Low back pain is the largest cause of disability, affecting nearly 80 percent of people in the United States at some point in their lifetime.1
For runners, the compressive load during foot strike is between 2.7-5.7x body weight, which can contribute to back pain.1 That said, there is no consensus on whether running is a risk factor for developing low back pain, with some research suggesting a weak association of low back pain with elite competitive runners.2 However, since there is a high prevalence of low back pain in daily activities, it is not uncommon for runners to experience pain in the lumbar spine (lower back) during training. Here are three ways to help combat low back pain in runners.
The spine has three natural curves that allow the body to stay erect and absorb force during locomotion. While running, it is common to see an excessive arch or a rounded lower back. Both of these compensations can lead to increased stress on spinal tissues and possible pain. Prior to running, runners can use a mirror to determine if their low back is too arched, too flat or in a neutral position. Runners can also request an appointment at Athletico for a video gait analysis. At the end of the analysis, the patient will receive individualized comments and images of their running gait, along with tips, exercises and critiques to help maximize running performance.
One way the spine is protected is by having large muscles groups to help maintain the neutral spine position. The “core” muscles include the abdominal muscles as well as the back and leg muscles. For more information about the core, read Athletico’s “What is the Core of My Body?”
Although the traditional exercise for improving core strength is sit ups, there are other alternatives that improve strength without stressing the spine. Planks and supermans, for example, are both good exercise options because they help to improve strength while maintaining the neutral spine when performed correctly.
The gluteal muscles are the largest muscles in the body and are commonly underutilized due to the high prevalence of sitting during daily activities. The gluteal muscles work to propel the body forward and also protect the low back from stress. When the gluteal muscles are weak, more stress can be forced on the low back, which can potentially lead to pain. The easiest way to improve strength of the gluteal muscles is with bodyweight exercises like bridges, planks, side planks, bird dogs and hip abduction raises.
If you are a runner that is experiencing back pain, consider taking the next step by scheduling a free assessment with a physical therapist. Doing so will give you specific direction to help you run without back pain.
Free assessments are available in-clinic and virtually through our Telehealth platform.
The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.
1. Seay, Joseph F., Richard E. A. Van Emmerik, and Joseph Hamill. “Influence of Low Back Pain Status on Pelvis-Trunk Coordination During Walking and Running.” Spine36.16 (2011): n. pag. Web.
2. Räty HP, Kujala UM, Videman T, Impivaara O, Crites Battié M, Sarna S. “Lifetime musculoskeletal symptoms and injuries among former elite male athletes.” Int J Sports Med. 1997 Nov;18(8):625-32.
3. Ribaud A, Tavares I, Viollet E, Julia M, Hérisson C, Dupeyron A. “Which physical activities and sports can be recommended to chronic low back pain patients after rehabilitation?” Ann Phys Rehabil Med. 2013 Oct;56(7-8):576-94