Hi! This is a series about my journey into the world of men’s league/rec league hockey in southeastern Virginia. Having never played before at the age of 24 I decided I wanted to, and thought I’d share my thoughts along the journey. Is it great? Am I an idiot? Have tips? Feel free to let me know!
Herniated disk. Spinal Stenosis. Arthritis. Ankylosing spondylitis. Lumbago. Google can bring up some scary sounding stuff when it comes to lower back pain. Skating and playing hockey has often left my lower back feeling stiff and in pain. It was recently brought to my attention that I’m not alone in such an endeavor. I couldn’t elaborate to the degree I wanted to on twitter without sounding like a rambling idiot so here’s my take on lower back pain in hockey, my experience (which isn’t so vast) and how to avoid it.
It’s disheartening enough to watch a 6-year-old figure skater dance circles around you. Oh yeah, they think it’s HILARIOUS when they sneak up on you and make you have a heart attack when you’re trying to teach yourself how to skate backwards (not an effective method of learning by the way). Yeah they laugh and they laugh when you dive or stop dead trying to avoid them. But as soon as you actually trip over them there’s an angry mother yelling at you and suddenly you’re the bad guy! Then you say something about it on twitter and JJ from Kansas retweets what you said completely out of context about little girls laughing at you and then you hate everything!!! Alas I digress…
It’s bad enough watching a little kid that can effectively skate ten times better than you. It makes you feel like you’re 40 years older than you actually are. Being in your mid-twenties and experiencing lower back pain to the point where it’s difficult to walk or move makes you wonder why you haven’t been receiving a social security check and when Matlock comes on. Like any other sport, you can’t dive right into it and expect your body to be able to handle it (so I learned). Hockey is incredibly physically demanding and one’s muscles have to be able to handle it. I’ve mentioned before how I’ve had knee problems and while running makes me feel like my knee is destroyed, skating has relatively little impact on it (for me at least). However, my back still experiences a lot of issues. Which makes sense. My lower back is absorbing every stride and more importantly every stop. A few people have given me advice and why not share such advice? I will break this down by the four pieces of advice people say they hear a lot of.
Stick is Too Short
Figuring out the right stick length is a pain in the ass and there’s no real way around it. I’m not saying I’ve figured out a perfect formula for it but this is simply my experience with it. When I went to buy my first stick, I was told by the folks at the sporting goods store that the blade of the stick should come up to my nose when I’m wearing shoes, or up to my chin/lower lip when I’m on skates. This led me to purchase an intermediate length stick. (54 inches) Others have told me it should come up to my forehead, and I’ve heard just about everything in between. It’s tough to say who’s right but when an Hampton Roads Whalers junior coach called to me one day “You know your stick is about 6 inches too short right?” I’m going to assume the coach knows what he’s doing because once I got a longer stick I was bending over a lot less and was way more comfortable with my stick. But what works for one person may not work for another. Rick Nash is someone who is pointed to often for having an unusual stick set up. He’s 6’4” and uses a stick shorter than most players his height. But his arms are so long it works for him. (or so I’m told) But what does he know? He only won a Rocket Richard Trophy.
My conclusion: Find out what works best for you as an individual. Buy something long, you can always cut it later. But if you’re stick is shorter than it should be, you will most likely end up bending over more, which would strain your back more than you need to.
You’re Not Bending Your Knees (enough)
I had to learn this one the hard way and it’s probably the cause of the most of my back pain (aside from having a back that wasn’t doing too well to begin with). Apparently a common problem among first time hockey players is they play standing straight up and pushing with most of his or her back. By bending one’s knees a little, it puts most of the impact on the thighs, muscles capable of taking much more impact than the lumbar region. Myself, I haven’t’ been athletic for a while, so these muscles aren’t quite as well developed as maybe they should be. It’s hard for me to keep myself in a skating position where my knees are always bent; my legs just can’t handle it. But I’m getting there. And after a pick-up game my back is stiff and I can barely get off the couch. However, I have noticed that I can go longer with my knees bent than when I first started playing. It’s a process.
My conclusion: always skate with your knees bent and try to stay there. It’ll take a lot of getting used to but your back will thank you for it eventually. There’s no reason to skate standing straight up, and I’ve also observed that the pros always seem to be bent down a little as well. Knees bent, back straight.
Stretch More or Underdeveloped Muscles
I’ll do my best to explain this while sparing you the biochemistry lesson (although potassium and sodium are quite important for the peripheral nervous system…). A sports clinic close to the rink was advertising a free injury clinic for athletes. Free face time with a doctor? I’ll take it! The doctor examined me and felt out my back and abdomen. Without a hernia or serious spinal misalignments to speak of the doctor concluded that my core muscles were weak. He said it in a much politer manner, but that was essentially the gist. Not an inaccurate statement at all. The doctor shared with me a few stretches I could do to loosen up a bit and I’ll say this of stretching- in the military we spent about 15-20 minutes of every exercise session stretching. It’s doubtful we’d spend that much time doing it if it weren’t important. It’s a simple thing that can be done to prevent injury. Do it and do it right. You can find a few good stretches here.. Personally the stretches I find most helpful on the ice involve bending straight down and touching one’s feet. Stretches the hamstring and also the back a bit. Additionally, leaning back on one’s hips and doing it repeatedly is something I like to do prior to playing as well.
My conclusion: developing muscles will take some time and patience (as well as some protein before playing or working out. Just sayin…). Stretching is essential to preventing injury, find out what works best for you.
Back pain could be related to injuries or back problems too. I’m not a doctor, so keep in mind that’s also possible. And it makes way more sense to talk to someone that knows what he or she is doing rather than some blogger. I hope this has been helpful, let me know if you have other things to add. I hope all your backs feel better!
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