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A Runner’s Guide To Lower Back Pain

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young woman runner stretches her back

Low back pain is a very common occurrence, with nearly 80 percent of the population experiencing it at some point in their lives. It’s not uncommon for runners to experience low back pain as well, but for their own unique reasons.

Low Back Pain Can Mean a Strain

One common, yet benign type of low back pain can be from a muscle strain. Pain that occurs from a strain typically is short-lasting and relieved with a period of brief rest, use of ice and/or heat and gentle stretching. 

Strains, as well as many other types of low back pain and running injuries, can be due to faulty training techniques such as:

  • Inappropriate training intensity
  • Sharp increase in mileage
  • Hill running
  • Improper shoe wear

Muscle Imbalance

At times, however, lower back pain is due to a lack of muscle balance, meaning certain muscles are weak while others are tight. Likewise, runners are often found to have core weakness and instability, leading to lower back pain.

A physical therapist can evaluate muscle imbalances and core weakness and then provide customized exercises aimed at targeting the muscles that need strengthening or stretching. This can be achieved through a physical therapy evaluation. But if we were to assess more specifically, the physical therapist would use a video gait analysis to evaluate abnormalities in a runner’s form.

Many times, once muscle balance is restored and core strength is improved, running form and low back pain improve as well. Common muscles that many runners lack flexibility in are the hamstrings, calves and hip flexors.

With more people working and attending school from home now, many are sitting more often, which further leads to these muscles becoming tight. Making sure you stretch these muscles often is a good place to start. Most runners also can benefit from basic core strengthening exercises, such as planks, bird dogs, curl-ups and hip strengthening exercises.

When to See a Doctor

If you have tried these things and addressed training errors but your pain still persists, it may be time to see your doctor.

Consistent, lingering pain during or after a workout that has been present for more than two to three weeks could be caused by an array of problems such as disc involvement, facet irritation, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, or spondylolisthesis. A medical professional can help diagnose these causes and recommend appropriate treatment.

Samantha Weber PT, AT, is a University Hospitals physical therapist providing services at UH Twinsburg Health Center.

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UH Sports Medicine takes a multidisciplinary approach that integrates care from medical experts who specialize in diagnosis and treatment for athletes of all ages and abilities. Our fellowship-trained sports medicine specialists, primary care doctors, nutritionists, sleep experts and other health care professionals ensure the very best in health and medical care for athletes. Learn more about UH Sports Medicine.

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