Aches and pains are a common side effect of restarting a running routine. But while you’d expect running-related soreness and pain to hit the legs, some runners find initial soreness hits in less-expected places, like the lower back.
If this sounds familiar, read on. There are a couple reasons your lower back may be shouldering the strain of your renewed running routine.
“Typically, if the lower back is sore, it can mean the muscles or other tissues are compensating for weakness or mobility limitations in other areas,” says Michelle Steege, an orthopedic clinical specialist and physical therapist at Motion Minnesota.
For example, research published in the Journal of Biomechanics suggests running with weak deep core muscles (muscles that support and stabilize your spine and pelvis, like the quadratus lumborum, multifidus, psoas and spinal erectors) can increase your risk of lower back pain. In particular, running with weak spinal erectors — a group of muscles that help twist and straighten your torso — can cause supporting muscles to kick in with up to 45% more force to compensate, shifting pressure onto your lower back. As you rack up the miles, this increased strain can lead to lower back pain or even injury.
Weakness in the hip muscles (e.g., the glutes, hip adductors, hip abductors and hip flexors) can also contribute to lower back pain from running. For example, weakness in the hip muscles (namely, the hip abductors and gluteus maximus) that help prevent your rear, or supporting leg from buckling when you take a step, may increase the demands on your lower back, Steege says.
“By far the most common reason I see low-back soreness with running is when the amount increases quicker than what your body can tolerate,” Steege says. Increasing your running mileage or frequency too quickly doesn’t give your body time to re-adapt to the stress running can place on your back — especially if surrounding muscles, like the hips and deep core muscles aren’t strong enough to pull their weight.
“Unfortunately, it takes much less time for us to lose muscle mass when we’re inactive than it does to build it up,” Steege says. “For this reason, we need to gradually build back that tolerance of running.” (More on this shortly.)
HOW TO DEAL WITH LOWER BACK SORENESS
In general, it’s best to visit a physical therapist if you’re feeling lower back pain or soreness from running. A physical therapist can watch how you run, and perform specific strength and mobility tests to pin down the exact source of your symptoms, Steege says. With that information, the physical therapist can then design an individualized plan to get you back to running pain-free.
In addition, following these two basic recommendations may help reduce your risk of pain or injury from running:
BUILD UP SLOWLY
You may be tempted to jump back into your running routine with both feet, but for the sake of preventing pain and injury, it’s best to start by dipping your toe in.
Exact starting mileage varies from one runner to the next. However, you may want to start by running no more than 10 miles your first week back. From there, add mileage slowly: “A 10% increase in running volume per week is ideal for reducing the risk of overuse injury,” Steege says. So, if you manage to run 10 miles your first week, aim for no more than 11 miles your second week.
ADD STRENGTH TRAINING
“Strength training is something all runners should be doing regularly,” Steege says. Whether you choose kettlebells, bodyweight-only, heavy barbells or some combination of modalities, it’s important to strengthen the muscles you rely on to get you through a run.
Plus, research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reveals regular strength training can cut sports injuries by 1/3, and overuse injuries by 1/2.
The CDC recommends all adults strength train a minimum of two days per week, making sure to hit as many of your muscle groups as possible (legs, hips, back, abs, chest, shoulders and arms). Not sure where to start? Try this seven-minute total-body dumbbell routine.