Lower Back Pain From Running (Causes and Expert Tips)
We asked a group of fitness experts about why lower back pain from running can happen and what to do about it
Have you been struggling with lower back pain during or after running?
If so, you’re not alone. Lower back pain is a common issue which can have a wide range of causes, some of which can be related to running.
We asked a group of fitness experts for the lowdown on lower back pain and running to find out more about some of its common causes and look at ways to prevent it.
Here’s what they said.
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Poor Form Is A Major Contributor To Back Pain While Running
Brian Joyce, Physical Therapist at ProRehab
A sudden change in training (for example, increased mileage or speed) represents 70 per cent of running injuries, which includes the development of lower back pain.
The research tells us that 10 to 14 days is an estimated timeline for proper tissue adaptation so ideally, changes in training mileage should be increased in a similar fashion, usually in increments of 10 per cent.
Also, it is recommended that the longest run distance does not exceed 25 per cent of the total weekly mileage. Speed workouts are best added to training after several weeks of easy running.
It’s also best to avoid increasing speed workout mileage or intensity while also increasing total weekly mileage.
Poor form is also a big contributor to back pain while running. This is usually one of two types:
The first is poor alignment in the sagittal plane, in other words, an excessive lean forward while you run, which puts an extra load on your lower back muscles and causes lower back pain over time.
The other posture problem is excessive lumbar extension, or exaggerated curvature. This is the opposite of the excessive forward lean and can also result in lower back pain.
This posture is likely caused by weak abdominal muscles combined with excessive tone of the lower back muscles.
Some of the treatments and remedies for lower back pain from running are:
• Heat vs ice depends on the stage of the injury. Generally ice if the injury is recent (acute) and heat if more chronic.
However, in the lower back, heat tends to be helpful since often lower back pain is not an inflammatory issue and heat can help relax the muscles.
• An assessment of functional movement patterns will help identify the mobility and/or stability issues an individual runner has and will determine what manual techniques and exercises are needed to alleviate the lower back pain. But here are a few common ones:
• Exercises for stability: Bridging, bird dog exercise, 1/2 kneeling chops/lifts, deadlifts
• Quad stretching and/or hamstring stretching can also help depending on the presentation of the runner
After injury and before returning to running, a gait assessment should be done to make adjustments to prevent future back pain.
Cadence is an important aspect that can be measured during the gait assessment and tracked during retraining.
Optimal cadence is around 180 steps/min. Lower cadence is associated with over-striding and less efficiency with running form.
Excessive up and down and side to side movement can also cause running injuries and will be identified during a gait assessment.
Here are some tips for preventing lower back pain from running:
• Maintaining a stable core through exercises targeting the deep lumbar spine muscles and abdominal muscles will help prevent lower back injury from running. See the exercises above.
• Hip stability exercises are also very important, since any weakness in hip control also puts excessive strain on the lower back.
Examples of good hip exercises are Frankenstein walk, hip circles, clamshell exercise, lateral step ups (with weights).
Stretch Your Quads And Strengthen Your Core
Shaun Toh, Physiotherapist and Founder of FHYSIO
There are many possible reasons why runners suffer from lower back pain. It is quite common to find runners with pre existing back problems exacerbated by running due to repeated stress on their lower back muscles.
If we had to pinpoint a few common causes, the first would be weak core muscles (which are major muscles that help you move, support, and stabilize your spine).
A strong core is like having a strong foundation built into your hips and pelvis. It will help you to cope with and absorb that high impact from running. Without a strong core, you will find it hard to maintain good posture and your other muscles start to overcompensate.
Another reason could be tight quad muscles, which will pull your pelvis bone forward and increase the arch in your spine, leading to additional pressure on lower back muscles.
The other usual suspects include poor running gait, old and improper running shoes and overpronation of your feet (when you try to flatten your feet and your foot and ankle lean inwards).
The best treatments and remedies are the ones that address the common causes of lower back pain.
Two important activities are stretching of lower limb muscles and strengthening of the core muscles.
Stretching your quads is key, because the muscles cross over your hip and impact the arch of your spine.
A simple quad stretch can be standing upright and pulling your shin towards the back of your thigh. Hold that position for half a minute.
To strengthen your core muscles, Planks are great. You can also vary it up with some Russian Twists or Windshield Wipers. They also build good rotational core strength which helps with overall movement and running performance.
Lastly, a simple tip is to use running shoes which fit your feet and have adequate support. One of the biggest mistakes a runner could make is to buy the latest and trendiest running shoes without understanding if they fit their foot arch type and gait.
Sometimes, your muscles get tight while running so it may be a good idea to split up your run to stretch in between.
We always recommend that you build up your running mileage progressively – going too fast or far in a single session puts too much stress on your muscles which can cause misalignment in your hips and spine.
If you find that stretching does not help enough, try some self-myofascial release on those tight muscles. This could mean getting yourself some massage balls or rollers to help roll out that tightness.
Lastly, pay attention to the surface you are running on. There is less impact and stress on your back when you run on softer grounds. It might help to start on soft grass before progressing to hard, concrete grounds.
It’s highly beneficial for runners to cross train and add in different forms of exercises.
Swimming is a great complimentary exercise. This is because it will help to strengthen other muscles and other components like proprioception (your sense and awareness of body position).
The other tip is to go for a sports massage to iron out the tight muscles before running. This is extremely helpful if you are planning for a marathon.
A qualified sports massage therapist will also be able to guide you on which areas you need to strengthen and loosen, too.
Work On Strengthening Your Core
Jamie King, Yoga Instructor, Ultra-Runner and Founder of Flex & Flow
Here are some of my tips for preventing lower back pain:
• Work on core strength – I can’t stress enough how important the core is when it comes to running!
When our back and abdominals are weak, we have less control while running, which can create vulnerability in our lower backs.
The more tired we get while running, the more we need our core to stay active and engaged to help us control our movements, and keep our posture strong, so that we don’t over-stress our spine (which can ultimately lead to lower back pain).
The best way I’ve found to support good posture while running is to maintain a regular yoga practice and, of course, incorporate core work in my regular training.
• Focus on strengthening your hamstrings, hips and glutes – Runners tend to be weak in their hamstrings, glutes and hips—and the instability that comes from those weaknesses can lead to joint irritation, which can result in lower back pain.
The more you strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, and hips, the more efficient your stride, and the less likely you’ll experience pain in the lower back.
• Shorten your stride – A good rule of thumb is that if you can see your foot when you stride forward, your stride is too long.
Ideally, your ankle and knee will be in line when your foot hits the ground.
• Relax your body (especially your shoulders!) – Tensing through your neck and shoulders restricts your arm movements, which are essential to maintaining balance and rhythm as you run.
Try to release tension from your shoulders so that your arms can better support you in a fluid, easy stride and help share the work with your legs.
Focus On Your Feet, Your Pelvis And Your Head Position
Tori Hall, Pilates and Yoga Instructor
There are a few areas to focus on if you get lower back pain from running.
• Your feet – Is the toe box of your shoe wide enough? If you are unsure, trace the shape of your bare foot on a piece of paper and then place your shoe on top.
Our feet are the first shock absorbers of the body – if your foot is narrowed, it cannot properly absorb the impact of running.
Also, look at how flexible the sole of the shoe is. Ideal human movement allows for 90 degrees of flexion in the big toe as you push your foot off the floor.
I highly recommend using toe spacers before or after a run. I recommend them to all of my pilates clients and the dancers I work with.
Additionally, you should open up the bottoms of the feet with myofascial release. A lacrosse ball is great for this, and you don’t need to worry about a fancy technique. Find a tight spot and apply some pressure breathing deeply the whole time.
• Your pelvis – It is quite common for people to have an anteriorly tilted pelvis, which creates a hyperlordotic curve in the lower back.
What does that mean? Your hips tilt forward, which puts your back in an arched position. Your pelvis can also be tilted, posteriorly or in a tucked position which will cause back pain as well.
The tucked position goes against the natural curve of the lower back. How do you fix this? It’s more than just strengthening your core. You need to adjust your movement patterns.
A lot of times, especially if your legs are tight, as is often the case for runners, your pelvis moves when your legs move. When your pelvis moves out of a neutral position it pulls on the lower back.
When you are doing core exercises or leg stretches try to bring awareness to where you are moving from. Is it your leg? Your hips? Your back? It is worth investing in a quality personal trainer or pilates instructor.
• Principle of reciprocal inhibition – When you activate one muscle, the opposite muscle group will let go in order to perform movement at a joint.
For example, when you extend your hips, your glutes engage, and your psoas (hip flexor) has to let go in order to allow movement.
The stronger your glutes are, the less tight your hip flexors will be.
Also, look at strengthening your glutes with some bridge type exercises. This will develop strength through your glutes and allow the hip flexors to release the tight hold on the pelvis.
• Forward head position – This is also known as text neck and it can throw off your posture from the upper half of the body.
Our bodies are amazing and really smart, if your head is hanging off and forward your middle back (thoracic spine) extends to help you look eye level. Then, your lower back has to adjust because the cervical spine and thoracic spine are trying to move against their natural curves.
The spine should have an S shape. With the cervical and lumbar spine going inward, concave and the the thoracic spine in the middle going outward, convex.
How can you fix this? Put your back against a wall. The back of your skull, your shoulder blades and your sacrum (the lower back just above your butt) should touch the wall.
Actively pull your head back into the wall like you are trying to give yourself a double chin. This will activate the deep cervical flexors and help counter the forward head position.