Back pain can be a true motivation killer. The back is kind of an important part of keeping your running form proper and having a great run.
Back pain can arise anywhere in the back, and for a few different reasons. Often, you feel it most in your lower back.
But what happens if you’re training for something specific? Should you go running with back pain? Or should you treat it and wait it out until you can run pain-free?
Here’s our advice for improving pain and staying safe while running.
Can Running Help with Back Pain?
Surprisingly, running can actually help to improve back pain. This may sound counter-intuitive, but strengthening the muscles in the back can go a long way towards helping to reduce back pain.
Exercise can be used to relieve back pain, but you should take extra care to keep your form perfect. Using the incorrect form can be a recipe for disaster as it can actually worsen back pain!
If you’re prone to back pain, incorporating physical strength exercise can also help to prevent back pain at a later stage.
Why Does Running Help?
Strength training isn’t the only form of exercise that can strengthen the back, though. Running, when done with proper form, can help to build up those muscles and ease back pain.
Running doesn’t just work the legs! It’s a full-body thing, and interestingly, it gives you a pretty decent core workout.
Now, what most people don’t realize is that the core and the back work together to stabilize the body. If you have a weak core, your back muscles most likely work overtime to keep you stable.
Strengthening your core actually helps your back muscles! A stronger core means your back can get a bit of a break, which helps to ease back pain.
Running helps you to build those core muscles, and also reduces body fat. A lower body fat percentage can also take pressure off the back and spine, which can definitely help to reduce pain.
Common Causes of Back Pain After Running
Does your back pain pop up after you go for a run? Here are some possible causes.
Weak Core Muscles
As discussed above, this is one of the most overlooked reasons for back pain. Even if it’s not the main cause behind your pain, it’s well worth strengthening your core so that you have excellent support for your back muscles. Time to start working those abs!
When you run, your joints take a bit of a beating. The cartilage between the bones in each joint plays a role in absorbing some of the shock.
You may be surprised to learn that it’s not only your feet and leg joints that do this. Your spine does the same, and the cartilage discs in between the vertebrae provide some protection against vibration.
However, any weak spots in the spine, whether it’s due to age or injury, can lead to that protective disc swelling or bulging out (herniating). This can cause excruciating pain that becomes worse after physical exercise.
Hyperlordosis is when the spine curves inwards, giving you a bit of a hunched-over appearance. Sometimes it’s not actually immediately apparent, but it can throw your form off and lead to straining in the muscles of the back.
If you believe this could be your problem, it’s a good idea to check with a medical professional and figure out a way forward.
Muscle Sprains and Strains
If you’ve never had back pain before, you could have fallen victim to a muscle strain or sprain, or a torn or stretched ligament. These can cause muscle spasms, pain, and unusual stiffness.
Again, it’s probably best to get this checked out by a medical professional and get their advice on recovery. You don’t want to run through the pain and overdo it, and end up having to take 8 weeks off while it heals!
Should I Run or Walk with Back Pain?
As much as running can be beneficial for back pain, it really depends on the type of pain you have and its underlying cause. It can be difficult to figure this out up front, but it’s worth a bit of digging to figure out whether or not it’s safe.
If, however, running proves to be too difficult or painful, you can always switch to walking for a while. That way, you still get your exercise in, but it’s a bit less intense and fewer things can go wrong.
Walking is definitely recommended over no exercise at all. But be careful with it and listen to your body.
If you can’t even walk properly with your pain, rather head to the doctor and get it sorted out before you attempt any kind of exercise.
Treating Pain from Running
If pain is interfering in your everyday life, you’ll need to treat the symptoms in order to be able to carry on with your daily business.
But ultimately, the end goal is to fix the deeper problem that’s causing the pain in the first place. This could be a muscle imbalance or weakness, or poor form.
Your doctor may suggest treatments like OTC pain meds, a stretching routine, physiotherapy, or strengthening exercises. But in the end, your treatment should be training to fix those deeper issues.
How to Prevent Back Injuries
Back injuries can happen suddenly and linger for ages. Here are some tips to help you prevent back injuries in the first place.
Warm Up Thoroughly
The value of warming up can never be understated! Any type of injury (not just lower back) is much more likely if you leap into an intense workout if your muscles aren’t quite warm enough.
This is true for any kind of workout, as well! Whether you’re running, cycling, or lifting weights, warming up is a crucial element of injury and pain prevention.
Some good choices of warm-up include a dynamic stretching routine or yoga poses. These are light and easy, warming up the muscles without fatiguing you or causing injury themselves.
Don’t Forget Cool Down
Your cool-down is as important as your warm-up. Again, stretching, yoga, or foam rolling are some excellent ways to ease up any muscle stiffness that may be already setting in after your exercise.
Invest In Proper Running Shoes
Bad shoes can be a back killer. That doesn’t mean that if you have back pain, your current, expensive running shoes are terrible.
But it does mean that you may not be wearing the right shoes for your feet. First and foremost, if you overpronate, you should be wearing a stability shoe. If you have a neutral foot, you can wear almost any shoe.
Secondly, you should choose a shoe that’s appropriate for the type of exercise you do. If you’re a runner, choose a shoe that’s specifically designed for running. If you prefer to walk, you can look at walking-specific shoes.
Lastly, make sure your shoes fit you properly. Being too big means that your foot muscles will be under constant strain trying to keep your shoes from flying off during exercise.
Shoes that are too small, on the other hand, cut off circulation, force your muscles and joints into unnatural and uncomfortable positions, and have a pain-causing effect all the way up the posterior chain.
Improve Running Form
Are you aware of your own running form? Most of us aren’t, yet this can be a huge factor in any pain we experience during or after running.
It’s worth checking out your form and taking steps to improve it where possible. Note that this won’t happen overnight. You’ll need to put in consistent effort, but achieving a better form will only benefit you in the end.
Correct form means less injury, stronger muscles, and improved performance in both training and competition.
Stretch Your Hamstrings
Tight hamstrings can place unnecessary pressure on the lower back! Muscles are all connected, and often a pain in a certain muscle can simply be a symptom of a problem in an entirely different place.
We advise stretching your hamstrings at least every day. If you’re prone to tight hamstrings or lower back pain without an apparent reason, stretch them twice a day.
Muscle Toning and Strength Training
Cross-training is quite often underestimated. But incorporating other types of exercise regularly helps you to strengthen all the muscles that running misses, reducing the chance of muscle imbalances and weaknesses.
Be Selective About Where You Run
If possible, try to run on surfaces that are more forgiving. Cement, sidewalks, and roads can be hard on the muscles and joints of the feet and legs.
If there’s a track near you, it may be worth running there. Or, try trail running!
Commit to a Running Program
Setting a running schedule can be highly beneficial. Overtraining can cause problems of its own, so sticking to a well-laid-out schedule can be a huge help.
Try to run 3 to 4 times a week. It may be a good idea to switch up your type of training, like doing a long run once a week, tempo runs on one day, and speedwork another day.
On alternate days, you can implement cross-training activities to build other muscles while resting your legs.
Also, be mindful of how you progress through your schedule. If you’re feeling like you need to level up, be it in distance or pace, take care not to increase too quickly. This can lead to injury!
Whatever you choose to increase, go for 10% maximum per week. Slow and steady wins the race – don’t take the chance of injuring yourself and push yourself too far.