Back Pain with Running: Why and How to Fix it
Back pain with running is frustrating! It typically shows up a little bit into a run, is present through the rest of your run (to varying degrees), and lingers afterwards. And, it’s an injury that doesn’t make sense. Why does your back hurt if you’re not actually using your back to run?
That’s an excellent question and it’s the main topic we’re going to address. We’ll also touch on what you can do to help resolve back pain with running if that’s something you struggle with.
Back Pain with Running: Technique-Related Issues
Proper running technique means running with a forward lean. This forward lean is a slight forward angle. It’s a forward enough lean that you have to put your foot out and catch yourself to prevent yourself from falling, but not so far forward that you end up tripping over your feet in an attempt to catch your balance.
Utilizing a forward lean allows you to use gravity to your advantage. Instead of having to push yourself forwards, you let gravity assist. This improves running efficiency because you don’t expend as much energy moving forwards. Which, in turn, helps you run faster and further!
Back pain with running shows up when people don’t utilize a forward lean. Instead, they maintain an upright posture and stretch their legs in front of them to pull themselves forward. When this happens, individuals have a tendency to overarch (see the photo below) their lower back.
Why “Neutral” Is So Important
We’re going to take a minute to expand on the “neutral spine” concept. It’s something that gets thrown around a lot, but if you truly ask people what it means, most say they have absolutely no clue why it’s important. (Which, if you think about it, is fair. The why behind this is rarely explained).
Your spine is made up of a series of stacked bones that are connected via joints. Running is an impact sport. Each time you land, muscles contract and joints compress to absorb the force of your foot landing on the ground.
So, each time you land, all the joints in your back compress. When the spine is aligned properly (the natural curve), there is plenty of space between all the joints. However, when the lower back is overarched, the joint space significantly decreases.
If this joint space decreases enough (so if the lower back is arched to a significant enough degree), joints get compressed more than they are used to. When this compression occurs in a repeated fashion (because running is simply a series of single leg mini squat jumps), irritation can result. Things are rubbing against each other that aren’t used to rubbing. It’s the same reason you get blisters when you wear new shoes!
A quick aside before moving on –
It’s important to note that this is not a “bad thing” and it isn’t inherently dangerous. Having mild back pain after a run isn’t going to do long term damage that will necessitate a spinal fusion ten years down the road. It may, however, lead to an injury that is entirely preventable and sidelines you from running or other activities, which is something most want to avoid.
Now, back to back pain with running – (see what we did there?!)
When Fatigue Plays a Role
If you’ve noticed that your back pain with running only shows up after you’ve run a considerable distance (this varies from person to person, but for our purposes, let’s just say over 50% of the distance you were planning on running), it could be that fatigue is playing a role. Similarly, if your back pain with running only shows up or shows up more strongly when you’re working at a high intensity (think CrossFit WOD), then addressing the role of fatigue is important.
When fatigue is on board, runners change their technique to make it easier to continue to run. This typically happens subconsciously and occurs because the body is trying to conserve energy. To save energy, the body decreases the activity of the abdominal muscles, which hold the spine’s normal curvature.
This causes the lower back to – you guessed it! – overarch, leading to lower back discomfort with running.
Fixing Technique-Related Issues
This type of back pain with running is one of the quicker fixes. You simply need to be aware of it! But, therein lies the catch. Most runners enjoy running because they zone out. It’s mental therapy. Typically, the last thing they want to do (and the last thing people who don’t like running want to do because they are trying to distract themselves from how much they dislike it) is to focus on running!
However, that’s the best way to fix this. You can set up a mirror next to a treadmill and periodically check in to see what your posture looks like if you’re not certain about how things feel. If you need practice experiencing what a neutral spine feels like (because sometimes it’s hard to know), we suggest the drill below.
Back Pain with Running: Mobility Issues
There are two main mobility issues that can lead to back pain with running –
- Tight Hip Flexors
- Limited Pelvis Rotation
Tight Hip Flexors
When it comes to hip flexors, there are two main muscles: the iliopsoas and the rectus femoris. Runners who have tight hip flexors may find that one – or both! – are tight.
Tight hip flexors can lead to back pain with running because they pull the top of the pelvis forward. Anytime a muscle in the body is tighter than it should be, a different area in the body moves to compensate so you can stay upright. In this case, the lower back – you guessed it again! – overarches to compensate for the tilt of the pelvis.
There are a number of different exercises you can perform to improve your hip flexor mobility. If you want a deep dive into how to improve hip flexor tightness, this blog post is an excellent resource.
Limited Pelvis Rotation
When you’re running, the pelvis should rotate a small amount side-to-side to allow each of your legs to extend forwards. However, not all individuals utilize their pelvis to get rotation. Some get it from their lower back and some get it from their thoracolumbar junction. Regardless of where they are getting the mobility from, if it’s not coming from the spot it should be coming from, pain ensues.
Sometimes the best way to identify – and correct – this is to take a video to truly see where your rotation is coming from and then modify your running technique accordingly.
In truth, this could be regarded as more of a coordination issue than a mobility issue, because 99% of the time, individuals have the mobility they need. However, they don’t know how to actively use the mobility they do have! This drill can help you get rotation from the correct place (your pelvis!) while you are running.
Back Pain with Running: Strength Issues
You may be noticing a theme throughout this article – when the posture of your back is off, pain ensues. This cause of back pain with running goes along the same vein.
When your abdominal strength, particularly your deep and lower abdominal strength (not your six pack), isn’t strong enough, the lower back overarches. By now, you’re well aware that an overarched back leads to discomfort.
The key to resolving this contributing factor is to strengthen your abdominals. But, the best way to strengthen your abdominal muscles is not to do a bunch of sit-ups and call it a day. Sit-ups preferentially target your upper abdominal muscles, which don’t help a lot when it comes to back pain with running.
Remember, we want to target the lower abdominal muscles and your deep abdominal muscles! These are the muscles that help keep your spine in an optimal position, which is the key to resolving back pain with running. Here’s our favorite exercise to use for this!
While back pain with running isn’t the most common running-related complaint, it still does happen fairly often. Implementing the tips we discussed help the large majority of people run without back pain. If, however, you find yourself trying the tips and not finding relief, reach out! We’re runners and we love helping runners run without discomfort!