Low back pain…it’s the worst. Most people experience it at some point or another, whether they’re runners or not. You picked something heavy up incorrectly, you regularly spend 8 hours of your day in a chair, or maybe it’s the effect of some issues in your posture and body mechanics. If you’re a runner, your running form could play a huge role in whether your lower back muscles protest the miles you put in.
But the bottom line is, you don’t have to live with lower back pain. Strength training, correcting poor posture, and working on mobility are all ways to get back to pain-free life and running. Read on to understand how weak and tight muscles contribute to your pain and follow our tips to help shore up those trouble areas.
It’s worth mentioning that chronic pain and running injuries don’t usually come out of nowhere. If you’re experiencing lower back pain while running, chances are you’ve got some gaps in your training. Perhaps you’ve had less time lately for all your workouts so you’ve just been running and have skipped any cross training. Or maybe after a run you just jump in the car and head home, skipping your cool down and post-run mobility. It could also be that your lifestyle is quite sedentary and it’s time to make some changes.
Don’t get down on yourself. It’s a simple process to shore up those gaps with a little strength and mobility work. With one of our favorite core exercises and a dynamic mobility drill you’ll have two go-to moves that are easy to complete, whether at the trail head, park, or your living room.
Please remember that we’re online coaches, not online doctors. If you’re experiencing intense back pain, nerve pain such as sciatica,, or other symptoms beyond those described in this article, please seek out medical advice or physical therapy for qualified help.
One common culprit of low back pain is weakness through the core muscles, more specifically the deep stabilizer muscles. These muscles are responsible for keeping us upright and balanced with minimal rotation side-to-side or back-and-forth, and have attachment points throughout the spine and pelvis. A strong core also helps us absorb the impact of our daily activities and running in particular. As thousands of steps build up throughout a run, a strong core will provide shock absorption for your body.
Less shock absorption isn’t the only downside of a week core. Your posture will also likely be affected. When the core is weak people tend to default to an overextended, mildly arched low back since those stabilizing muscles are disengaged. Not only does this lead to instability throughout your body, it also hinders your ability to engage your glutes. These muscle power houses are particularly important to all athletes and runners. Strengthening the core and correcting this arch to find a more neutral spine position is critical to keep running long-term and injury-free.
Let’s experiment with spinal positioning and how it affects your glute and core engagement to get a better understanding of how to prevent lower back pain when running (or just chasing your dog through the park!)
To find that neutral spine position, start with your glutes.
Check out our article on hip posture and neutral pelvis to learn even more.
As you work through the following movements, keep the sensation of a neutral pelvis and engaged glutes in mind. That posture will help you get the most of the two drills, which will, in turn, improve your running.
This drill will put another variation on that engagement test. The purpose of this drill is to turn on those deep abdominal muscles, which support and protect your spine from defaulting to a dangerous position. Additionally, the extra help from your core will take some of the load off the lower back muscles, which, if left to absorb the impact of running on its own, can easily lead to repetitive stress and injury.
Next you’ll add some challenge to the position and really test your core engagement.
The only rule is that your low back MUST, MUST, MUST stay glued to the ground! This will keep your lower back safe and stable by avoiding hyperextension and compression in the spine.
If you’re looking for even more core movements, here are two more exercises guaranteed to put you to work.
The other part of the puzzle is your hips! No doubt they are tight and putting extra pressure and strain on your spine. It’s pretty common these days that when you aren’t running or working out, you’re sitting. Sitting in your car, at your desk, on your couch…hey, us, too sometimes.
Let’s think about what that means.
Your hip flexors are muscles that connect your pelvis to your lumbar spine. They consist of the psoas and the iliacus, and they work together to flex the hip joint and move your leg up toward your body. Every forward step you take recruits the hip flexor muscles. When you spend the day sitting, these muscles are in a shortened position. Then when you stand upright, they lengthen. If the hip flexors are tight from being in a shortened position for too long, they can pull forward on the pelvis when you’re standing, adding to the tendency to tip your pelvis forward in an arched position.
Enter your chronic low back pain and thus, your lower back pain when running.
So, let’s work on your hip mobility up by targeting the hip flexors. Instead of a static stretch where you just hold a position without moving, this is a dynamic mobility drill. Running requires movement through the hips, not a static position. So we’ll replicate that movement here with some rotation and reaching.
Here are a few ways to increase the demand:
Ultimately, you want to create a dynamic movement that counteracts the seated position we spend so much time in.
Including these two exercises in your running training will definitely help in both rehabbing AND preventing lower back pain when running!
Here’s a bonus video featuring Coach Holly and her favorite way to release the hip flexor muscles using a lacrosse ball and a kettlebell. The video will start at this mobility drill, but you’ll learn a lot about your hips if you watch the full video!
For even more training, be sure to download our mobile app for interactive workouts, full training plans, and a lively community of fellow TRE runners.