Back care, ten minutes at a time
Imagine a rowing world where no rower rowed for more than ten minutes consecutively and no rower suffered a back injury. That is what Bob Cummins, Doctor of Chiropractic envisions.
Unlike common training practices of including long, continuous rowing session, Cummins says keep it short. “The most common injury in rowing is the low back injury. Rowing for long distances, or long intervals at high intensity, is a sure way to injure your back,” says Cummins.
Cummins is a rower, having started at the junior level, progressing through university rowing and finally winning a World Championship title in the USA men’s eight at the 1997 World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, France.
He then transitioned to Chiropractic work. For Cummins the connection between rowing and Chiropractic was clear. “I immediately knew that it was the right thing to do,” he says. Now, he sees a wide variety of patients, but his connection to the sport of rowing has led him to some controversial conclusions.
He recently presented his findings at the Rowing and Wellness Symposium in Seattle, Washington, USA which brought together health and wellness experts to discuss rowing injury prevention, nutrition, physiology and more.
And what is it that he recommends? Rest.
“For example, instead of doing one time 40 minutes, do four times ten minutes with one minute rest,” says Cummins. “The back actually has its own recovery period. If you continue to load the spine without giving it a break, it will continue to degenerate.”
Cummins compares each rowing stroke to picking up a heavy weight from the ground. The weight is transmitted from the legs through the spine all the way to the fingertips. This force compresses the spine. “Unfortunately, we were not designed to row and we weren’t designed to lift heavy weights all day. When you put this compressive force on the spine and you do that for thousands and thousands of times without giving the spine a rest, it breaks down.”
Cummins explains the importance of the anatomy of the back. The large muscles, the ones you can see when looking at the back, control the movement of the spine. But underneath there are small, but important muscles that have two functions. One is to hold the spine stable, not to move the bones. Secondly, within these small muscles are nerve receptors that send messages to tell the brain how the bones are moving, what the joints are doing. “If those muscles get fatigued the body loses the ability to stabilise that joint and you get more damaging forces into the joint,” says Cummins.
That is just one piece of the puzzle. The other is the disc of cartilage between the vertebrae. Cartilage has plasticity and, with compression on the spine, the cartilage will start to change shape. If the repetition occurs often enough, it can permanently change the shape. “If you take the load off the disc, some of that shape will rebound, it will come back,” says Cummins.
Cummins admits that there has not been a lot of studies, but from his experience resting for anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes is enough time to allow the muscles and the discs to recover.
Another important factor is the stability of the boat itself. If the water is flat, the boat is running well, there is less of a need for the muscles to stabilise the spine. “Imagine there is a wake that comes in and it disturbs the boat,” Cummins explains, “all the little muscles in your spine that are designed to balance, all of those muscles have to adapt to this disturbance in the boat. If those muscles are fatigued and cannot adapt spontaneously, then when you take a stroke and transmit all that force through your spine, the bones will not be in an optimum position and you can get injured.” Therefore it is even more important for young or inexperienced rowers to take frequent breaks and allow their backs to reset, concludes Cummins.
Besides just rest, rowers can also use strength and flexibility training to increase the capacity of the spine to handle the stress that is unavoidable. According to Cummins rowers can do exercises to “maximise the control mechanisms that allow for good stabilisation.” They can also use foam rollers, tennis balls and stretching to release the tension in the back. The combination of reducing overall stress on the spine and increasing the spine’s ability to handle the stress should dramatically decrease the likelihood of injury.
Cummin’s theory steps away from the need for long steady state rowing sessions. So how can rowers achieve the necessary cardiovascular fitness while never rowing more than ten minutes consecutively?
Cummins response: “What you lose by taking breaks is very small and what you gain is very big.” Cummins admits he's not a physiologist, but he would like to see training programmes change. “If you look at the Olympic distance, most of the races are over in six and a half minutes. You don’t need to be doing hour of power. If you feel like you need to do longer training periods sprinkle that in, but don’t make it the base of your training regime.”