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Running and lower back pain

Published: 16 July 2019 - Fitness and Training

Low back pain is a common problem experienced by runners. This is most often a result of overloading of the structures in the back from repetitive stress.

About our lower back

The lower back acts as a link between your hips and legs and your ribcage and upper body. When we walk and run, opposites move together - for instance, when your left leg moves forwards your right arm will move forwards and vice versa. This means that our pelvis is rotating one way while our ribcage/arms are trying to rotate the other way and our lower back is stuck in the middle trying to control it all!

The impact of sitting on our lower back

All the sitting we now do in our lives causes us to maintain a tighter musculature at the front of the hip and a stiffer ribcage. Tightness through the front of the hip will mean that the pelvis has to rotate further to allow you to maintain a reasonable stride length when you run. Stiffness in the ribcage, means that you can’t rotate your shoulders without getting movement further down your spine.

The result of this is that the muscles that help to stabilise our lower back can fatigue and the stress is then put onto the joints and ligaments on the lower back. Enough stress and these structures begin to become sore.

How do I stop my back from hurting when I run?

There are two approaches we can take to manage our lower back pain:

1. We can either improve the endurance of the stabilising muscles in the lower back to cope with the thousands of times they need to work with every step to control these movements

2. Limit the amount of stress our stabilising muscles have to deal with so they don’t fatigue so quickly

The first part of the equation will naturally happen as your running fitness improves. The second part is the bit that we can influence through a few simple exercises to reduce the amount the stress and strain on your lower back.

Improving flexibility in hips and pelvis

If you improve flexibility in the front of the hip, it moves more freely and you can keep the pelvis in a more stable position as you run. If you can free up the ribcage, the benefits are twofold: you can move your arms more easily as you run and stay relaxed throughout. This means less effort is required  and you should also be able to breathe a little easier.