Overcome Lower Back Pain When Running

Lower back pain while running, jogging, or even walking, can make every step difficult. But what causes this pain, and how can you overcome it? This article goes straight to the point, exploring the root causes of lower back pain and providing practical strategies to improve your running experience without the discomfort. We will guide you through understanding and tackling this common issue for runners, step by step.

What causes lower back pain in runners?

Enduring lower back pain as a runner can be quite disheartening. It's as if your body is not cooperating with your desire to stay active. This pain can range from a mild, persistent ache to severe, debilitating discomfort. The origins of this pain are diverse, potentially stemming from muscle strain, issues with spinal structures, or even problems with the spinal discs.

Runners might face lower back pain for several reasons, including:

  • herniated discs, where the cushioning in your spine can bulge or rupture1
  • spinal stenosis, which means the space around your spinal cord narrows2
  • muscle strains from overexertion
  • joint inflammation
  • weak core muscles that lead to imbalances
  • overtraining, which can strain the back.

Poor running form

An improper running style is a common culprit behind lower back pain in long-distance runners, increasing their risk of injury and discomfort.

When you run with an awkward form – perhaps overstretching or using one side of your body more than the other – it can upset the balance of your body's mechanics. This imbalance can sometimes lead to pain as your body tries to compensate for the awkward posture, potentially straining the sacroiliac (SI) joint4. If you have pain elsewhere in the body, such as an arthritic knee, a tight hamstring, or even blisters, you might aim to guard and protect that part, and overcompensate in another area.

A gait analysis by a trained professional can identify if something is a little off, and addressing biomechanical issues can provide the most effective relief.

Adjustments made towards achieving correct running form could significantly reduce risks associated with lower back issues. Refining your form requires proper analysis but here are some general guidelines:

  • keep your gaze forward
  • allow your shoulders to remain loose
  • allow your arms to swing in a backward-forward motion
  • elevate the legs from the hip, maintaining alignment
  • ensure gentle footfalls.

Muscle imbalances

Muscle imbalances might seem minor, yet they significantly influence lower back pain. Take, for instance, a scenario in which you have tight muscles in the front of your body and insufficient strength in the muscles behind you. This situation can lead to irritation in the structures of the back, including muscles, joints, and discs, which is particularly true for runners.

Physical therapists excel in spotting these imbalances and weaknesses within the core. They then craft personalized exercise routines aimed at either strengthening or stretching, which helps to ease this kind of lower back discomfort.

Recognizing signs of overuse injuries

Many runners experience persistent lower back pain, which can be attributed to the constant impact of their feet hitting hard surfaces over extended distances. It is crucial to allow the body sufficient time to recover to prevent injuries and avoid exacerbating existing conditions.

Heeding the signals your body sends you is essential. Overlooking the initial signs of pain can lead to more serious injuries and extended periods of rest required for recovery. Implementing a proper recovery routine is indispensable, which should include rest days between running sessions, engaging in low-impact activities like swimming or cycling, and adding flexibility and strength training exercises to ensure muscle equilibrium and spinal health.

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How do you prevent lower back pain when running?

Are you aware that runners who do not warm-up properly are more than twice as likely to experience lower back pain compared to runners who do warm up5?

Doing a dynamic warm-up before running and ending with static stretches can greatly enhance your flexibility, which in turn, helps to prevent back pain. It's a matter of taking the necessary steps to ensure your body is adequately prepared for the physical demands of running.

Dynamic warm-up

For runners, it's vital to start with a dynamic warm-up to prepare the muscles and joints for the demands of running. These warm-up activities help prevent injuries, lessen stiffness, and ready the muscles for the task ahead.

Before setting off on your run, it's wise to dedicate a few extra minutes to warming up. This small commitment can have a substantial effect on both your performance and your safety.

Stretch post-run

After your run, engaging in static stretches is a wise choice to maintain flexibility and prevent the muscles in your lower back from stiffening, which can lead to pain.

Simple stretching exercises such as the cat-cow, child’s pose, and bringing your knees to your chest are particularly effective in reducing tension in the lower back area. Even a short stretching routine can make a significant difference in preventing tightness and discomfort6.

Change the surface you run on

The surface you run on and the shoes you wear are very important for your lower back health. Choosing softer surfaces, such as grass or dirt paths, can help protect your back from the hard impact you get from running on concrete.

Choosing the right running shoes

Not every pair of shoes suit everybody! The correct footwear for you will maintain your body's alignment and lessen spinal stress, so choose shoes that complement your distinct running style. A dedicated running shoe shop or a gait analysis professional can help you find the right shoe for you.

Bear in mind that running shoes have a lifespan. Typically, they require replacement after you've covered a few hundred miles or when you notice diminishing support. Investing in a new pair of running shoes can significantly aid your feet and lower back health.

Exercises to supplement your running efforts

Integrating cross-training into your exercise regimen is a smart strategy for mitigating and warding off lower back pain. Engaging in a variety of physical activities helps work out different muscle groups, which fosters muscle equilibrium and enhances heart health, while also diminishing the repetitive strain placed on your lower back. Collaborating with a physical therapist can bolster your overall physical condition and fortify your lower back, making it more resistant to injuries.

Let's look at some beneficial activities:

  1. Strength training: Incorporating weights or resistance bands can bolster the muscles in your core, glutes, hamstrings, and legs. Stronger muscles offer better support to your lower back, reducing the likelihood of injuries.
  2. Stretching: Consistent stretching can increase your flexibility and ease muscle tension. Focusing on areas like the hamstrings, hip flexors, and lower back can help soothe discomfort and enhance your range of motion.
  3. Swimming: As a low-impact activity, swimming gives you a comprehensive workout without putting pressure on your joints. It also strengthens your core and back muscles, which is good for your overall health.
  4. Cycling: Riding a bike is an excellent cardiovascular exercise that builds endurance and leg strength. It's also gentle on the lower back, which is a plus for your overall fitness.
  5. Yoga: Yoga is a practice that merges flexibility with core strengthening. Regular yoga can stabilize your lower back, correct your posture, and minimize strain on the sciatic nerve.

Pilates

Pilates is an excellent form of exercise that focuses on the core muscles, flexibility, and an awareness of how your body moves. By adding certain Pilates exercises to your routine, you can greatly improve the strength and endurance of your lower back. Here are some Pilates exercises that are particularly good for that:

  1. Pelvic tilts: This exercise strengthens your lower abdominal muscles, which is important for the alignment of your pelvis and the health of your lower back.
  2. Bridges: When you do bridges, you're not only working your glutes and hamstrings, but you're also engaging your lower back and core muscles, which creates a strong base for your spine.
  3. Planks: Both front and side planks are great for core stability. They work several muscle groups at once, including your abs, obliques, and lower back muscles, which contributes to overall core strength.
  4. The saw: This move is good for working your obliques and stretching your hamstrings and spine, which can help with flexibility and core strength.
  5. Roll-ups: Roll-ups strengthen the entire abdominal area and also help with spinal flexibility.
  6. Single straight-leg stretch: This targets the lower abs and is good for improving core stability and control.
  7. Back extension: By strengthening the lower back muscles, this exercise helps with better posture and spinal support.
  8. Pilates push-up with leg lift: This advanced exercise works the entire core, including the glutes and back muscles, and also builds strength in the upper body.
  9. Reverse plank: This targets the muscles along the back of your body, including the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, helping to balance out the muscles that are often overworked from running.

Strength training

Strength training is a key component in building up the muscles that support your lower back. By concentrating on specific muscle groups, you're able to construct a supportive base that safeguards your back against injuries and helps alleviate pain. Using equipment like free weights and resistance bands can be particularly effective in strengthening these areas:

  • Gluteal muscles: Engaging in exercises such as squats and deadlifts fortifies your glutes, which are crucial for lower back support.
  • Hamstrings: By performing exercises like leg curls and Romanian deadlifts, you target the hamstring muscles, ensuring a balance in the muscle structure of your legs and back.
  • Leg muscles: Including exercises like lunges and leg presses helps to build strength in your legs, which in turn provides better support and stability for your lower back.
  • Lower back muscles: Specific exercises aimed at the lower back, such as back extensions and good mornings, are important for enhancing the strength and resilience of these muscles.

Swimming & cycling

Swimming and cycling emerge as superb alternatives for cross-training, exerting minimal impact on the body. The water's buoyancy acts as a cushion for the spinal joints during swimming, offering a soothing option for those suffering from lower back pain. Moreover, the resistance provided by water helps to fortify the muscles surrounding the spine, thus easing the pain.

Cycling, in contrast, encourages a beneficial range of motion and enhances core strength, which can be especially advantageous for individuals grappling with lower back pain. Due to its low-impact characteristics, cycling is an excellent addition to physical therapy programs designed to mitigate back pain.

How to treat lower back pain after running

Even with the greatest care, you might sometimes experience lower back pain.

These home remedies for quick relief can help relieve pain and muscle sprains in the lower back:

  • using a heating pad or applying hot compresses
  • soaking in a warm bath, a hot tub or spending time in a sauna
  • ensuring you get enough sleep
  • staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet
  • over-the-counter pain relief medications if needed.

When to talk to a doctor

If your lower back discomfort is accompanied by serious symptoms such as numbness, tingling sensations, or loss of control over bowel or bladder functions, it's crucial to seek immediate consultation with a healthcare provider.