Low Back Pain in Runners

Laura Comtois, DPT, PT

Up to 14% of American runners experience low back pain each year. 1   So, with as many fellow MITers you see each Saturday morning, you probably could guess that more than 100 of you might have complaints of low back pain this Marathoner in Training season.  We certainly hope this isn’t true, but just in case, let’s arm you with some information should low back aches or pains arise!

Before we get to the meat of this topic, let’s be clear that treating low back pain is not the same for every person.  Low back pain can stem from muscle asymmetries, low back mobility problems, strength deficits, nerve irritation, or structural changes in the spine.  For the sake of brevity, I will outline the red flags, and then highlight some great ways that you can maintain a healthy back while running or walking.

Red flags:  Bowel or bladder dysfunction, unrelenting pain in any position, numbness and tingling below the knee, unexpected weight loss, acute pain lasting longer than 6 weeks.  These are reasons to immediately see your physician.  If you don’t have any of these red flags, let’s move on…

POSTURE:  There are four normal curves in the spine, as shown below.  A goal for you is to maintain these normal curves in your daily activities, especially when running or walking.  Often the strain put on your spine is not from running as much as the strain which accumulates with your daily activities.  For example, sitting at a desk in a slouched posture, also as noted below, 40 hours per week can reduce the lumbar curvature and increase the forward head position and thoracic curvature of your back.  The strain on the spine from this repetitive poor posture alone can create pain.  If this sounds like you, consider how you can protect your spine simply with improved posture and workplace ergonomics.


MOBILITY:  A healthy spine should have full mobility in several directions (rotation, side bending, bending forward and backwards).  Since running is generally in a forward motion, the primary motions to check are flexion and extension.  Do you have enough lumbar motion to attain a full yoga cobra pose, as pictured, and be able to pull both knees to chest, as demonstrated, without pain?  If you don’t, it may be worth working on this as long as it’s not painful.


STRENGTH:  The strength needed to support the spine with running comes from the deep muscles of the abdominals, lumbar spine, and hips.  These are the primary muscles we call the “core”.  When these muscles are strong, the chances of injury are reduced.  There are several ways to strengthen, but some basic examples, included here, might be planks, side planks, and bridges.  Have someone check your form and be sure your navel is drawing in toward your spine (but keep breathing!).  A stable core provides your legs a better base from which to propel.


 As always, if you have questions, call us, text us, or just come see us at the Fit For Life Locations on Polaris Parkway or Lane Avenue.  Fit For Life Physical Therapy is proud to be Fleet Feet + FrontRunner’s physical therapy partner. We will keep you moving – no matter what you do.

Contact Fit For Life Physical Therapy at (614) 981-1979 or with your injury prevention, maintenance, or rehabilitation needs!