This is adapted from Dr. Jordan Metzl’s Running Strong: The Sports Doctor’s Complete Guide to Staying Healthy and Injury-Free for Life.
You may not think your lower back has much of a role in running, but when you run, you hold your body vertical, of course—sometimes for a very long time.
Your core muscles support your spine and lower back, and your core, hips, glutes, and hamstrings together form one big stability machine, so weakness in any one of those muscles forces the others to take up the slack. If you have weak hip and gluteal muscles, for example, as they become fatigued during a run, your lower back is forced to work harder to keep you upright and stable, and you become vulnerable to injury.
What are the main problems runners face in their lower back? Here are three of the main issues:
- Muscular pain that comes on suddenly in your lower back is indicative of a muscle spasm. Your muscles will feel as though they have locked up, and the pain can be severe and debilitating. You will not feel the shooting pain characteristic of sciatic or discogenic pain.
- Pain in your lower back that is associated with shooting pains down the back of one or both legs indicates sciatica or discogenic pain. A pinched nerve causes this discomfort, so you will not experience the muscle-gripping sensation that you would feel with a spasm.
- If you feel a chronic general achiness across the whole area of your lower back, you may have arthritis.
To prevent back pain, you need to work on strength and flexibility all through your kinetic chain. Your spine and spinal muscles get lots of support from your core. In addition, tightness or weakness in your glutes, hips, quads, and hamstrings will impact the muscles in your lower back, putting more strain on those muscles and setting them up for a spasm.
If you’re trying to fix that nagging back pain—or more importantly prevent it—try the following strength exercises.
Get into a pushup position but bend your elbows and rest your weight on your forearms. Your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Engage your core, squeeze your glutes, and hold for 1 minute. Then roll to one side and hold your body up off the floor in a straight line from head to foot for 1 minute. Switch and do a plank on your other side.
Position yourself in the back extension station and hook your feet under the leg anchors. Keeping your back naturally arched, place your hands behind your head or across your chest and lower your upper body as far as you comfortably can. Squeeze your glutes and raise your torso until it’s in line with your lower body. Pause, then slowly lower your torso to the starting position.