Rides
The last thing you can do to help avoid pain in the lower back and arms, is to make sure your workout routine is getting more and more specific to your race as you get closer to it. This can not only help with fatigue in those areas, but also should help you be faster come race day no matter what you are dealing with.
Ideally, try to get a race specific long ride or intense ride in 2-3 weeks before your big race. These race specific workouts should have a similar distance/duration of time spent on terrain that you plan to race on. I.E. If you race has a lot of long fireroad, then find a course with that. If it is full of technical singletrack, then do your long and hard rides on singletrack similar to that. This will help your body be better prepared for the race by building the muscular strength both lower and upper body to deal with the specific terrain you are racing on.
One good example of how to build for a Endurance 6 hour race might be as follows:
6 Weeks out from your race, pick one day as a long ride and do the following:
Week 1: Long ride: 3 hours 45 minutes on a race specific course
Week 2: Long Ride: 4 hours and 20 minutes on a race specific course
Week 3: Long Ride: 5 hours on a race specific course
XC Specific Type of Training Might Look Like this:
6 Weeks our from your race, start making 1-2 rides per week at the intensity (and higher) on the race specific terrain you are racing on. A great workout for this is Time Trials for anywhere from 6-20 minutes on singletrack that combines the specific demands of the course you plan to race on. Beginners, Cat 3 would do 1-2 repeats of this course, whereas advanced/pro riders would work up to 3-4 laps. Goal is to ride faster then you normally do to get your body faster, more efficient , and more effective for race day.
Ultimately, racing mountain bikes requires a good bike setup, strong core/upper body, good flexibility, and proper preparation for the successful racing. Every athlete is different. You should look into each of the above mentioned suggestions individually, and adjust according to what you need the most.
Setting up your bike properly, building your core and upper body strength, becoming more flexible, and building your workouts to get more and more specific to that race day will help prevent abnormal pain and ultimately give you a new PR come race day!
Coach Drew Edsall: Professional Mountain biker, Head Coach and Founder of Mtbfitness
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