Can Running Help Back Pain? An Expert Weighs In

Follow these five tips to pound the pavement painlessly

Long-time runners will likely say that nothing beats the feeling of running—the wind in your hair, the sound of your feet on the pavement, and the sense of accomplishment when you cross off a goal from your list. Running can be freeing and empowering—that is, until your back pain kicks in.

Running and back painIf you love to run, you can still lace em up even if you have back pain.

Although many people with back pain may give up running or not try it at all, we’re here to tell you that it is possible to carry out a successful running program, even with back pain.

In fact, running can be extremely beneficial if you have back pain. A 2014 study suggests that aerobic exercise can be considered a form of effective treatment for low back pain. Other studies have found that runners have stronger spines.

As Earl Kilbride, MD, a board certified, fellowship trained orthopedic surgeon with Texas Orthopedics, says, “An article published in Scientific Reports, April 2017, looked at the discs in runners versus non-runners. Runners had healthier, larger discs.”

Running is particularly helpful to those struggling with mechanical back pain, aka back pain when you have a structurally normal spine. Dr. Kilbride adds, “Often, sufferers of this have a weak core, front and back. Running can help strengthen the core.”

Dr. Kilbride also cites weight loss and improved fitness as byproducts of running that in turn benefit the back. Running also increases endorphins, something that Dr. Kilbride says is “good for the brain and mood” which “decreases overall pain.”

But, are there people who shouldn’t be running? Or, those who need to take extra precautions?

Dr. Kilbride explains, “Back pain can be mechanical or structural. Unfortunately, if the spine itself has a structural problem, sometimes being a runner may not be an option. In instances like this, stresses to an abnormal spine may worsen symptoms regardless of attempts to relieve the pain. Sometimes, it can even worsen the condition. This is where definitive spine treatment is indicated by a physician.”

When you have mechanical back pain, there are ways you can work toward a running program while looking after your back. “Often, stretches, therapy, heat, and ice will help this while allowing running,” Dr. Kilbride says.

If you’re ready to lace up your shoes, grab some water, and hit the road or trail, but you don’t want to do it with nagging back pain, here are some ways to feel better and get in those miles.

1. Stretch Before and After

Studies suggest that stretching can be beneficial to runners, even those with back pain, which is why Dr. Kilbride recommends a series of stretches before and after running.

He says, “Hamstring and quadriceps/groin stretches are a must. I also personally stretch my calf muscles. The thigh muscles all directly connect to the pelvis/hip, which can affect pelvic tilt and low back tightness. The calf muscles do not directly connect, however—the body is a kinetic chain and it works as a whole. For example, a tight calf or heel cord can change stride length which can then obviously affect the hips, back, and more.”

He also suggests icing your back following your post-run stretches.

2. Take It Easy

Any seasoned runner will tell you that literally hitting the ground running will only result in pain and injuries. First-time or returning runners should stick to the “low and slow” method, meaning, ease into a running routine instead of heading out the door for 10 miles for your first run.

“Set reasonable goals that account for a new runner or a recent return to running,” Dr. Kilbride says. “A progressive increase in distance and speed are safest. Progressive increases in your workout will allow for progressive gains.”

3. Switch It Up

Dr. Kilbride sings the praises of cross-training, something that can give your body a break during a running program. “Cross train, when available,” he says. “Cross-training can involve swimming, biking, or weights.”

But, let’s say you want to stick to only running and nothing else. In this case, Dr. Kilbride says, “If you’re purely a runner, change your distances and speeds. Change your running workouts frequently to avoid overuse injuries.”

Speaking of overuse, Dr. Kilbride emphasizes getting adequate rest between workouts, something your back will thank you for. 

4. Use the Right Gear

Running isn’t as simple as throwing on those old sneakers from the back of your closet and jogging out the door. It takes thoughtful, conscious gear choices to prevent injuries and subsequent back pain.

“I do think shoes, braces, and orthotics matter,” Dr. Kilbride says. “As far as the low back specifically, sometimes a neoprene back belt can help keep the low back loose by providing heat and support. Shoes and orthotics are definitely important, but to effectively utilize them, the runner needs to know his or her foot/ankle anatomy. Are you a flat-footed pronator or a high-arched supinator? Do you like a high heel or more of a flat while running? Do you prefer ultralight shoes with minimal support or maximum supportive shoes? Some choices in shoes depend on the predominant surface the runner is running on, such as pavement, trail, or off-road.”

Running specialty stores can often provide something called a foot strike analysis so you can purchase the shoes that are best for you and your physical needs.

5. Listen to Your Body

Experienced runners are very good at listening to their bodies. They take necessary time off if an injury is flaring up so they can heal before running again. As someone with back pain, this will be especially important during your running program.

First of all, if your back pain rears its ugly head mid-run, Dr. Kilbride has this advice: “I would recommend that you slow down, first of all. If that doesn’t relieve [the pain], stop and stretch. Lastly, sometimes you have to abort the workout.”

He shares a final word of wisdom on back pain and beyond, saying, “Whether it’s back pain, shin splints, or plantar fasciitis, you have to listen to your body. Pain that lingers or awakes you from sleep should be investigated.”

A comprehensive exercise program includes resistance training as well as cardio. Put in the road miles, but also check out these tips for strength training.

Updated on: 06/03/20
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