If you live most of your life without chronic pain then a stint at the pain-factory tends to not only be a humbling experience but also a master-class in not being flippant with others who spend much of their time in the pain-machine. When you are in the grip of physical pain, it seems to soak up all available light and all happy thoughts. It’s hard to think beyond it. It totally sucks.
This past October, I was prepping for my last trail race of the year and planning thereafter to take a month off from long distance running. The plan was to chill then begin ramping up again in December for my big running project in the Italian Dolomites next July. It was a crazy month with work, the arrival of the Syrian family we were sponsoring, and just feeling overwhelmed with stress. On the day I drove out to pick-up the Syrian family at the airport, my lower back gave notice. It was difficult to straighten up and my pain levels went from a flat line to about 7-8 on a scale of 10. I was freaking out and worried that this wasn’t just a passing thing – that maybe it was permanent – that I’d always have to live with pain (yes, I tend toward the dramatic).
I immediately began using my TENS and EMS machine, which sends electrical currents through muscles and tendons – increasing blood flow and stimulates the area applied. I was hoping it would release whatever was gripping my back. Nothing. I lay on a Lacrosse ball, using various pressure points to try to release things. I also stretched for an hour a day. Still nothing. Then I jumped on the internet and researched lower back pain.
And there it was. My lower back pain wasn’t lower back pain. I had a problem with my ass. Well, my gluteus medius, to be precise. The source of the issue was an imbalance of my glute muscles. My gluteus maximus were way stronger than my underdeveloped medius muscles that link the leg bone to the upper buttock. If you stand on one leg and you’re wobbling all over the place, there’s a good chance you medius needs to be strengthened.
Despite my pain, I continued going to the gym, carefully trying to unlock my back and strengthen my glutes. It was there that a competitive weightlifter tipped me off to the HIP CIRCLE, a thick rubber band. I immediately bought one and followed some online videos (see below). My back pain literally vanished within a few days (OK, maybe a week with a pain level of 1-2). It was perhaps the closest thing I’d experienced to a miracle since the birth of my son.
How to use a hip circle: Step into the rubber hip circle and place just above the knees. A warm up can include walking backwards and forwards, side to side, and squat with the focus on keeping your legs pressed slightly out to fully engage those glutes. By waking up and activating the glutes they can do their job instead of sleeping through your workouts and forcing other muscle groups to compensate (which is so often the cause of injuries for both athletes and non-athletes). It’ll also help activate the abdominal muscles and improve balance.
When I began using a hip circle, I noticed that walking forward and backward wasn’t too challenging, but when moving sideways, my medius glutes burned terribly! I knew right away that they were the weak link and that they’d need to be strengthened to prevent future issues.
So as much as stretching is important, it isn’t the magic bullet for injury prevention. Activating key muscles, particularly big muscles like the glutes, can help ensure those muscles play an active role in your daily life — whether walking to the store or working out — helping to keep your body in balance and hopefully injury free.
Here is a helpful video that provides tips for using a hip circle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=if_MbHiy87w