By: Jeremy Neisser
As a runner, you sometimes get random aches and pains. From blisters to sore muscles to tight hamstrings, these issues are common running injuries. One issue that I have been enduring lately is my lower back pain. Come to find out that many runners other have back pain.
The main reason for lower back pain from running is muscle imbalances along the kinetic chain. This can cause tightness of surrounding muscles, glutes, and hamstrings to become stiff/tight causing additional stress on the pelvis/lower back.
Lower back pain from running can be brought on a few reasons and running can exasperate the issues.
Why Many Runners Get Lower Back Pain [Myself Included]
Why do runners get lower back pain?
There are many reasons but one of the main factors is posture. The most common postural issue, bad running posture that causes a flat, tight lower back which puts your pelvis into an unstable position.
As you run more it becomes even more apparent as all that jarring and stress causes instability in your pelvis and thus results in tightening up of muscles further down the chain ( hips, groin etc).
What causes lower back pain from running?
Lower back pain from running can be caused by a variety of factors. These include improper running form, inadequate warm-up or stretching, muscle tightness and/or imbalances, weak core muscles, overuse injuries, poor footwear choices, and more.
To help reduce your risk of experiencing lower back pain from running it is important to take the necessary steps to prevent and address the underlying issues. These include:
- Make sure to warm-up before running. Doing a few dynamic stretches such as leg swings, arm circles and butt kicks can help loosen up your muscles and prepare them for the activity ahead.
- Incorporate exercises that target your core muscles, like planks or bridges, into your weekly routine. These exercises are important for providing stability to the spine and helping you maintain proper form while running.
- Strengthen and stretch any tight muscles that may be contributing to pain or poor form, such as those in the glutes, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, etc.
- Make sure you’re wearing shoes with the right amount of cushioning and arch support. Poorly fitting shoes can lead to excessive strain on your lower back.
- Avoid running too long or too fast, as this increases your risk of developing overuse injuries and pain in runners lower back.
- Listen to your body and pay attention to any signs that may indicate an issue with your form or technique. If something doesn’t feel right, then take a break and reassess.
- Seek professional advice if needed. A physical therapist or sports medicine specialist can help assess the cause of your pain and guide you in developing an appropriate treatment plan.
The next common reason for lower back pain is an imbalance between your left side (flexors) and right side (extensors) which can be caused by a number of issues including repetitive stress.
The issue that I see most commonly however is runners are not activating their core correctly, so they lead with their chest causing them to exhale on every step – leading to a tightening up of the abdominals, and then over time, this tightness will start to creep downwards.
This results in imbalances all around, which gradually builds up resulting in tight hamstrings/groin/hips etc., tight quads at the front, and stiff gluteal muscles at back - ultimately an unstable pelvis. This leads to lower back pain as the whole kinetic chain is out of alignment.
When your pelvis becomes unstable, you will have issues with posture and imbalance which can result in pain and discomfort in the lower back area itself (commonly called a quad-dominant runner).
This range of motion also causes your hips to rock side to side instead of moving forward/backward which adds another element to stability problems. If this continues then there may be some hip adhesion's that forms leading to more tightness etc...
All runners are different:
As I mentioned above all runners are different so there are other factors that can cause a slight issue somewhere along the line which then progresses into an injury or chronic pain before long – most commonly would be an existing injury – a previous issue that hasn't been fully rehabilitated or an imbalance that has developed over time.
4 Ways to Ease Lower Back Pain from Running
If you have lower back pain every run then this could be due to some of the issues above so below are some exercises I use with clients to help address these problems.
1) Lumbar extension strengthening -
These exercises focus on lengthening out the lumbar spine (lower back). There are many different but similar exercises that you can do for this so I will just show one here.
Lie on the floor and place your foot against a wall. The higher up the wall, the harder. You should feel this exercise in your lower back (lumbar spine) as opposed to in your glutes or hamstrings which are further down the chain/line of pull:
2) Core engagement –These are similar to the above but with less range of movement. The focus is more towards engaging the core muscles as opposed to doing an extension move which will help strengthen those muscles at their end range .... i.e when they are chronically tight!
So having them engaged throughout a run may also be beneficial?
It's hard to say for certain but it is thought that engaging the core muscles may help stabilize the pelvis and result in less jarring of the spine as you run. Again there are many exercises for this so I will just show one here:
3) Glute activation -
This exercise focuses on strengthening your glutes (main posterior chain muscle) which can be a real key area when it comes to lower back pain from running. As mentioned above, if your glutes are weak or stiff then it will cause stress further down the chain/line of pull i.e into hips, groin, etc...
And ultimately lead to problems with the lower back.
By activating these muscles correctly first thing in the morning (or any time during your day really!) you should strengthen your glutes which will, in turn, create a longer/stronger line of pull for your pelvis.
Start on hands and knees with your butt up as high as possible, tighten everything else in the pelvic area i.e abs, quads, etc... then squeeze those glutes hard whilst pushing that butt back towards your heels:
4) Exercise variation -
I have worked with many people who had years and years of lower back pain from running but by simply changing one minor thing e.g distance, speed, or time they were able to stop their back pain completely! It may be that this is true for you too?
Only you can know what works best so try out different variations within the same activity e.g hill sprints instead of regular sprints, a different length runs on the treadmill, or even just running with your hands behind your back.
You may find that by trying something new you will be able to ease pain in the lower from running instantly?
Overtime: Running in itself can create loads of problems if you are not careful e.g tightness and stiffness!
So although doing the above exercises is good for taking care of imbalances, I would also recommend cross-training i.e by including additional bodyweight exercises such as squats, lunges, planks, etc... into your routine – this will help keep everything moving well so hopefully avoid any future issues!?
In addition to this, it's always good to include some strength work into your routine too; again I would recommend other bodyweight exercises such as planks, squats, etc... in addition to resistance methods.
Facet joints and lower back pain
Facet joints are pairs of small joints found on each side of the spine. Together, they provide stability and help the spine to move freely. If these facet joints become damaged or deteriorate due to wear and tear, it can lead to lower back pain.
Common causes of facet joint damage include age-related degeneration, injury, overstretching, or incorrect posture. Symptoms may include localized pain in the lower back that radiates to the buttocks and legs, as well as difficulty bending or twisting.
To help address facet joint pain, physical therapy exercises can be used to strengthen and stretch tight muscles in the lower back and hips. Stabilization exercises are also important for strengthening the core and improving posture.
Medications such as anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants may also be recommended for short-term relief from pain. In some cases, corticosteroid injections or radiofrequency ablation can help to reduce swelling and inflammation in the affected area.
Sacroiliac joint dysfunction
Sacroiliac joint dysfunction (SIJD) is a condition caused by irritation or inflammation of the sacroiliac joints, which connect the spine to the pelvis. This can lead to pain in the lower back and buttocks, as well as stiffness and difficulty moving.
Common causes of SIJD include pregnancy, injury, overuse, arthritis, or muscle spasms or muscle imbalances. Symptoms may include lower back pain that radiates down the leg, difficulty standing up straight or getting out of bed in the morning, and pain with bending over or twisting.
Treatment for SIJD usually involves a combination of physical therapy exercises to stretch and strengthen the affected muscles and improve flexibility in the spine.
Discs and lower back pain
Discs are soft, gel-filled cushions found between the vertebrae of the spine. They provide cushioning and help to absorb shock from activities such as running or jumping. When discs become damaged due to age-related wear and tear or injury, they can cause pain in the lower back that may radiate down into the legs.
To help reduce pain associated with disc damage, treatment typically involves physical therapy exercises to stretch and strengthen the surrounding muscles, as well as lifestyle modifications such as avoiding activities that put muscle strain on the lower back. In some cases, medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be prescribed for short-term relief from pain. Surgery may be an option for more severe cases.
No matter the underlying cause of your lower back pain, it is important to get assessed and treated in order to reduce your risk of further injury. Consulting a physical therapist or sports medicine specialist can help you develop an appropriate treatment plan that works for you.
Nerves and lower back pain
Nerves are an important part of the body’s communication system, sending messages between the brain and other parts of the body. When a nerve becomes compressed or irritated, it can lead to pain in the area supplied by that nerve. This is known as radiculopathy, which is commonly experienced in the lower back and radiates down into the legs.
Common causes of nerve compression in the lower back include herniated discs, bone spurs, spinal stenosis, and other age-related degeneration. Symptoms may include sharp or burning pain that radiates to one leg or foot, numbness or tingling in the affected area, and muscle weakness.
As mentioned above, Muscle imbalance is when there is an unequal development of muscles in the body, leading to overuse or weakness in certain muscle groups. This can lead to pain and dysfunction in the lower back, as well as other parts of the body.
Common causes of muscle imbalance include poor posture, incorrect form while exercising, age-related degeneration, and muscle tension caused by stress. Symptoms may include lower back pain that radiates into the hips or legs, stiffness, difficulty standing up straight, and difficulty moving.
Treatment for muscle imbalance typically involves physical therapy exercises to help strengthen weak muscles, while also stretching tight muscles in the lower back and hips. Additionally, lifestyle modifications such as avoiding activities that put strain on the lower back, using proper form while exercising, and maintaining good posture can help to reduce pain and prevent further injury.
In addition to physical therapy exercises, medications such as anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants may be recommended for short-term relief from pain. In some cases, corticosteroid injections or radiofrequency ablation may be suggested to reduce swelling and inflammation in the affected area.
If you are experiencing lower back pain, it is important to seek medical attention to get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan. Consulting a physical therapist or sports medicine specialist can help you develop an effective treatment strategy for reducing your symptoms. With the right combination of exercise and lifestyle modifications, you can help address facet joint dysfunction, disc damage, nerve compression, and muscle imbalance to improve your overall quality of life.
When to See a Doctor
If you are experiencing pain in your lower back or legs, it is important to seek medical attention to get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. A healthcare provider can rule out any serious conditions and recommend an effective treatment plan that may include physical therapy exercises, medications, lifestyle modifications, or other interventions.
No matter the cause of your lower back pain, there are ways to help reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life. Regular exercise is important for maintaining good core strength and stability, as well as improving posture and flexibility. Stretching exercises can also be beneficial for relieving tightness in the lower back muscles. Additionally, proper form while running or participating in other activities can help to prevent further injury and pain.
3 ways to prevent low back pain & adjust your spine:
1- Tighten up the lower abs
After every run to avoid the tightness creeping down and creating some terrible low back pain. Remember that your core is just a switchboard, you press it by contracting certain muscles and loosen it when you relax – so for tightening the abs imagine squeezing something between your belly button in and navel towards the spine.
Hold this contraction for 10 -15 secs then release. Practice this at least once a day to help spread out any imbalances caused by running and other activities e.g sitting at work/driving etc.
2- Strengthen the glutes
Strong glutes can reduce low back pain will which will help tighten up your hips in general as well as increase energy efficiency by reducing energy losses through the inefficient running form (see point 3)…strength exercises for glutes can be found in this video.
3- Improve your running form.
This is a more detailed article but most common issues include overstriding ( taking steps too long), leading with your chest, and not using the core correctly amongst other smaller corrections which ultimately result in an unbalanced body.
In my opinion, you should start off by working on improving your posture as this will have the biggest impact and helps remove stress from the lower back. Second, target weak areas like hamstrings/quads or strengthening of glutes to help balance everything out while also correcting inefficient running form.
Lastly, I would suggest having some 'off days' from running every now and then to allow any imbalances to correct themselves – so take a day off, maintain good posture throughout the day and when you run again be sure to use your core.
You will soon feel a difference in tightness/pain levels if this is the cause of the issue.
If you are still experiencing lower back pain, it might be good to schedule a consult with a physical therapist as physical therapy would help. They are the experts in muscular-skelotol.
Hi, Jeremy Here,
I am the the guy behind Train for a 5K. On this site, I share everything that learned along my running journey. The content I create is the running training I wish I had before we started this journey. About Jeremy.
I have run over 250 races including the California International Marathon, Clarksburg Country Run, and various other 5K & 10K races throughout the United States. I am a former Athletics department employee at University of the Pacific and Shoe Consultant with Dicks Sporting Goods