Backache and running - what you should know

Does running cause backache? Here's what you should know.
Does running cause backache? Here's what you should know.

You’re training for your next race. You have found your stride, and you are well into your training run, when you suddenly feel an annoying pain in your lower back. Should you stop?

Lower back pain is common among runners because of the regular stress we place on our bodies. But you don’t have to let it break your stride.

Lower back pain can occur because of strain on the muscles, or because of bone-related pain. It’s important to identify the type of pain and being able to describe it. If the pain gets too intense and becomes unbearable, it might be an underlying condition or injury that needs to be examined by a medical professional.

What causes lower back pain in runners?

There are a number of ways running can impact the back:

1. Spine compression

A study published in 1990 found a link between the repeated impact of running and the stress it places on the back. The researchers found that the impact absorbed by the back during running can affect the length of the spine by compressing the discs between the vertebrae. The study was done by measuring the length of runners who had a history of back pain before and after runs lasting 30 minutes performed at different paces.

2. Tight hip flexors

Tight hip flexors are a common complaint among runners and this can lead to a variety of problems, including back pain. According to a study by Stanford University, a lack of hip flexibility in runners can lead to lower back pain because of a constant forward rotation of the pelvis because of compensation. Unfortunately the sample size of the study wasn’t enough to establish a significant statistic.

3. Muscle strain or injury

Excessive exercise or an exercise performed incorrectly can ultimately lead to muscle injury, which also includes the lower back. Be careful when incorporating strength training into your running programme. While it may improve your running, always make sure that you are lifting weights and doing body weight exercises correctly in order to avoid injury.

4. A weak back

When you run, all your muscles are involved in supporting your posture as you pound the tar. When the muscles in your back are weak, they cannot sufficiently control your movements. This puts extra stress on the area, which can lead to pain.

5. A hollow back

If you have a large curve in your back, you may have weak abdominal muscles that can cause the facet joints (the joints that connect each vertebra and disc in the spine) to become irritated, causing pain.

When to see a doctor for back pain

Not all cases of lower back pain are equal cause for concern – and most will heal with rest, strength exercises and stretching. There are, however, some cases that may signify a serious underlying problem. See a medical professional if:

  • The pain wakes you up at night
  • You experience numbness in the groin or spine area
  • You experience additional symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and a fever
  • Your movement and quality of exercise are severely restricted
  • The pain increases when you lie down, bend backwards, downwards or to the side
  • The pain doesn’t resolve within a week or two
  • The pain appears out of the blue without any obvious injury or strain

Keep your back pain free while on the road

If you are training for your next race or simply enjoy running as a workout, these tips can keep your back from hurting:

  • Engage your core and be mindful of your posture while you run, especially when you're negotiating a hilly route.
  • Incorporate stretching exercises such as yoga to keep your joints flexible.
  • Assess your stride and the cushioning of your shoes on a regular basis and replace your shoes when there is no longer enough cushioning, as a lack of foot support can also cause your back to hurt.
  • Don't increase your weekly distance too quickly as this might make you more susceptible to injury. 

Image credit: iStock

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