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Low Back Pain and Running: Strategies for Relief and Prevention

Low Back Pain and Running: Strategies for Relief and Prevention

Low back pain is a challenge that many runners face, potentially hindering performance and diminishing the joy of running. Despite the many health benefits associated with running, the repetitive impact and the demands it places on the body can sometimes lead to discomfort or injury, particularly in the lower back. This comprehensive blog post aims to shed light on the causes of low back pain in runners, alongside providing actionable strategies for prevention and management, enabling runners to maintain their stride without compromise to their well-being.

Unraveling the Causes of Low Back Pain in Runners

Understanding the root causes of low back pain is crucial for effective prevention and treatment. Here are several factors that can contribute to this discomfort:

Muscle Imbalances and Weakness: Weak core muscles can fail to adequately support the lower back during running, leading to pain. Similarly, imbalances between muscle groups can put uneven stress on the spine.

  • Poor Running Form: Improper running mechanics, such as overstriding or a pronounced forward lean, can increase stress on the lower back. 
  • Impact Forces: The repetitive impact of running, especially on hard surfaces, can jolt the spine, leading to discomfort. Even running too hard or loudly on your feet can be a factor.
  • Previous Injuries: Runners with a history of back injuries may be more susceptible to experiencing low back pain. Research is clear that those with a previous history of back pain are at higher risk of back pain in the future.
  • Tight Muscles: Tightness in the hamstrings, hip flexors, and lower back can restrict movement and cause pain.

Prevention: A Proactive Approach

Preventing low back pain is about addressing its potential causes before they become problematic. Here are key strategies:

  • Strengthen the Core: Engage in exercises that strengthen the core muscles, including the abdominals, obliques, and lower back, to provide better support for the spine. In general, less time spent on crunches and situps with more time spent on extensor strengthening (think glutes, low back) is more advantageous. In fact, we often discourage the use of situps and crunches altogether when it comes to strengthening the core.
  • Improve Flexibility: Regular stretching and mobility exercises can alleviate tightness in the hamstrings, hip flexors, and lower back, promoting better alignment and reducing strain. That being said, sometimes tightness is a protective mechanism for weakness. So if you keep stretching something without any long term benefit, it might be time to consider strengthening it. 
  • Optimize Running Form: Work with a running coach or physical therapist to refine your running technique, ensuring a posture and stride that minimize stress on the lower back. Even just working on reducing the impact with which your foot contacts the ground can be an effective strategy. 
  • Cross-Training: Incorporate low-impact cross-training activities, such as swimming or cycling, to maintain fitness while reducing the cumulative impact on the back. Athletes who avoid specialization in a specific sport have a reduced risk of injury.
  • Proper Footwear: Wear running shoes that offer adequate support and suit your foot type and running style, helping to absorb shock and reduce the load on your back. Interestingly, shoes with less support actually offer more shock absorption than those with more as running on cushioned shoes reduces the body’s ability to quickly react to each step on the ground while running.

Management and Recovery: Getting Back on Track

Management and Recovery: Getting Back on Track

For runners experiencing low back pain, several approaches can facilitate recovery and manage symptoms:

  • Rest and Modify Activity: Initially, reducing running intensity or taking a short break may be necessary to allow for healing. That being said, prolonged running (weeks/months) from running is usually in vain and can actually lead to worse problems.
  • Apply Heat or Cold: Using heat packs can relax tight muscles, while cold packs can reduce inflammation in the affected area. That being said, it is often overutilized
  • Physical Therapy: A physical therapist (i.e. FREEDOM PT 😀) can design a personalized program to address specific issues contributing to your pain/weakness, from strengthening weak muscles to improving flexibility.
  • Pain Relief Medication: Over-the-counter pain relievers can be used in the short term to manage pain, though they should not be seen as a long-term solution.
  • Alternative Treatments: Some runners find relief through alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, or yoga, which can complement traditional treatment methods. At Freedom PT, we dry needle our clients when appropriate.

Embracing a Holistic Approach

Addressing low back pain in runners requires a holistic approach that considers physical conditioning, running technique, and recovery practices. By understanding the common causes of back pain and implementing preventative measures, runners can significantly reduce their risk of experiencing discomfort.

Final Reflections

Low back pain doesn’t have to be a roadblock in your running journey. With the right strategies in place, it’s possible to manage and even prevent this common ailment, ensuring that you can continue to reap the benefits of running for both physical and mental health. Remember, listening to your body and responding proactively to signs of discomfort is key to maintaining a healthy and enjoyable running practice. If you have any questions for us, please feel free to shoot us a text or give us a call!

A young man in a white sweater standing in a wooded area.

Dr. John DeVries

Freedom Physical Therapy and Wellness

We help those frustrated with their current physical status get back to doing the things they enjoy.