The back plays a huge role when it comes to running, but sometimes we make it do more than it should.
Back pain while or after running a fairly common occurrence, but it is not considered a normal thing. Translation: it should not occur and is highly avoidable.
So why does it happen so often? The most common reasons I find with my runners are weakness in the glutes, weakness in the spinal stabilizers, and poor postural awareness when running.
Weakness in the glutes
Glute weakness is all too common. Most people, especially runners, don’t actually do anything to strengthen them. And, even if we are doing exercises to train them, those exercises are often performed incorrectly and not actually working the glutes. Another issue is that we sit a lot, which naturally shuts down the glutes for a period of time.
Many runners think running alone will strengthen everything in their legs that needs strengthening. If you are thinking this, you are not alone! Unfortunately, it does not work that way. Running gives the legs good muscular endurance, but does not actually strengthen them. The only way to strengthen the legs and glutes is to do targeted exercises.
When doing strengthening exercises for the glutes, it is important to actually feel the glutes working. I often find clients are doing exercises for the glutes, such as squats, lunges, or bridges, but many times these are being done incorrectly. When I say incorrectly, I don’t mean that technique is necessarily damaging by any means, but it isn’t working the glutes as much as they should. It matters how you are initiating the movement or where the weight distribution is on your feet. A slight change in weight distribution or foot placement can make a huge impact on what muscles are actually the primary movers during an exercise. If you are doing an exercise that is intended to strengthen the glutes, but don’t feel it working there, take some time to figure out what you are doing incorrectly and correct it.
So why do the glutes matter so much in runners? Just as a functioning human, when the glutes are weak, the spinal musculature is working harder to help keep us upright. Yes, they are working anytime we are upright, but when the glutes are weak, the spinal extensors work overtime. Eventually, this results in back pain. As a runner, the increased forces through the body require even more strength in the glutes to maintain proper posture and stability through the hips and pelvis.
Weakness in the spinal stabilizers
The spinal stabilizers are small, deep muscles that line the spine. They require a high amount of muscular endurance to maintain good control and stability of your spine during day-to-day activity and even more when running long distances. Without good control and stability, the spine becomes unstable. This instability can create pressure on the joints of the spine, pressure on the nerves, and increased lordosis (curvature) of the low back, all of which contribute to pain.
Many people have the stability needed for the daily requirements of our bodies, but not for the requirements of running long distances. If you find yourself consistently developing pain in your back or numbness in your legs after you have been running for a period of time, the spinal stabilizers are a great place to start.
Poor postural awareness
When looking at posture in runners, I am looking at two things: 1) how much forward lean is present when running, and 2) whether or not there is there excessive arching of the low back.
With a forward lean, the spinal musculature is often working overtime in order to keep the position of the body. It can tolerate this for a period of time, but eventually they become overstressed, which results in pain.
With excessive arching, a couple things can occur. Increased pressure is placed on the joints of the spine and nerves can be pinched due to that compression.Both can result in pain over time when running.
Have you ever looked at your posture when running? If not, have someone film you running from the side to see what it looks like. It may also be a good idea to do this both at the beginning of a run and after the point at which pain normally develops to see if there is a difference. It is very possible that you start out with really good posture, but start to lose that posture as the body fatigues.
There you have it — a quick summary of why runners develop back pain. Many other reasons exist for why back pain develops in runners, but these are the most common ones that I see in my practice. Consider them to begin to assess and address your pain issues, but don’t be afraid to consult a physical therapist if the pain persists!