Lower back pain is the most common complaint of pain in adults behind only headaches (about 80% according to the National Institutes of Health), so it’s no surprise that runners of all levels can experience some degree of back pain as a result of participating in an activity that they enjoy.
The pain can range from dull and throbbing or sharp and shooting, on one or both sides of their back, or can cause numbness and tingling in the lower body. Whatever the reason for the pain, which can be frustrating and/or debilitating, the upside is that in most cases, the pain can be reduced or eliminated in a few weeks depending on the severity and cause of the pain.
While the most common causes of lower back pain for the general public include having a sedentary lifestyle/lack of physical activity, poor posture, or doing more than what their body can handle physically.
When it comes to all runners, the type of pain they experience can come from other sources since many have discovered that poor posture inhibits the ability to breathe effectively and are no longer as sedentary when they decided to become a runner, but sitting at a desk all day or not including strength training and stretching as part of your training regimen can wreak havoc on you.
1.) Arching Your Back Too Much (Exaggerated Lumbar Curve)
Having an exaggerated lumbar curve isn’t something to brag about, but it is indicative of having a weak core or not properly engaging the core. Your core consists of more muscles than just your “six-pack” and even if you do planks, you need to consider whether or not you are planking correctly: do you have a neutral spine or do your hips drop? Planking is not enough.
Everything in the front (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis), sides (internal and external obliques), and back (erector spinae group) is crucial not only for protecting your spine but for good posture and stability. Having a greater-than-normal lumbar curve not only puts excessive stress on the spine, which can increase the risk of developing a bulging or herniated disc but also forces the erector spinae muscles to do more work than they are meant to which could lead to muscle strain/sprain.
How to Fix Arching Your Back While Running
Exercise 1: Thoracic Mobility with a Foam Roller
- Lie on a foam roller positioned at your mid-back, perpendicular to your body.
- Place your hands behind your head to provide support and contract your core to prevent your lower back from arching.
- Using your feet, move your body up and down the roller, stopping at the base of your neck and at the bottom of your rib cage.
- When finding a tender spot, hold your position on the roller to allow the knot to relax for: 30-60 seconds, then continue moving up/down.
- Roll for 1-3 minutes.
Exercise 2: Abdominal crunches with transverse abdominis (TA) activation
- Lie flat on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands behind your head or cross them over your chest.
- Breathe in. As you breathe out, pull your belly button to your spine, engaging your transverse abdominis muscles, the muscle that wraps around your midline like a corset.
- Raise your head and shoulders a few inches off the floor to do a crunch, while maintaining the contraction in your abdominals.
- Return to starting position, relax, and repeat 10 times.
- Complete 3 to 5 sets.
2.) Lack of Hip Strength and/or Mobility
The weak link for many runners lies in the lack of strength and/or mobility in their hips, including having tight hip flexors as well as weak glutes and other stabilizing muscles in the hip area.
Many runners know that they need to strength train in order to handle the constant pounding on their body while running. You need to be strengthening specific areas that are key to minimizing the amount of impact felt in the lower back. Also, in addition to strengthening those areas, are you engaging those muscles properly?
There are multiple muscles that work together when we run. The muscles/muscle groups that need to be strengthened are the glutes, hip flexors, quads, adductors, and hamstrings. If you have one area that is particularly tight or weak, the long-term consequences can lead to imbalances and ultimately an injury.
No runner enjoys being sidelined. Your hips are especially important as they allow for stability in the spine as well as help with your stride, ability to charge up a hill, and lateral stability (crucial for trail running).
How to Improve Hip Strength for Running
One of the best ways to strengthen the hips and promote good form is by using a suspension trainer such as the TRX. See our review of The Best Suspension Trainers to help you decide on the best one for your home use.
Exercise 1: TRX Lunges (Suspended)
- Set TRX Suspension strap length to mid-calf/handles at your knee caps
- Place one foot in both foot cradles or convert to single handle mode
- Shifting your weight backward and down, moving closer to the anchor point till your knee just grazes the floor, maintaining a tall chest (don’t lean forward).
- Return to standing by driving up through your heel.
- Repeat on opposite leg.
- 2-hand touch to the floor
- Add a calf raise at the top (improve ankle stability)
- Add a knee drive with suspended leg
- Add a jump with standing leg
- Add a knee tuck on standing leg
Exercise 2: TRX Hip Press
- Set TRX Suspension strap length to mid-calf/handles as your knee caps.
- Place your heels in the foot cradles and lay on your back with your hips and knees bent to 90 degrees.
- Driving down through the cradles, press your hips up off the ground till they are in line with your knees and shoulders.
- Control the lowering of your hips back to the ground.
- Knees together and externally rotate feet
- Single Leg
Exercises to Improving Hip Mobility for Running
3.) Lack of Quad Strength and/or Flexibility
The quadriceps muscle group (vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, rectus femoris) are the largest muscle group and is most important in the lower body because of their ability to bear weight and produce a significant amount of force as well as control the body’s ability to flex the hip and extend the knee.
Having a lack of quad strength and/or flexibility can not only impact your ability to run but your ability to perform everyday activities and can increase your risk of a muscle injury.
“The quads are one of the most important shock absorbers during running. Weakness in the quads may cause the high forces that occur during running to go to other places, such as the spine.”
The most common quad strengthening exercises are the squat, single-leg squat/pistol squat, reverse lunge, and step-ups. These strengthen other areas as well but are commonly felt in the quads. The quality of the movement (i.e. proper form) is extremely important.
We also want you to focus on more reps than how much weight you use to help improve muscular endurance. Running is an endurance sport and we need to train the muscles as such.
How to Improve Quad Strength for Running
Exercise 1: Squat on a Bosu
- Set your feet about hip-width apart on a Bosu ball
- Raise your arms to shoulder height in front of you to help you balance
- Keeping your chest tall, sit back and down as if you are sitting into a chair
- Weight should be on your heels, knees behind your toes
- To stand, squeeze the glutes and drive up through your heels back to a standing position
- Front squat
- Back squat
- Dumbbell squat
- Goblet squat
Exercise 2: Reverse Lunge
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart
- While keeping your chest tall, step back with one leg and lower your back knee towards the floor
- Both knees should be about 90 degrees when down
- With your chest still tall, drive up through the heel of the front leg back to a standing position
- Down by side
- On the shoulders
- On back
- Holding in front
4.) Tight Muscles in Your Lower Body
Continuing with the lack of strength in your hips, having tight muscles in the lower body can inhibit your body’s ability to move the way it was designed to in order to be the most efficient in your running movement pattern. Tightness in the quads and hip flexors can pull your pelvis forward, which would increase the curvature in the lumbar spine and increase the amount of pressure and impact each step has on the lower back. Tightness in the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back can impact stride length, going uphill, and pull on the spine. Tight muscles can also create muscular imbalances in your body and can also contribute to pain and injuries
Stretches for Runners (Dynamic and Static)
5.) What is Running Cadence and Why it Matters for Injuries
When runners mention their cadence, they are referring to how many steps they take in a minute, also known as their stride rate. It’s the most common way to measure your running form for several reasons. The first being that if you have a shorter and quicker stride rate, the faster and more efficient you will run. A lower cadence may mean that you have a long stride and overstriding can cause you to slam your heels into the ground and lock your knees on every step. By overstriding, you essentially are slowing yourself down, doesn’t allow you to have a smooth gait, and increases the stress on your muscles, bones, and joints.
By having a cadence that is optimal for you (every runner has a different cadence), you will have a faster turnover rate (meaning that you waste less energy on every step) and allows for a proper footfall which will decrease the amount of stress your body will feel with every step as you will have a softer landing than hitting on your heels.
To determine what your current cadence is, count how many steps you take in one minute. You can count each time both feet hit the ground or pick one foot and count how many times that foot hits the ground in one minute and multiply the number by two. Some running watches may also count for you (check your specific device if it does this).
“The optimal stride rate is at least 180 strides per minute, but each runner may differ slightly in their cadence.”
To learn more, watch the video below.
How to Improve Your Cadence
Runners are always looking for ways to improve and become more efficient. Once you determine your current running cadence, you can then work towards improving it. The easiest way to slowly increase your strides per minute (SPM) is to use a metronome. There are various running apps or metronome apps that you can use to help work towards improving your SPM and many apps will track your cadence (check to see if your preferred app does this). Runners with a lower SPM may be overs-triding and hitting on their heels. By increasing your SPM by 5-10% every week or two, your form and efficiency while running will improve.
There are various drills that can be done regularly to help improve not only your cadence but also your form in order to help you become a faster runner. Some may also be used in conjunction with your warm-up as part of your dynamic stretching.
What is Running Cadence?
Jeff Galloway Run Drills
Runing Drills to Improve Form & Cadence
6.) Heel Strike vs. Midfoot Strike vs. Forefoot Strike
The human foot is an amazing part of our body. Comprised of “26 bones, 33 joints and over one hundred muscles ligaments, and tendons. The arch is a beautifully designed spring mechanism that feeds energy to our calves, quads, and hips and lets us run gracefully and painlessly if we just let it do its job” (article). Our feet were built to absorb and distribute shock and impact from our daily activities, including running.
There is no one footfall that is worse than another as they each have different importance depending upon the terrain, part of a race, and how your body moves to name a few. For example, you may use a midfoot strike on flat terrain, a forefoot strike when going up a hill, and a heel strike when going downhill.
A midfoot strike has been most commonly found to be the most efficient in terms of speed, cadence, and impact on the knees and back. A midfoot strike is not the same as a forefoot strike despite some using them interchangeably.
A forefoot strike places the weight and impact of each step into the toes and ball of the foot whereas a midfoot strike lands on the ball of the foot and the heel is lowered to evenly distribute the shock of impact across the entirety of the sole.
A heel strike is very common among runners in which your heel is the first thing to hit the pavement with every step but is beneficial when needing to brake/slow down your pace. Knowledge and drills can help transform you from having a less of a heel strike to more of a midfoot strike, but the transformation isn’t going to happen overnight and may take a few months or longer for the change to become your new normal and the type of foot strike you have will depend on each runner.
Proper Running Footstrike: 3 Steps to Improve It
7.) Running Shoes and Low Back Pain
Like most runners, a good quality shoe that is right for you can help reduce lower back pain and reduce the risk of injury, but only if they are kept in good shape and are replaced regularly.
There is no one type of running shoe that is right for every runner. Every person who is a runner may have a different arch height, different gait, ankles may roll in/out, different heel strike, and more, which is why there are so many types of running shoes on the market.
A running shoe may look like other shoes, but the technology and design features within them are what make them different from a cross trainer or a walking shoe. On average, a quality running shoe will typically cost between $100 to $250 per pair, but the most expensive may not be right for you.
The best place to start when looking for a running shoe is a running store. They have educated salespeople on staff who are most likely runners themselves, have a wide variety of shoes to choose from, and have likely been trained in how to evaluate your gait (done on a treadmill) to determine which type of shoe would be best. Some running stores may also have a trial period for a pair of shoes where you can try them out to determine if you like them and if not, you can return or exchange for another pair.
When considering a shoe, here are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing a pair (especially as many companies make drastic changes from previous models year to year):
- Is there some room for your feet to spread out. Your feet swell a bit during the day and while running, so the afternoon may be the best time to shop.
- You should have about one thumb width/thumbnail between the end of your longest toe and the front of the shoe.
- The shoe should wrap comfortably around your foot with no poking, pinching, or feel sloppy fitting.
- If you have a wide foot, try brands that are known to have wider toe boxes or a wide fit. They also make narrow sizes if needed.
- Check for places where the shoe is rubbing on your foot as blisters can develop.
- The shoe should feel comfortable to you. It should fit well and feel good while you are wearing it.
Your running shoes are tough cookies, but they aren’t meant to last forever. The soles will start to go bald, the cushioning gets compressed and over time they lose their ability to protect our feet and joints.
To extend the life of your shoes, you should own at least two pairs and rotate them so that when one pair needs to be replaced, that new pair can be worked into the rotation during the breaking-in period.
On average, your shoes should be replaced every 300 to 500 miles. Depending on your weekly mileage, you should be replacing your shoes every four to nine months and should be replaced after a year even if you haven’t hit the 300 miles as the materials break down over time.
When Should You Replace Your Running Shoes
8.) You’ve Progressed Too Quickly for Your Back
A very common cause of pain in runners is simply running too much before your body is ready. Your runs may feel great and you decide to either increase the distance or number of runs you do each week only to find yourself tired, unable to complete your runs, or find yourself injured.
The saying of “slow and steady” is true when it comes to progressing your runs. If you are a beginner, consistency is key in the number of runs you go for, not necessarily the milage.
When you feel comfortable in the number of runs you go out for, which may be 2-3 times a week, then you can gradually begin upping your mileage and keep your days the same or you can add another day to your week (3-4 runs) and keep your weekly mileage the same. There’s no wrong answer to either option, but do what feels best for you and plan out your runs to give your body time to adjust to the changes.
The suggestion is not to increase your mileage by more than 10 percent each week in order to reduce the risk of injury, however, it is possible to increase by 15 percent or more depending on how you choose to progress. Again, there’s no right or wrong method but be sure to listen to your body when you do progress your training.
If you are following a training program for a 5k, 10k, half or full marathon, it is perfectly acceptable to stretch out that training program by 4 weeks or more to a timetable that you are more comfortable with, that better fits your schedule, or allows for more time to adjust with the increase in weekly mileage. It is also 100 percent acceptable to walk a bit during your runs so that you don’t risk injuring yourself.
Lower back pain is widespread among runners, but it is possible to reduce or eliminate the amount of pain or discomfort that is felt on your run by having a good pair of shoes (or two or three), strength training and stretching regularly, paying attention to your form (especially when you are tired) and listening to what your body is telling you.
Low Back Pain Fact Sheet
How To Treat and Prevent Lower Back Pain For Runners
Mackenzie Lobby – https://www.active.com/running/articles/how-to-treat-and-prevent-lower-back-pain-for-runners
Hip Strengthening and Mobility Exercises For Runners
Erik Taylor – https://www.active.com/running/articles/hip-strengthening-and-mobility-exercises-for-runners
A Guide To Hip Anatomy
6 Core-strengthening Exercises That Ease Lower Back Pain
Lordosis Exercises: For Core and Hips
Running and Lower Back Pain
Sean McCance – https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/sports-and-spine-injuries/running-and-lower-back-pain
Everything You Need To Know About Lower Back Pain
The Editors – https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a19577588/lower-back-pain/
Back Pain After Running: Causes Of Pain and Treatment
Exercises That Can Help Ease Back Pain
Running Cadence: Why It Matters and How To Improve Yours
Running Technique: The Importance Of Cadence and Stride
Mackenzie Lobby – https://www.active.com/running/articles/running-technique-the-importance-of-cadence-and-stride
How To Find Your Mid-foot
Trisha Reeves – https://www.active.com/running/articles/how-to-find-your-mid-foot
Running Foot Strike: Proper Running Technique For Your Feet [guide]
Proper Running Footstrike: 3 Steps To Improve It! –
Quadriceps: A Runner’s Ultimate Strength
Montrel Grant – https://runnerclick.com/quadriceps/
The Strength Moves Every Runner Should Be Doing
Jason Fitzgerald – https://greatist.com/move/strength-workout-for-runners#1
5 Must Quadriceps Exercises – The 30-minute Quad Workout Routine You Need
How To Pick the Best Running Shoes
Does Running Shoe Type Really Matter?
Rashelle Brown – https://www.active.com/running/articles/does-running-shoe-type-really-matter
7 Important Things To Know When Buying Running Shoes
Alena Hall-Alena Hall – https://www.huffpost.com/entry/tk-things-to-know-when-buying-a-new-pair-of-running-shoes_n_55ca0c9be4b0f73b20ba951a
How Long Do Running Shoes Last?
Fleet Journal – https://www.fleetfeet.com/blog/how-long-do-running-shoes-last
The 10 Biggest Running Mistakes
Erin Beresini – https://www.outsideonline.com/1927121/10-biggest-running-mistakes-and-how-fix-them
Forget the 10% Rule: How To Increase Mileage Safely
Golden Rules Of Running That Every Runner Can Follow
Bob Cooper – https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20790553/the-25-golden-rules-of-running/
Joe Henderson – https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20847509/running-101/
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only. This is not a substitute for a medical appointment. Please refer to your physician before starting any exercise program.