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The Inertia

A surfer’s body is beautiful. Lean, muscular, with broad shoulders, a narrow waist and a butt that sticks out just a little bit. They’re works of art. But life is cruel and that beauty comes at a cost. The curve at the lower back and the muscular imbalances that develop with dedication to the sport can lead to nasty lower back pain if you don’t also commit yourself to regular, targeted stretching.

Here are two principles to keep in mind

1. Your body is an efficient machine that adapts to the position it’s in most often.
2. Everything in your body is connected, so imbalances and misalignments have a domino effect.

What causes lower back pain?

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Each of the following activities – over time – pulls your pelvis out of alignment and stresses your lower back:

-When you’re paddling, you excessively arch your lumbar spine. Compression at the lower back leads to a tightening of these muscles.
-If you sit a lot during the day, your hip flexors become short and tight which pulls your pelvis forward, further exacerbating the overarching of your lower back.
-Tight hips, hamstrings, calves and groin, from moving dynamically – repeatedly popping up on the board, pumping and turning without stretching – pull your pelvis out of alignment and stress your lower back.
-A weak core, relative to overdeveloped glutes pulls your pelvis forward which stresses your lower back.
-A lack of mobility in the thoracic spine – from twisting and turning on the board without stretching – places stress on the lumbar spine as it struggles to compensate.

How bad is the pain?

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The stretches, strengthening exercises and 15-minute yoga routine I’m going to lay out in this article are designed to relieve tightness in the lower back and correct common muscular imbalances. They may not be suitable for more severe conditions like muscle spasms and disk injuries. If you have any concerns, please check with your doctor or physical therapist to make sure it’s safe for you to do these exercises.

Phase 1: Stretch tight muscles

If you’re in intense pain, I recommend you start by gently loosening up tight muscles in the area. If there is potential nerve or disc damage, you should avoid forward bends, backbends, twists and seated poses, as they may aggravate your condition. Here are six supported poses you can do as often as you need them.

Hold each one for a minimum of three minutes, ideally in the evening when your muscles are warm and stretchy. You can start with just one a day and gradually build up to the full sequence.

Breathe in and out through your nose, aiming to make your exhalations twice the length of your inhalations. You can count in for four and out for eight. The key is to relax fully in each of the poses and allow your muscles to loosen gradually.

1. Child’s Pose

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-From all fours, sit back on your heels and rest your forehead on the mat.
-Relax your arms by your sides, palms facing up and let go of tension across your upper back and shoulders.
-Expand your lungs as much as you can on every inhalation – especially into the back of your ribcage – and let go of tension on every exhalation.
-To come out of the pose, take a deep breath in, bring your palms to the mat. Exhale, push yourself back up to kneeling.

2. Supported Bridge

– Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the mat, hip-width apart. Check that your toes point straight ahead.
– Rest your arms by your sides, palms facing down and walk your feet back until your fingertips graze your heels.
– Lift your hips all the way up and put a block at the base of your spine. Yoga blocks have three different heights, so just go as high as is comfortable and feels therapeutic.
-Breathe deep into your belly to release tension in your psoas.
-Take a deep breath in, remove the block and come down on an exhalation.

3. Reclining Hand-To-Toe

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– This is a hamstring and calf stretch.
– Lie flat on your back.
– Bring your left knee into your chest, loop a strap, belt or towel around the arch of your foot and try to straighten your leg as much as possible up to the sky.
– Keep your left foot flexed and press through your heel.
– If you find yourself straining in the pose, you can bend your bottom leg and bring the sole of your right foot flat to the mat.
– Relax. Use gravity and the weight of your arms to gradually increase the intensity of the stretch.
– When you’re ready, release the pose and switch sides.

4. Dead Pigeon

– This pose stretches the glutes, piriformis, and outer hips.
– Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the mat.
– Rest your left ankle on your right knee.
– Thread your left hand through the triangle between your legs and hold the back of your right thigh with both hands. Gently pull your right leg in towards you.
– Relax your neck and shoulders.
– You can interlace your fingers around your shin to increase the intensity of the pose.
– When you’re ready, release the pose and switch sides.

5. Reclining Butterfly

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– Sit on your mat, bring the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall open in the shape of a diamond.
– Place several cushions or a couple of pillows behind you and lie back onto them.
– Let your arms fall out to the sides.
– Completely relax into the pose, allowing gravity to open up your hips.
– Supporting your knees on cushions will actually increase the intensity of the pose.

6. Reclining Spinal Twist

This pose releases tension at the lower back.
– Lie flat on your back and squeeze your right knee into your chest.
– Bring both arms out in a T, palms facing down.
– Hook your right foot behind your left inner thigh and gently guide your right knee across your body down towards the mat, as far as is comfortable.
– If your knee doesn’t come all the way down, you can support it on a cushion or two.
– Look to the right and completely let go of tension in your neck and shoulders.
– When you’re ready, take a deep breath in. Exhale, come back to center and switch sides.

Phase 2: Strengthen weak muscles

When you feel that you’re out of the danger zone, you can add in some strengthening exercises. Try to do them every day or as often as possible, ideally in the morning when your energy and motivation levels are high.

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These exercises strengthen the muscles that work together to support your lumbar spine – the abs, obliques, hips and glutes.

Hold them for 5-10 breaths, in and out through your nose, or as long as you can without compromising your form. Contract your abs on every exhalation to build muscular strength and support for your spine.

1. Plank

– From all fours, walk your hands forward, tuck your toes and come up into a plank position.
– Spread your fingers wide and press your hands evenly into the mat. Check that your shoulders are directly over your wrists and your feet are hip-width apart.
– Try to create a straight line all the way from your heels to your hips, to the back of your head. Engage your core and press back through your heels to straighten your legs.
– Look down at the mat to complete the alignment.

2. Side Plank

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– From Plank, shift your weight onto your right hand and come to the outside edge of your right foot. Open your body to the left stacking your left foot on top of the right and bring your left hand to your hip.
– Make sure your right wrist is directly below your right shoulder and straighten your left arm up to the sky.
– Your ankles, hips and shoulders should all be in a straight line.
– When you’re ready to come down, take a deep breath in. Exhale, come back to Plank and switch sides.

3. Boat

-Sit with your knees bent, feet flat on the mat.
-Hold onto the backs of your thighs and lean back slightly. Lift your chest, pick up your feet and balance on your sitting bones.
-Bring your toes up to eye-line and hold the pose.
-If you have your balance, you can let go of the backs of your legs and turn your palms up to the sky.
-Try not to let your back round by keeping your chest lifted.
-Hold the pose for 5-10 breaths, in and out through your nose.

Phase 3: Increase mobility in the joints

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The third piece to add in is a 15-minute sequence designed to increase thoracic spine, hip and ankle mobility, stretch your hip flexors, quads, hip rotators, glutes, hamstrings and groin and strengthen your lower back and abs. You can start to practice it whenever you’re ready but if you feel significant discomfort in any of the poses. Pull back as you may not yet have the flexibility you need. Only go as far into each stretch as feels comfortable. Remember that force is a substitute for intelligence, always.

We finish with a short diaphragmatic breathing exercise that is designed to relax tension throughout your body and calm down your central nervous system.

Practice this sequence in the evening after a surf and ideally 3-5 times a week until the pain starts to ease off. Remember to pay attention to your breathing throughout, keeping your breaths long, slow and deep.

An object in motion stays in motion. 

If you’re young and pain-free or only feeling the odd niggle, remember that it’s much easier to prevent back pain than it is to heal it. Keep your back loose and healthy by putting in the time with your flexibility and mobility training now. Practicing this 15-minute sequence once or twice a week should be enough to keep you limber and supple so you can shred harder, for longer, hopefully sustaining fewer injuries along the way.

Other things you can do:

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-Spend a minute or so in Child’s pose directly after you surf to gently stretch out your lower back.
-Try not to sit for more than 30 minutes at a time. Take breaks to go for a walk or do some simple stretches and mobility exercises.
-Be aware of your posture throughout the day, standing or sitting up tall whilst keeping your neck and shoulders relaxed.
-Foam roll or lacrosse ball your upper and lower back, rib cage, glutes, quads and hip flexors to improve soft tissue and joint mobility.
-Mix up your yoga routines (and all of your training) so you continue to make progress and avoid repetitive strain injuries.
-Incorporate recovery sessions. This could include yoga, breathing, massage, sauna, ice baths (my new current obsession) or just taking time off work to play and have fun.
-Warm up and cool down before and after you surf.
-Prioritize sleep to optimize muscle tissue repair, especially on days when you’re pushing your body to the max.
-Consider supplementing with fish oil, turmeric and magnesium. You’ll find more info on Examine.com.

A Note from the Author: Please let me know if you have any questions about these poses. You can email me at abi@yoga15.com. And you can find my complete Yoga For Surfers training program here.

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