How to prevent back pain in rowers

With only a month to go until the 2016 Oxford Cambridge boat race, here are our training tips to keep your back strong and flexible, to prevent injury and to keep you out on the water!

The risk factors for back pain in rowers

  • Insufficient hamstring flexibility, core strength and general fitness
  • Sudden increases in training time on an ergometer with high load and low stroke rate
  • Inadequate warm up
  • Ignoring niggling aches and pains and continuing to train
  • Poor technique/rigging
  • Inexperience
  • Previous history of back injury

How to prevent back pain

  • Hamstring flexibility The leading cause of low back pain in rowers is due to tight hamstrings. If your hamstrings are tight the amount of flexibility in your hip joints is reduced and your lower back compensates by bending more than it should … causing back pain. You need to hold your hamstring stretches for at least 30 seconds, 5 times each side, with a short rest in between, several times per day to be effective.
  • Core strength You may be aware that the muscles in our body work in pairs. Each has a buddy and as one muscle tightens the other relaxes to produce a synchronized and controlled movement. The abdominals and lower back muscles work together like this but if you have weak abdominals (strength or endurance) then you may find your lower back muscles working a bit harder than they should be while you’re rowing. This may be noticed at first as a bit of lower back tightness in the morning – don’t wait for it to develop into a back problem … speak to your coach about some core exercises or try a pilates class.
  • General Fitness – Try to combine your rowing training with other aerobic exercise, such as cycling or running. Variety in activity is the best way to prevent overuse injuries, while allowing you to train frequently enough to build fitness. Even twice a week for 20-30 mins and you will notice a big change. Feeling fitter while you row will reduce fatigue during training and thus reduce your risk of injury.
  • Gradual build up – it’s vital that you build up the miles gradually and rest days are important. Over training is a huge cause of low back pain, as well as many overuse injuries. If a muscle is fatigued the risk of injury is much greater. Ask a more experienced rower for a programme, or get advice from a coach if you’re just starting out.
  • Warm up – Before getting on the ergometer or into the boat, get moving to warm up your muscles. Even 10 minutes will significantly reduce the risk of injury. Try a fast walk, into a light jog, then some drills like high knees and butt kicks. This gets your heart rate up, pumping fresh nutrients into all the muscles, ready for the training ahead.
  • Early assessment – If you feel a niggle in your back, stop training until you’ve spoken to your coach, an experienced rower or a physiotherapist. You may need to change your training programme (load size, intervals, frequency) or your set-up in the boat but if you keep training through low back pain your symptoms could get worse and this could increase the rest time you need to recover. You can call for some advice from one of our physiotherapists, without charge: 07721 085511.

Good luck Cambridge!

Hope to see the rest of you out on the water – the Physiofit team!