Running injuries are not required, but they do happen for a couple of very common reasons. One of which is tight muscles, the other is poor form and both could be causing lower back pain while running.
Unfortunately, stats show over 31 million Americans experience lower back pain, which means it’s not unusual for runners to mention it. This often leads people to believe that running might be the cause.
If you’ve finished runs and found your lower back feeling tight, it’s time to make a few changes because it’s not something that you need to live with.
In this article, we’re going to not only discuss the main causes of low back pain in runners but also explore everything you can do to prevent it in the first place. We’ll also touch upon when it’s the right time to head to a doctor.
Understanding Lower Back Pain
A runner’s lower back serves as a pivotal structure in the intricate machinery of the human body, connecting the upper body with the lower body and facilitating movement. To effectively address and prevent lower back pain, it is crucial to gain a deep understanding of the anatomical intricacies involved and recognize the various factors that can contribute to discomfort in this region.
It’s important to recognize whether you have a normal muscle soreness or you’re experiencing chronic pain.
Normal soreness is when you’ve increased your mileage or done something new and the muscles are just sore from being worked too hard. But if you find that every single run it hurts, this is turning in to a chronic issue and might be addressed by one of the tips below.
It’s truly important to pay attention to it early!!!! Don’t let a little soreness become a bigger problem because you didn’t make time for the warm up or the strength work. Your back is integral to all of your fitness and general lifestyle movements.
The lower back, often referred to as the lumbar region, encompasses the five vertebrae in the spine labeled L1 to L5. These vertebrae provide support to the upper body and are responsible for bearing the weight and impact associated with running. Between these vertebrae are intervertebral discs, which act as shock absorbers, cushioning the spine and preventing bone-on-bone contact.
The spinal column is not the sole component of the lower back; it is a complex structure supported by muscles, ligaments, and tendons. These soft tissues play a vital role in stabilizing and moving the spine during running and other physical activities. Neglecting to care for these muscles and tissues can lead to various forms of lower back pain, which we will explore in more detail.
Lower back support while running?
Since I don’t want you running in pain and it can take a bit for things like strength work to kick in, I do have a recommendation!
I’ve used this on a variety of issues and one of them is indeed my lower back. I’ve a small issue from something that was torn and occasionally it flares up, so I will simply place a piece of tape across that area of my back with no stretch applied to it.
The short story is this is a sensory result that can help to stop pain signals and tell a muscle to relax.
11 Common Causes of Lower Back Pain While Running
As with all running injuries, there could be a variety of reasons that you’re feeling pain, but there are some super common culprits that are fixable! Here are 11 potential causes to see which might be your issue, then we’ll move on to resolving them:
1. Speed Workouts
This one surprises many people, but it’s often where running form breaks down the most.
- we start to puff our chest out in trying to stand tall
- as a result we actually tilt our pelvis forward
- this pushes the butt back
That puts a lot of strain on the lower back, which means the muscles could feel tight or overworked when you finish the run. This is one that I learned I was in fact doing during a running gait analysis!
2. Overstriding (Poor Form)
The second place that our running form causes issues is when we over stride, which means the foot is landing in front of the body. We want the foot to land directly under our body.
When we are trying to run faster or get tired, we tend to stretch our legs in front of us which puts extra strain on all kinds of muscles through repetitive stress and impact.
Instead, we need to work on our running cadence. This will help place the feet back under the body and improve speed.
3. Tight Quads
As a result of overstriding and sitting all day long, many runners have tight quads.
That tightness once again results in a forward tilt to your pelvis, also called an anterior pelvic tilt. You might simple know you have tight quads because you feel them, but what about the tilt?
- Try standing in front of a mirror and flexing your shoulders forward and back first
- By exaggerating the movement it’s often easier to then find the middle ground
- Next exaggerate the push back of your butt (think Kardashian) and then forward
Watch this video for some guidance on how to do the above and find the natural spot you want your pelvis to be. While running, you can check in to see if you are in fact pushing that bum out and back.
4. Tight Hip Flexors
Another common issue for runners is tight hip flexors, which again is something that largely occurs due to sitting all day. But it’s gotten worse recently because many runners have added Peloton biking to the mix, which is still more sitting.
Tight hip flexors once again are pulling that pelvis and placing lots of strain on your low back
5. Tight Hamstrings
There is a direct connection between your hamstrings and glutes and your lower back. So if you have tight hamstrings, that can cause pain in the lower back after running.
When the quads are overly tight, they pull the pelvis forward, causing the hamstring to tighten. This is why it’s critical to always warm up before a run to compensate for the lack of flexibility.
6. Long Run Fatigue
The final running specific issue that causes lower back pain is the fatigue that occurs as we run longer and longer distances.
At that point our form starts to breakdown and if we have not consistently done core work, then our body begins working too hard to stabilize the hips as we leap from foot to foot.
Now let’s look at a few that are less about your training and more about the body.
7. Muscle Strains and Sprains
A really common reason for low back pain after running is muscle strain.
Your lower back’s muscles and ligaments may become too stretched or torn as a result of overexertion and overtraining. This can cause discomfort, stiffness, and even muscle spasms.
Another common cause of back pain while running is hyperlordosis or an exaggerated inward curvature of the spine. Hyperlordosis creates an exaggerated ‘S’ curve in the spine by causing the stomach and tailbone to curve outward.
By checking to see if your back is flush while leaning against a wall, you can determine if you have hyperlordosis. This builds upon the previous cause we discussed, i.e. muscle strains.
These muscle strains can be even worse if you suffer from hyperlordosis. Muscle tension, torn ligaments, and being too flexible can all be caused by intense physical activity. This is also associated with a similar condition known as facet joint irritation.
Checkout these tips for hip alignment exercises you can do at home >>
9. Weak Deep Core Muscles
According to research published in the Journal of Biomechanics in 2018, runners with weak deep core muscles are more likely to experience muscle fatigue or injury and increase their spinal loading, which can lead to poor posture and cause damage to the spine.
When it comes to avoiding discomfort in the low back after running, developing deeper core strength can go a long way toward mitigating the problem.
Truly the 30 Day Core Program is going to help. Partially because at 10 minutes a day I know you’ll do it, but also because we’re hitting the entire core.
10. Degenerative or Herniated Disc
Degenerative disc disease is a result of the natural deterioration of spinal discs that occurs with age.
When the discs in your back become weakened, you may experience back pain as a result of activities like running. This is because the discs are responsible for absorbing the shock caused by activities like running.
Herniated discs, also known as slipped or ruptured discs, develop when the soft center of the disc between your vertebrae pushes through the tough outer ring.
A slipped disc can cause permanent nerve damage in extreme cases. Treatment options, from over-the-counter medications to surgical intervention, are an option based on the severity of your symptoms.
When your sciatic nerve is compressed, pain can radiate from your lower back or buttocks down one or both of your legs.
Running can aggravate sciatica symptoms because the muscles used to run are connected to the sciatic nerve which can lead to lower back pain after running.
How To Avoid Lower Back Pain While Running
The great news is that a lot of the issues we mentioned have solutions that make preventing back pain no big deal! You don’t need a crazy new program, just a few tweaks.
Sports medicine always reminds us that things don’t change overnight. So remember that it’s going to take a few weeks or even a month for your body to release the tightness and maintain the new better posture.
1. Adjust Your Running Intensity and Duration
If your lower back pain is a result of overtraining and overexertion, the first thing you can do is adjust your running intensity, duration, and frequency. This will allow your back to heal faster while you use the other methods mentioned in this article to build strength.
2. Increase Your Cadence
One way to prevent overstriding and thus tight quads is through working on cadence.
By thinking about increasing the speed of turn over, you are more likely to land under your body. This is actually a more efficient stride, prevents other injuries.
3. Yoga for Runners
Undoing the effects of sitting all day can certainly be done with some great hip flexor stretches.
But you’ll get some incredible benefits by doing yoga for runners as it’s a combination of both flexibility and strength, which will help improve your range of motion.
- Try getting up more throughout the day to prevent some tightness.
- Do a good dynamic warm-up before running to release tension.
- Try adding in yoga once a week or the hip flexor stretches a few times a week.
Do not do static stretches before a run EVER. This will increase injury risk.
4. Building a Strong Core
Overuse injuries are common among runners. Strengthening the deep core muscles with planks and other core exercises is one way to prevent lower back injuries.
Core muscles help to keep the body in alignment, and help achieve spinal stability.
If you have a pelvic tilt of any kind from tightness in other areas it will be worse if the core can’t fully support your movement. This means strong hips, glutes, and abs.
- Check out this 30 Core Challenge – 10 minutes a day to resolve those back issues
- Be consistent with doing core work and you’ll also prevent hip, knee, and ankle injuries
- A strong core will improve your endurance and ensure back muscles aren’t overworked
5. Work on Hip Mobility
Mobility exercises can help you not only avoid injury, but also recover strength and flexibility after an injury. If you’ve been feeling tight in your hip muscles, it’s time to take matters into your own hands and start doing some hip mobility exercises.
I have a great guide on hip mobility for you, along with 6 exercises that are sure to make a difference.
6. Foam Rolling
The inward curve of the lumbar spine is accentuated when the hamstrings are tight, so rolling them out is a good idea. Foam follers are also great to help with tight quads and hip flexors
If you’re looking to learn how to properly foam roll your hamstrings, you should check out my ultimate guide to foam rolling for runners.
7. Sports Massage
Further talking about massages, one of the things that have helped stop my running injuries is consistently getting a sports massage.
They will find the areas of tightness and dig in to help release that tension.
This is not the same as a nice relaxing massage, though I do find it relaxing…there are going to be moments when they find your super tight glute and it’s like YEOW. But I’ve found that I can’t get as deep to release these areas with a foam roller or even a massage gun.
- Massage guns can help to relax tight muscles
- Sports massage will often find the root spot causing tightness in other areas and help to release it
8. Lumbar Support Belt
Most runners won’t need to go to this extent, but especially pregnant runners might find it beneficial. And when you are trying to get going initially with a strained low back, you might find some relief with Kinesiology Tape.
- RockTape placed with no stretch along the low back can tell the muscles to relax
- RockTape is easier to move in and doesn’t feel so constricting
- Belly Bandit is great for active moms to be, it will provide extra support from the weight you are carrying in the front that’s pulling on the body.
Should I Keep Running With Lower Back Pain?
Ideally we want to ensure there are no major structural issues and we want to stop long enough to let some inflammation die down. So if you’re having pain consistently during and after running, I would recommend backing off for at least a few days.
During that time you need to work on the items above.
Just resting will not resolve this issue.
How Do I Treat Lower Back Pain After Running?
If you’re currently in the why me phase of pain, then let’s talk about some immediate solutions:
- Heat is going to help loosen muscles so it’s better for lower back pain than ice.
- Try an epsom salt bath for additional relaxation.
- Apply the KT Tape mentioned above and you can then layer over that with some BioFreeze.
- It’s ok to take an over the counter NSAID as well, just not before running and not to mask pain so you can run.
When to Visit a Doctor
If you’ve tried all the tips and techniques mentioned in this article but your lower back pain in still persisting, it’s time to seek professional medical advice by visiting your doctor or physical therapist.
They will evaluate you for injuries through physical examinations and maybe tests to advise you on the course of action. This is especially important if your pain is severe and is persisting for several weeks.
Dealing with other running injuries? These tips might help:
- Fixing Common Running Injuries
- Causes of Foot Pain While Running
- Resolving IT Band Syndrome
- How to release tight hips
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