Back hurts after an XC ride…

My buddy Lee McCormack (www.leelikesbikes.com) recently sent me this question…

James!OK dude. I’ve been doing longer rides lately, and it’s starting to feel
good. My climbing legs are coming back, and I’m comfortable for 2+ hour

The weak link is actually appearing on the DH. I’m training and riding the
way I always do, but my mid-back is starting to get tired. More
specifically, the erector muscles along the right side of my spine.

I can think of two influencing factors:

1) Bike setup. For many years, I’ve rocked 50mm stems. My new Stumpy has the
stock XC setup, with a 90mm stem. I’m trying the stock setup for testing
purposes, since that’s what most people roll.

2) The lack of a right clavicle. As you know, I have a non-union, and the
only thing holding my arm on is muscle. I definitely get tired in the
chest/shoulder/upper back area faster than I think I should. I’ll be getting
the shoulder fixed pretty soon.

What do you think, my brother? I’m really interested in the James Wilson

– Lee McCormack –

Here is the first thing I always think when someone tells me that something hurts as a result of exercise – bad movement causes pain. Bad movement also robs you of performance so the trick is to hunt down the bad movement and fix it.

Typically, if someone is getting pain in the erector muscles as a result of riding they will have a mobility deficit in the hips and/ or upper back and the body is coaxing excessive movement out of the lumbar spine. It sounds to me that you have upper back mobility issues as a result of your shoulder traumas.

You should be able to hold your arms straight over your head (elbows locked out and in line with your ears when viewed from the side) while keeping your head and lower back in a neutral position. If you can’t then you need to work on increasing your upper back, and specifically scapular, mobility.

Our body is designed to be a series of mobile and stable joints. In this case we want mobile hips, a stable lumbar spine and a mobile thoracic spine (upper back). You have to restore balance to the system first before you can really hope to address the real causes of the back pain.

As far as it hurting more on the right side, there are few things that could cause that. My guess would be that it is extra movement on that side. Since our left side lower body works with the right side upper body that would make sense if you are weaker with the left leg and you are compensating with the right lower back.

Here is my advice – don’t do any two legged strength training exercises for the time being. Do everything one leg at a time and get your left leg’s movement patterns cleaned up. Cue in on the lumbar movement and stop it by squeezing the glute even harder when it happens.

Also, get super aggressive with your soft tissue work. Get a tennis ball and put it between your back and the wall and dig in. The main areas to concentrate on are the right trap and lat but you should dig in all over the place and get the tension levels back there under control. It will hurt like hell but it has to be done.

Long, repetitive efforts like XC riding will expose small “chinks” in your movement patterns and cause pain. That is why strength training and mobility work is so important – they are the only chance you get to fix those “chinks”.

Bad movement causes pain – find the bad movement and fix the pain. Pretty simple theory but one I have found to work pretty well.

Hope this helps, let me know if I can answer any more questions for you…


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  1. Neil says:

    James (and Lee)
    First, let me say that I have been using your workouts regularly for about 7 months now, and have really been impressed with the gains I have made. Getting ready to start the updated UMWP soon!

    Now, a concern. I read your weekly Facebook posts where riders post questions, and you are good to point out that you are not a doctor or a therapist. Well, I am a sports PT with a specialization in shoulders. It is also almost impossible to make an accurate assessment and diagnosis based on a few sentences, but I have some thoughts on Lee’s issue.
    While I do not know Lee, I have worked with many athletes that have dealt with clavicle fractures that have not healed.

    I do agree with you that he may very well have mobility issues in the spine and hip that need to be addressed; however, riding a mountain bike without an intact clavicle produces a major challenge to that entire side. Lee stated correctly that the only thing holding his arm onto his body is muscle. This is NOT an exageration.
    This lack of inherent stability places an inordinate amount of demand on the entire shoulder girdle. As a fit and experienced rider though, Lee most likely has developed enough strength to compensate for the injury. Adding in what he mentioned about changing his usual stem length makes sense though. As you know this changes his overall position on the bike. This makes subtle changes to the way all of the stabilizing muscles of that right shoulder girdle function. This can very likely lead to issues with fatigue that may not have been present with his prior set-up, and this increased fatigue results in increased instability of the shoulder on the rib cage.

    In the attack position, this would result in the entire shoulder blade/shoulder girdle getting pushed backward off of the rib cage, or in effect, the right side of the trunk would start to sag downward toward the bars. If he continues to ride, other muscle groups WILL start trying to keep the body in proper position. When the trunk begins to sag downward, again related to the instability in the right shoulder, the right spinal erector muscles are one of the muscle groups that will kick in. As we know, this is not their primary job, and if the ride progresses, or the demand increases (like DH), they are going to overwork, and at some point start to hurt.

    You are correct to say that bad movement causes pain. I believe this is happening on that right side, but in this case I think it is more related to the clavicle injury. Keeping all of the shoulder girdle muscles strong will help, but they can only do so much. I would agree with his thought about getting it fixed soon.

    Okay, enough soapbox, thanks for helping all of us get into better riding shape!
    Neil H., PT, CSCS

    Reply • January 18 at 6:30 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the input. This was actually a re-post of a question Lee had sent me a couple years back and he has had the shoulder taken care of in the meantime. I had also had the chance to get my hands on Lee shortly before he sent me that question and in that time we found out that he did not have very good glute recruitment and his hips were not operating correctly, which is why I pointed some of that stuff out to him. The shoulder definitely is a major contributor to his problem but I wanted to remind him that getting the hips back online would help the low back pain as well.

      Glad you are enjoying the info so far and thanks again for your well thought out post.

      Reply • January 19 at 6:45 am
  2. Anthony says:

    Hi James, I have been reading your posts and listening to podcast for some time now, I agree with alot of what is said especially in regards to the added comfort and confidence that flat pedals and good shoes provide. Currently I have started To do your 3 step training course for strengthening purposes. I try to ride more standing up bit I find that riding standing all the time is less enjoyable. I find it is less comfortable over the long haul and used more energy more quickly, therefore I don’t enjoy riding this way. What do you suggest. ?

    Reply • January 23 at 3:30 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Go on shorter rides. Start with a 30 minute ride and build up. Not every ride has to be hours long. You can also start out by standing “more”, not “all the time” – start with attacking a couples hills standing up that you usually just sit and spin up. It is going to tire you out faster since you don’t have the core and hip strength nor the cardio for standing pedaling yet. Standing pedaling is a different skill and type of fitness and you have to build it up to tap into it.

      In sports training it is called The Dip – being able to suffer a short term decrease in performance in order to enjoy an increase in the long term. People forget that Tiger Woods went through it when he re-tooled his swing several years ago. I’m sure it wasn’t fun for him in the short term when he was loosing but I’m sure that winning 4 Majors in a row was fun when he came out the other side of The Dip.

      If you look at the best riders they stand far more than average riders – standing pedaling is more powerful and standing up puts you in a better position to execute technical skills on your bike. Don’t try to go out and ride the same speeds and distances that you do seated, you need to re-tool your pedal stroke and build back up.

      Reply • January 23 at 8:01 am
  3. Nigel says:

    Hi James,

    I too suffer from the same back issues as your mate. If I commute to work on bike paths and roads on the same mtb (20km each way) I don’t have a problem, but on the track (30min to 45min in) the back tenses up and I’m in pain . If I stop at every trail head then all is fine . I’ve spent a bit on Osteo’s and physio’s over the last 12 to 18months, which have helped in loosing up the area but not stengthening it.

    Which of your programs do you recommend for stabilising the hip and restoring balance? I don’t have enough room for the ultimate work out.

    PS I’ve also joined he flats pedal movement and am enjoying it.

    Reply • January 26 at 3:51 pm
  4. Cam Scott says:

    I as well suffer have been suffering from lower back pain just recently ,im on a new bike, a dual suspension 29er trail bike which has me in a more upright position than my previous bike which had more of a stretched out cross country feel.
    Ive narrowed the pain down to a few certain sections of the single track which are tight twisty mostly down hill type sections with aggressive pedalling in between, these sections go for about 5 kms, Im mostly up on the pedals trying to move around and im guessing its when fatigue sets in that the pain kicks into the back.
    There are some concerns that maybe the bike is too small i didnt get the back pain with the bigger bike but the bigger bike didnt ride as well and as aggressive as this either , im 5 foot 10 and a half, the bike is a 17.5 with a 585 cm top tube , it feels and handles great, just this lower back pain when Im trying to maintain an attack position for longer periods that is bothering me.
    I am training the core, hip flexors etc
    Should i break and rest in these sections ? Stretch?

    Reply • December 29 at 4:34 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I wouldn’t worry about the bike being too small, it sounds like a good size for you. I think that what it boils down to is working on your standing pedaling and attack position endurance. Try to go on short rides (30-45 minutes) where you slam your seatpost and force yourself to stand up more. After a while you’ll find you won’t tire as easily on rides where you can sit down more. You also want to make sure that you are working on your strength and mobility for the hips, if they are tight and weak you’ll always have issues.

      Reply • December 31 at 12:00 pm

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