The Back Issue

In my last post I mentioned a couple worrisome injuries that have been hampering my CFE Ironman training plan thus far: my foot and my back.

Good news: the foot’s gotten better.

Bad news: the back’s gotten worse.

You can read all about my foot issues in Foot Fight and Foot Fight 2.

In this post we’ll dig into my back.

I’ll explain the symptoms, the root problems, the causes and the fixes.

NB: I’m officially old.

Symptoms: Sciatic Nerve Pain

About once a month, over the past six months, my sciatic nerve has seized up during various exercises, workouts and movements: deadlifts, parkour laches, cartwheels, back tucks, rowing, cycling, kettlebell swings and even yoga.

The pain level isn’t too bad (around 2 – 4), but it brings my workouts to a screeching halt, and stays aggravated for a couple days.

While it’s aggravated I move around OK when I’m standing or walking, but I have trouble bending down to tie my shoes or lifting things up from the floor.

Then, after a couple days of taking it easy, the nerve pain usually settles down and my mobility is restored for a few weeks until the next flare up.

Root Problems: Over-extension, tight posterior chain, no hip internal rotation

  1. Over-extension: I’m not keeping my core tight and hips stacked. This means my pelvis tips forward when I squat, pinching my poor back.
  2. Tight posterior chain: My glutes, hamstrings and calves are stiff – with a lot of fascia build up – which means they don’t stretch when I bend. Instead they unload that stress onto my poor poor back.
  3. No hip internal rotation: My stiff hips prevent my knees from shifting outward to absorb the load when I squat. Instead they defer to my poor poor poor back.

Causes: Sitting all day and letting my core get lazy

Sitting is killing my back, but I still do it all the time.

I sit at my desk all day at work, sit when I go to meetings, sit when I eat, sit on the couch to relax, sit when I read, sit when I write.

Also, I tend to forget to keep my abs and core engaged to maintain good posture.

These are simple, common, yet difficult faults to avoid.

Fixes: Less sitting, monthly massages and smart stretches

When you work in the corporate world, you have to go far out of your way to avoid a sedentary day. I’m getting better, but it’s a constant battle.

I try to stand up from my chair at least one time during most meetings.

I use a Chrome web app timer called Eye Care that annoyingly reminds me to take a 1-minute break every 20 minutes by shutting off my screen.

I put up the following infographic right by my monitor as another reminder that sitting all day kills. Plus, at home I’ve shifted to lying on the couch rather than sitting when I veg out (I mean, read).

In addition, I got my first deep tissue massage and it helped break up the insane amount of fascia built up in my posterior chain. This seemed to put me on a faster track to recovery, and I plan on getting a massage every month to also help prevent future flare ups.

After clearing that up, I pored over the book Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett, and watched these excellent videos he’s posted, to develop a new daily mobility routine that targets those specific problem areas.

New Morning Mobility Routine:

  • Wall butterfly (2 minutes)
  • Lacrosse ball hammy leg extensions (100 extensions each hammy)
  • Banded hammy distraction (2 minutes each hammy)
  • Couch stretch front hip (2 minutes each leg)

This daily targeted stretching, with intention, has kept me mostly out of back pain for the past month, and I’ve been able to hit my training plan pretty hard and feel pretty good about it.

The routine takes about 20 minutes, and it’s a drag – but so is getting old and suffering with back pain.

If you’re dealing with similar back issues, I hope this post gives you ideas on ways to resolve them. And if you have any favorite stretches that aren’t mentioned, please share them in the comments. Thanks.

– Live every day –


Note: Thanks to some great reader feedback, this post was updated from the original to address how I’m attempting to sit less at work and home.

Photos: Spine, Nerves

  • Rory Heath

    I think you nailed it when you said

    “I sit at my desk all day at work, sit when I go to meetings, sit when I eat, sit on the couch to relax, sit when I read, sit when I write.”

    By adding in the extra mobility sessions and soft tissue work you might help to address pain, the product of the cause, but you haven’t addressed the root cause.

    Keep on with the stretching and soft tissue work, but try to vary your positions next time. I saw this great image –

    Have you tried taking regular breaks from your desk or taking walking meetings? Or, if you can convince management, to invest in a standing desk set-up and a standing mat like the Ergodriven Topo?

    I enjoy reading about your focused bouts of work to get big results – but I think a minimal approach to back pain may not be your best bet. Cheers!

    • Thanks for pointing that out, Rory. I went back and added a few lines about how I’m attempting to sit less throughout the day. I agree with you – it seems like all the stretching and exercising in the world will not repair the damage caused by a hunched-over, sedentary lifestyle.