Back pain is a common injury for runners, with around 70 percent of the general population suffering at some point in their lives.
Your back consists of 24 small bones, called vertebrae, stacked up on top of each other interspersed with intervertebral discs. The discs provide shock absorption and allow motion, while ligaments keep vertebrae together and muscles produce movement and give support. All these elements must work together for a healthy spine.
Why is lower back pain common in runners?
With the constant pounding incorporated in running, lower back pain is a common occurrence due to the high levels of stress you put through your vertebrae. This can cause muscle strains and joint and disc problems that can give you acute or chronic back pain. Contributing factors can be biomechanical imbalances, such as weak core muscles (back and abdominal), tight hamstrings and hip flexors, as well as poor running technique.
What can be done to alleviate the problem?
Wearing the correct footwear is important and may help to reduce forces through your vertebrae. Improving the strength of your quadriceps (thigh muscles) will help absorb forces when landing on each leg. Strong core and hip muscles will aid in providing the back with support and stability, helping reduce further injury.
I work in an office – do I need to take special care with lower back pain?
Sitting for long periods has a negative impact on your postural muscles. Sedentary jobs cause muscle imbalances, such as decreased core strength, and chest and hip tightness, which can contribute to back pain. Make sure you maintain good mobility and strength if you have a sedentary job to help reduce the occurrence of lower back pain.
Is lower back pain more common in women?
There’s no conclusive evidence to demonstrate that back pain is more common in women runners than in men. However, women may suffer from different underlying conditions than their male counterparts, due to anatomical and physiological differences.
If lower back pain bothers me before a period, is it still okay to run?
Period pain is common in 40-70 percent of women during the first few days of menstruation, which may cause back pain. This doesn’t mean you have to stop running – the pain isn’t from a back injury, but factors such as inflammation, muscle contraction and an increased sensation of pain.
Do certain running surfaces make it worse?
Running on concrete may increase your back pain compared to running on a track or softer surface, as there will be less shock absorption. However, running cross country can also cause lower back pain, due to the biomechanics of running up and down hills and the postural demands required by uneven surfaces.
How should I treat lower back pain?
If you suffer from back pain, reduce your activity and intensity levels but try to stay mobile. You can go for walks if it causes no pain and you may be able to perform other cardiovascular exercise, such as swimming, to help fitness and motivation. Heat may provide some relief if the pain has been present for more than 72 hours, such as a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel or heat pack,’ to ‘Heat, such as a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel or heat pack, may provide some relief if the pain has been present for more than 72 hours, such as a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel or heat pack, but review with your GP or Sports Physiotherapist.
5 Simple ways to avoid back pain
Keep mobile during the day: move regularly and at least once every hour, by moving your arms, back and legs, or walk a few steps to loosen your back.
Strengthen your core: regularly do core sessions during the week – two to three times will be sufficient to maintain your core strength.
Stretch regularly: holding stretches for 30 seconds is ideal, but make sure you stretch all back and hip muscles regularly, and not only after a run.
Build up running gradually: increase running duration and distance over weeks and months, not over days.
Wear proper footwear: make sure your trainers are appropriate for your foot type, running style and the surface you run on.
Words by Stuart Mailer