I've had a 'bad' back for as long as I can remember. At least the last 20yrs. I recently had a bunch of MRI scans to try and establish the root cause of my otherwise ambiguous pain.
The scans showed that my bottom-most (L5) disc is almost completely deteriorated, the result of which is that the two vertebrae which would otherwise have been nicely spaced by a protective gel bumper, are now effectively resting directly on top of each other.
No-one can say how or why this happened. It may be genetic, it may because as a race, we humans have altered the way we go about our lives or in my case it could be the long term result of one of four life-threatening impacts i.e. through trauma you rupture a disc and some of the gel leaks out. Normally this will heal itself in a few weeks. Whatever, it's all gone -literally dry as a bone.
People have been crapping on at me about core strength for some time. As cyclists, core strength can easily fall by the wayside while we plug away, building up further muscle imbalances. However, no one ever really put into simple terms, why you need a strong core or how it helps. People just said it would. Don't get me wrong, it does help -hugely. but it took an orthopaedic surgeon last week to put it into terms I could really get my head around.
As you stand or sit upright, your spine compresses as it holds you in place. In my case, those two vertebrae resting/grinding against each other. IF you can activate, strengthen and build your core, it will act like a scaffold for your spine and support your weight, thus easing the downward pressure through your spine.
This year, I subbed out bike training in place of a core strength programme. Then I got a referral to a physio. Brilliant, and on the NHS. This further complimented what I had been doing, and after 6 or 7 months I can genuinely say things are better than they have been for years. The root cause, the mechanical problem hasn't and won't go away, but all the side affects are lessening or becoming easier to deal with i.e. I can sleep through the night without it waking me up and I'm not in pain whenever I move.
Pilates. I haven't started yet, but I plan to as my brother, who recently ran his first marathon in sub 4hrs raves about it for core strength. As a runner he was experiencing IT Band discomfort at the knee. Did loads of googling and reading about possible causes and solutions but a few Pilates classes later and the resulting core strength eliminated any and all issues.
Aside from that, basic advice from physios and surgeons alike was "keep active". I kept a diary in the early part of this year in a bid to narrow down what made things worse. Not riding my bike definitely makes it worse! As I start to get fitter -not race fit, but on my way, it has got better as well. It's easier to move my own weight around -constant pain becomes a bit tiring after a while.
With regards my racing, it's been a bit frustrating not being fit enough to kick it with the roadies on a Tuesday night, but more important is the bigger picture. I hope to have built a stronger platform for race form to work off, come the autumn. I imagine it like stripping down a battered old Land Rover and then galvanising the chassis prior to a rebuild.
I wanted to share my epiphany and I hope this puts things into a bit of perspective or simply makes it easier to get your head around the reasons why people go on about it. Don't underestimate it, don't ignore it.