“Racing destroys backs!”
Show-ey title? ‘Check’. Controversial statement? Also ‘Check’.
I’ve worked in motor sport for 20 years, at all levels from karting to Formula 1. During that time, the very worst of backs I’ve seen have been in racing drivers that had an extensive history of karting in their childhood. It’s no exaggeration to say that most racing kids I see today demonstrate spinal problems I might expect to see in people in their 50s, 60’s or 70’s, people who have lived, worked and challenged their backs through a lifetime. The question is why?
Simply put, a spine that is ‘growing up’, needing to develop strength and stability, alignment and capability, does not like to be placed in a fixed curved position for lap after lap, hour after hour, day after day, weekend after weekend. Sometimes when I see a young driver’s test and race schedule, I really do think a limit needs to be imposed to protect them from themselves. An example from America is where young baseball pitchers (the ball throwers) are limited to a certain number of throws per day to avoid potential for elbow deformity…
When viewed from behind, a spine should be straight with the bones stacked neatly on top of one another. When viewed from the side, there should be 3 visible curves; an inward one at the neck; an outward one between the shoulder blades and an inward one at the lower back. There is a fourth curve, at the tailbone, but functionally it has little to do with performance, pointing mildly forward in a male, pointing directly down on a female. Whenever the spine deviates from this fundamental pattern of strength and stability, it is no longer the pillar of control it is meant to be and that will have consequences if ignored.
To assess whether a spine is starting to demonstrate signs of ‘poor’ health, there are 3 relatively easy things that a racing driver and a parent can do; all what is needed is a camera phone.
Have the racer in a pair of shorts and take a picture of them from behind in their usual standing posture. Things to look for are:
Is the head vertical; is it tilted to one side?
Are the shoulders level with each other?
Do the shoulder blades appear to almost protrude through the skin?
Does their torso appear to be central over their bottom or it is being drawn towards one side?
Where are they wearing their shorts? Is the ‘belt’ line level or does it tilt to one side?
Have the racer turn to their left side, take a picture, then have them turn to their right side and take another picture.
Is their neck ‘poking’ forward?
Are their shoulders ‘rounded’ or droopy?
Can you see shoulder blades ‘poking’ out from their backs?
Is their abdomen protruding?
Are the shorts angled downwards at the front and upwards at the back?
The bottom should be under the shoulders… does the bottom appear to be pointing out from behind the body?
- i) Ask the driver to bend forward, reaching as far as comfortable. Position yourself to the side.
Is there a smooth ‘C’ shaped curved from base of neck to the lowest point of their back?
Are there any ‘flat’ spots between the base of the neck and the lowest point of their back?
- ii) Ask the driver to bend forward and reach as far as comfortable a second time. Position yourself behind the racer.
Look to see if either side of the rib-cage seems to be higher than the other.
The next thing is the “So what?” factor… what consequences does having poor spinal health mean to a driver? Well the analogy I always use is the ‘flat spot’ consequence. A flat spot is just a part of a tyre that has undergone unusual strain and now has been deformed… but that deformation, lap after lap, starts to affect the handling of the car. The consequence is that, with each lap, parts of the car are having to deal with increasing stress they are not meant to deal with. Whilst the car can keep lapping, the handling is compromised and those other ‘parts’ are starting to wear much quicker than what they are meant to… ultimately there will be failure either with the tyre (the start of the problem) or elsewhere (a consequence of the problem). When a spine is not working right, the shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and feet undertake much more unhelpful or unusual load… there will be failure, it’s purely a question of where and when?
Having performed these 3 tasks, taking time to observe posture in real time and having some pictures of it, just helps develop a little understanding of how racing can treat a spine. Additionally, it can help perhaps the racer or parent think about preparing the spine for a racing career.
In the next article, we’ll look at how simple things, done well and frequently, can help a spine be a little more robust.
Rehab Conditioning Coach
Porsche Human Performance
Author: Gerard Gray
Gerard Gray – Rehab Conditioning Coach for Porsche Human Performance. Fitness Editor for Junior Torque