Runners: How to Treat & Prevent Back Pain

As a runner, it’s not unusual to experience some back pain at one point or the other.

Why Am I so Certain?

Well, back pain, especially lower back pain, is one of the most widespread conditions in the world.

Research show that more than 80 percent of U.S. adults experience back pain to some degree throughout their lives. In fact, according to recent surveys, $50 billion is spent each year in the U.S. alone to deal with back pain issues.

That’s why dear reader, I decided today to share with you some of my best tips and guidelines on treating and preventing back pain while running.

So, are you ready?

Then here we go…

Disclaimer. I’m not a medical doctor. Thus, my advice should not be considered as such. All I’m sharing is the result of my own experience and research on the topic. Hence, feel free to consult your doctor before you put into action any of the tips below. Or, at least do your own research.

You’ve been warned; now let’s proceed.

Basic Back Anatomy

The back is a remarkably intricate and complex structure of bones, discs, ligaments, joints, muscles, connective tissues, blood vessels, sensitive nerves and nerve roots.

These structures provide us with the strength and stability we need to stand upright and perform everyday activities.

They also protect the lungs, heart and other important internal organs, along with other vital functions that go beyond the scope of this blog post.

Enter Back Pain

The bad news is, your back pain may be a result of a strain and/or injury to any or all of these body parts.

For the most part, you can strain a muscle, irritate a ligament, sprain a joint, rupture a disk, etc, all of which can lead to back pain.

That’s why diagnosing this condition is uniquely complex and also so elusive to treat and prevent.

But armed with the right knowledge, you might be able to reduce the list to a few culprits.

Causes of Back Pain While Running

Here are some of the leading causes of the pain:

If you are a newcomer to running

Beginner runners experience a bit of back pain following a hard workout, even for a couple of days after—especially if they end up doing too much too soon

Wrong running intensity

Runners usually suffer from back pain after abruptly increasing their training load/mileage, especially while running on harder surfaces, such as a paved road, or a sidewalk.

If you’re Running with Bad Form

When it comes to runners’ back pain, running is with bad posture is a primary culprit. In fact, it can affect your performance and lower back, both during and after training.

So, why is this so prevalent?

The majority of recreational runners do not take their running form seriously.

That’s why most of them run in a forward position with head dangling forward and shoulders in a rounded, often uptight, position.

Bad running form results in improper spinal positioning and has an enormous negative impact on the mid back, the lower back, the shoulders, the neck, and eventually, the entire body.

If you sit too much

According to both my experience and research, this is another major culprit to look for. In fact, our current lifestyle has “doomed” us to this.

If you work at a desk, then chances are you spend at least 7 to 8 hours in a slouched position. In fact, surveys say that we spend on average, roughly 9 hours, hunched over in front of a screen each day.

That’s a lot of sitting. And as you might already know, the human body is not, anatomically and functionally, designed to withstand all that laying around.

Our bodies were designed to move. We were born to run. That’s a biological fact that nobody can deny.

If you’ve weak core muscles

Your core muscles, the muscles around your trunk, the abs, and the glute are the powerhouse muscles, and they support every one of your moves.

They are, in other words, the crane that supports all of your movements.

Thus, when these muscles are underdeveloped and relatively, weak, they fall short on providing your back with sufficient support, resulting in pain.

Too much Downhill Running

The running form and biomechanics needed to tackle hills can put too much stress on the back muscles—mainly the postural changes required.

Not only that, but also downhill running without proper engagement of the core muscles can put a lot of pressure on the lower back, resulting in pain and soreness afterward.

If you are over 50

Research shows, to nobody’s surprise, that, as you get older, it’s much more common to experience back pain. In some cases, the age-related onset of back pain might have started when you were in your 30’s or 40’s.

If you are overweight

Study shows that too much weight can stress the back and cause irritation in the process. In fact, back pain is much more common among people with serious weight issues.

If you have foot imbalances

This can result in weight distribution imbalances, that can, eventually, translate to back pain.

If you have Hernia Disc Issues.

The spine is made up of 24 bones, the building blocks known as vertebrae. These are also connected to each other by discs, known as intervertebral discs. These help to enable movement of the spine and provide a sort of cushion and shock absorption for the bones.

Hernia disc happens when one of these disc bulges, tear or slip out place, leading to acute pain.

Degenerative Disease

 What’s known as sciatica in the medical circles is another major of back issues. This happens when the sciatic nerve, a large nerve that originates in the lower back,  and runs from the end of the spine to the feet, becomes inflamed and irritated.

This condition is characterized by sharp pain in the lower back, buttocks, thighs and the knees.

Other conditions to blame

Back pain can be blamed on a wide host of diseases and conditions such as blood clots, kidney infections, kidney stones, Spondylolisthesis, Fibromyalgia, Spondylolisthesis, endometriosis, Spinal stenosis, arthritis, osteoporosis, etc.

Identifying Back Pain For Runners – The Symptoms

Although there is no such thing as Runners Back overuse injury (to the best of my knowledge), it helps to know how to safely diagnose yourself and know when it’s time for a doctor’s visit.

You have runners back pain if you feel the following, either during or after your runs.

Upper Pain

For most runners, back pain is typically experienced as a sharp pain in the upper back, especially in between or under the shoulder blades.

The pain is usually mild and starts out as any achy feeling in the upper back or shoulders.

Then it can quickly become an intense, often debilitating, pain.

Trouble Bending

You might also experience a decrease in mobility and flexibility, especially when bending or twisting at the waist.

Not only that, bending at the waist might feel uncomfortable and painful, at times. This is the especially the case on lifting a heavy object or while performing any back twisting motion.

Lower Pain

The lower back is a major source of trouble for most people, runners, and non-runners.

For us runners, this pain can come on during a run, typically after a few miles in, or during the downhill section of a run.

We also can experience the pain throughout the day (it might be non-running related)

Sore Spot

In some cases, your back, especially the affected area, might be sore to the touch.

Big Word of Caution

You should not experience any pain in the knee, nor any numbness or tingling feelings in the legs. That might be a whole other condition. See this link for more on that.

Go and see a specialist whenever you have any serious symptoms. Or when your pain does not improve in spite of taking some of the self-care treatment options below.

Treating Back Pain

Here is the good news.

In most cases, back pain can be handled in the comfort of your own home—as long it’s not a severe medical case that requires medical intervention, even surgery at times, such as in the case of hernia disc.

Other than that, and as I always say, when it comes to dealing with the aches and pains that come with running, the R.I.C.E method should be your first line of defense.

Thus, if you have mild back pain during or following a running session, do the following:

Rest

Take at least two to three days, even more, to fully recover.

Running through pain will only exacerbate your suffering, and might lead to serious issues down the road. And you don’t want that.

Also, cut back on running on hard surfaces and downhills. Instead, do the bulk of your training on softer, flatter surfaces during your recovery period.

By doing so, you’ll be able to minimize the stress placed on your back, keeping your overall pain and discomfort to the minimum.

Cold Therapy

During the first 24 to 48 hours of the onset of pain, use a frozen bag of bean or ice wrapped in a cloth or towel to ice the affected area.

Although there is no scientific evidence that proves that cold therapy can actually speed up recovery, for most people, ice can help ease the pain, reduce swelling and limit muscle spasms.

Just whatever you do, do not apply a cold source directly onto the skin.

Seek Medical Attention

In case the above options proved futile, your next step is to go and seek medical treatment ASAP.

In fact, if you have any leg or groin numbness or weakness, focal weakness as well as bladder or bowel dysfunction then a visit to the medical room becomes a necessity.

For a thorough back pain diagnosis, you’ll go through a complete physical exam as well as an assessment of your medical history.

Some of the tests your doctor might order include (but not limited to):

  • Blood test
  • X-rays
  • Computed tomography, or CT.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • Etc.

Preventing Back pain While Running

This is my favorite part.

Prevention, after all, is better than cure.

So, if you work on putting in place some good prevention strategies, you’ll be better off, especially for the long term.

Here are a few precautions you should consider taking:

Strength Train

Yes, you heard me right.

In my research and experience, one of the best ways you can injury proof your body against common ailments is to strength train.

So, what kind of strength exercises?

Well, there is actually a bunch of them. Let me start with the most important ones.

Upper Pain

For starters, I highly recommended resistance exercises that strengthen the rhomboid muscles, the lower and mid trapezius and the shoulders—vital postural muscle.

Therefore, if you’ve serious postural challenges and/or suffer from severe muscle imbalances, then work on increasing strength in your postural muscles—especially the lower portion of the trapezius muscles.

Some of the best exercises include pull-up, shoulder extension, and Superman.

Side Back Pain

If you have pain along the side of your ribs, especially under the shoulder blades, then weakness in the serratus anterior muscles might be a source of the pain.

Some of the best exercises for that area include band chest presses, dead-stop protracted push-ups and dumbbell lawn mowers and dumbbell rotational punches.

Lower Back Pain

To strengthen the muscles on the lower back, do plenty of deadlifts (all variations), along with kettlebell swings, bridges, and the sort.

Also, strength your core. As I have already stated, weakness in the core is a leading cause of back pain. Some of the best core exercises include the plank, the bridge, the windshield, Russian twists, weighted crunches, and T-pushups.

Stretching and Foam Rolling

Stretching is another thing you should do on a regular basis, especially if you have severe lower body mobility issues, or are chronically tight in the hamstrings (the long muscles in the back of each thigh).

In fact, some research suggests that lower back pain can cause, or be made worse, by tight hamstrings. These provide vital support to the body when doing any sort of walking and/or running movement.

When the hamstrings are tight, then you may be putting your back under tremendous pressure.

Nevertheless, by stretching these vital muscles, you’ll be able to reduce the strain on your pelvis as well as helping you assuage your low back pain.

Run with Good Form

In my experience, good form is what will give you almost instant results when it comes to preventing back pain—especially if you don’t have any critical condition.

Therefore, keep a keen eye on your running form and posture.

Be sure to run with straight posture, back flat and core engaged.

And please, avoid excessive twisting at waist level, and keep your upper body stable throughout your run.

For the full guide on proper running form, check my two posts.

Link 1

Link 2

Sit With Proper Posture

To develop good sitting posture, do the following

Sit upright with a lumbar support in the small of your back. I highly recommend the Original McKenzie Slimline, or just use a small cushion for more support for your back.

If you spend a lot of time in front of a computer, then be sure that your computer monitor is at eye level, forearms horizontals with the elbows bent at right angles, keep your hips and knees at the level, with the feet flat on the ground. Use a footstool if you have to.

Also, be sure to limit the time you spend sitting. Take regular walk breaks—at least every hour. Plus, try to shift your position at least once every 10 to 15 minutes.

You can also reduce the tension with an office makeover. Get a stand-up work desk and try it for a few weeks.

For more, do some dynamic exercises, such as neck rolls, shoulder shrugs, and other exercises.

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David Dack

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