Dealing with back pain is a common issue, but there are some things runners can do to continue running pain-free and prevent persistent lower back issues.
The first part of evaluating your symptoms is to determine whether or not your pain is muscular or something more serious, like a disc. While it’s always best to see a doctor if the pain is severe or doesn’t go away, you can usually distinguish between the two.
A generalized tight or achy feeling in the lower back that occurs during running is likely the result of muscle spasms. Pain may increase with movement or any twisting motion of the spine. Tightness or stiffness in the lower back is also common following a run.
If your pain is disc related, you may have radiating pain that begins in the lower back and moves down into the gluteal region or legs. This type of nerve-related pain gets worse when you bend forward or backward, as will the radiating symptoms. If you suspect nerve or disc involvement, see a specialist to determine the exact cause and course of treatment.
For runners, back pain is usually caused by weakness, inflexibility and the inactivity of surrounding muscles. For example, if you know you have a weak gluteus medius and tight hamstrings, other muscles around the spine may be forced to pick up the workload. As the miles start to multiply, the added stress to smaller muscle groups can cause the back to spasm, signaling the need for a break.
Another common cause of muscular back pain for runners is hours of inactivity. For anyone with an office job who commonly spends long hours sitting at a desk throughout the day, poor posture and inactivity of core muscles like the gluteus maximus and medius could be the culprit. This can lead to inflexible hip flexors and hamstrings and a lack of core stability. As a result, when you go for a run, these core muscles that have been asleep for most of the day might have a hard time waking up. This can place more stress on the spine and the surrounding muscles for support during your workout.
Inflexibility of the hip flexors and hamstrings can also cause anterior or posterior pelvic tilt (forward or backward rotation), causing the lower part of the spine to flex in one direction or the other. Maintaining a neutral spine with good posture is key for hours spent at your desk and while you’re training, but to do so you’ll need to correct any weakness issues of the core muscle groups surrounding the hips and spine.
TREATMENT AND PREVENTION
For muscular-related spasms or pain, take a few days off from running and see if your symptoms subside. Icing for 20 minutes a few times per day can help relieve soreness and decrease inflammation in the area. You may want to see a physical therapist for specific exercises to strengthen your weaker muscles. No matter what, monitor your pain closely when you’re running post-injury.
You’ll also want to begin working on your flexibility by stretching any muscles groups that are tight. Though tight hip flexors and hamstrings are common, don’t overlook your quadriceps, internal and external hip rotators and piriformis muscles. Foam rolling the hamstrings and lower back can also help work the tension out of these muscles, just be careful not to overdo it. If you experience pain, it’s best to stop.
As for prevention, once your pain has subsided you’ll want to begin a dedicated strengthening routine that focuses on core strength. This helps stabilize the spine and provides more support to the area while you run. Hip, gluteal, stomach and back exercises are all part of the equation, and focusing on these areas helps improve your posture and power your forward motion as you run. If you aren’t sure where to get started, give these five exercises a try.
For anyone who works in an office or sits for long periods during the day, getting into the habit of waking up the gluteal muscles before you go out for a run is also recommended. Doing so activates this important muscle group and keeps your back and other muscles from being overworked. While strengthening these muscles each week is important, you can also do a few gluteal exercises before your workout begins to get them going. Here are a few glute exercises you can try as a part of a warmup before you head out for a run.