Low back pain doesn’t discriminate. It affects 80% of people at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. So it makes sense that runners (and other exercisers) are no stranger to back pain. A study published in January in the Journal of Biomechanics proposed that one culprit may be weak deep core muscles.
Researchers had 80 runners without low back pain run across a floor with sensors embedded in it to measure the force under runners’ feet as they ran. The runners also sported reflective markers so the scientists could see how different parts of their bodies moved as they ran.
From this, the scientists created a computer model of each runner that allowed them to “turn off” certain muscles and see how other parts of the body compensated. They found turning off the deep core muscles — those that stabilize the spine — changed forces in the lumbar spine. “Based on this increased shear force, [weak deep core muscles] might be risk factor for developing low back pain,” says senior study author Ajit Chaudhari, PhD, FACSM.
But this is theoretical, says online running coach Greg McMillan. “We don’t know for sure the pain is caused by weakness in those muscles,” he says, adding that low back pain is probably no more common in runners than in the overall population.
That said, he agrees a strong, stable core is important for runners — and most are doing core-training workouts. “A better-developed core will help you hold your body in proper position when running,” he explains. “This is a great step in the direction of avoiding injury and performing better. Do core training, and you will see a big difference.”
Although there is little scientific evidence of the best exercises to strengthen runners’ deep core muscles, both Chaudhari and McMillan recommend anything that makes you stabilize your core, such as planks, dead bugs and even loaded squats. Try these exercises from McMillan’s Runner’s Core Routine. He recommends core training 1–3 days a week for runners. (Always consult a doctor or physical therapist before beginning a new exercise routine if you have low back pain or a history of low back pain.)
Start in a pushup position resting on your forearms instead of your hands. Your body will form a straight line from your ears to your ankles. Engage your core muscles and hold for 10 seconds. Do 3 reps, resting 10 seconds between reps. Over time, work up to 3 reps of 45 seconds each.
Rest on your side, propping yourself up on your forearm. Place your feet heel to toe or stack them for more challenge. Lift your hips so your body forms a straight line from ears to ankles. Hold for 10 seconds. Do not let your hips rotate forward or backward. Do 3 reps, resting for 10 seconds in between. Repeat on the opposite side. Over time, work up to 3 reps of 45 seconds each.
Lie faceup on the floor. Place your hands slightly under your hips and raise your straight legs up to 90 degrees. Pull your belly button toward the ground, tighten your low back against the ground and slowly lower your legs toward the ground. As soon as you feel your low back begin to arch, raise your legs back to the starting position. Do 10 reps. Over time, work up to 20 reps. Rest 1–2 minutes after this exercise.
Lie faceup on the floor. Put your hands out to the side with your palms down. (Your body will form a T shape.) Raise your straight legs up to 90 degrees, pull your belly button toward the ground and tighten your low back against the ground. Lower your legs to one side. As they touch the ground, reverse direction and lower your legs to the other side. That’s 1 rep. Do 5 reps. Over time, work up to 15 reps.
Starting in a doorway or against the wall for support, carefully climb onto a physioball so you’re kneeling on it. Once stable, release your hands and balance. Hold for 5 seconds. Over time, work up to 15 seconds.