Back pain is a common condition among the vast majority of the population. How about back pain in runners? One question that is important for runners is: is running bad for my back? Do I have a bigger chance to experience back pain and injury if I run? In this article we will try to answer this question.
First thing that has to be said about running is that even though it is a simple form of exercise, it is a high-impact one. This means that it tends to be more intense and requires more effort. Different people’s bodies respond differently to running depending on their level of experience, their weight, coordination, if they have joint problems, etc. So, there is no universal answer to the question whether running is bad for the back. There are many things to be considered and kept in mind when talking about this issue. Here are some of them:
- There are many causes of back pain
Sometimes, it is difficult to make a connection between running and back problems. Back pain can be the result of different conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and skeletal irregularities. Not to mention that obese people and people who sit for long hours and experience high levels of stress are very prone to back issues. So before saying that the cause of the pain in the back is running, we have to consider if the person is suffering from some kind of an illness and their lifestyle routine. Given that excessive weight puts a lot of pressure on the back and thus causes pain, it is natural to assume that lowering your weight if you are obese will lower the impact on your back. As running burn calories, it may be considered good for your back in such circumstances. Also, running and doing exercise in general is a good way to fight anxiety and combat stress, which are, as we mentioned, some of the causes of back pain.
- People with chronic back pain react differently to running than healthy individuals
Exercise is said to be a way of relieving chronic back pain from sitting too long, for example. And yet, people with chronic back pain are not usually recommended to include running in their schedule. This is somewhat puzzling, but in general, if you are already dealing with discomfort in the lumbar region, running is not the best choice for you. However, the fact that you need movement in your life is still a fact. Physicians often recommend lower-impact exercise such as swimming (which is great for your overall health, to be honest), as it is easier on the body. Running puts pressure on the lower back, especially if done regularly and for a long time.
- Your workout involves solely running?
In most cases, runners suffer from lower back pain because their exercise regimens are base solely on running or sprint training, so some muscle groups become more trained than others. There are protective mechanisms in our body that let the stronger muscle groups compensate for the weaker ones, so in time they become less and less effective because of tiredness. This compensation system promotes unsound body mechanics. When the lower back takes too much of the energy transferred by the moving legs, lower back pain occurs. So, if you experience it, a good thing would be to try combining different types of exercise to ensure the energy is evenly distributed, that is, that all muscle groups are strong enough to take their share of impact.
- Running and spinal shrinkage
Studies that were meant to measure the stress that is put on the back during running have shown that, temporarily, a person becomes shorter after running for some time at marathon speed. They found that the spine shrinks with a few millimeters and that the running speed and the covered distance have an impact on the difference in the height, that is, the longer and faster you run, the shorter you get. This has to show what an amazing amount of stress the spine suffers from during running. However, as the studies involved people who either had or did not have a history of back pain and the degree of shrinkage had nothing to do with that, this also means that the spine is well-equipped to take on such amounts of stress and can handle it, even at fast speed.
- Elite athletes and lower back pain
In a different study, the rates of back pain by sport were examined. It showed that instances of lower back pain were significantly less common among the examined elite athletes than among the people participating in other sports such as weight lifters and soccer players. Actually, those people were found to “have an increased rate of degeneration and disc bulging in their lower back.” The study showed that there heavier training had neither a positive nor a negative impact on avoiding back pain.
The researchers in some of the conducted studies have not found any correlation between muscle tightness and back pain in runners.
How to prevent back pain when running
There are many things you could do to prevent pain and/or a serious injury when running. Here are some of them:
- Mind your running technique and foot placement. Back pain could be triggered by asymmetrical running, that is, if one tends to land harder on one side than on the other. Watch your stride because you may avoid back pain if you actually listen to how you run and try to make your stride more even and lighter. With rear-foot runners, the heel takes the main force when they run, and with fore-foot runners, the front takes the heavy load. This is popular among barefoot runners. Choose the style that fits your best and what is the most important – do not forget to buy proper running shoes for the style you have chosen.
- Those swinging arms! Not only an uneven stride but also arms swinging all around are among the causes that are said to cause back pain, as in that way too much pressure is put on the back. Make sure to keep your arms close to your body when you are running.
- Remember that stretching is vital. Forgetting to stretch before a run has its place among the most usual causes of back pain among runners. Remember, it is of big importance as helps you improve your muscle coordination. If your muscles are limber, you have lesser chances of getting injured due to running.
- Do not neglect your core muscles. Not only stretching tends to be neglected by runners, but also the so-called core muscles. Word of advice – keep your core strong to avoid back pain and injuries. That is, incorporate some exercise that works your abdominal muscles. You may find yoga or Pilates particularly helpful and enjoyable.
In the worst case scenario, pain in the lower back could be a warning sign of a more serious condition, if the person running is experiencing numbness or a tingling sensation that seems to spread down the legs, hips and buttocks. Among the most usual conditions are pinched nerves, back strain, degenerative disc disease and spinal stenosis. Make sure to immediately check with your GP to avoid possible complications.
As you can see, there is no universal answer to the question whether running is bad for your back. Learn to listen to your body and the signals it sends you – if you feel pain, stop what you are doing, stretch, rest, or do a different type of exercise. Make sure to contact your doctor for professional advice and/or seek the help of a professional trainer.