Is Running Good If You Have Lower Back Pain?

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Running is probably the most accessible form of improving your health and fitness for anyone to choose, it has a variety of benefits both physical as well as mental. Considering the woefully inadequate levels of physical fitness and general conditioning in society these days, it is difficult to discourage this activity in any way. However, when it comes to having a lower back injury, or weakness, partaking in running at certain times can spell trouble, and for good reason. Not least because back pain or poor lower back health is often ignored for so long before it finally reaches significant levels and imposes itself on your day to day activity. For those with this level of poor back health, deciding spontaneously to pick up running is particularly troublesome. In today’s article and podcast we explore the question, “is running good if you have lower back pain” and at the end we’ll get into some key tips to help you get your back in shape and incorporate running to strengthen, and not injure, your lower back. 

If you are someone with a history of back pain or lower back weakness, then running could be an option that is considered with caution. The action of running is one that evokes a repetitive impact on the load bearing structures of our lower back, primarily the discs. Nowadays with the deconditioning of so much of society, physically speaking, our lower lumbar spine is often not as strong and supported as it should be. Therefore a sudden uptick in repetitive impact coming from running could well be a little too much for the lower back to handle.

One of the common tissues involved in lower back injuries is the discs, it doesn’t have to be a raging herniation that gives you full blown sciatica, it commonly is not. More often it is a series of more minor strains to the discs in the lower lumbar spine that are never properly rehabilitated. Most of us spend too much time sitting on a daily basis and this leads to the flattening of our lumbar lordosis, which is not an efficient way of being. This process coupled with some low grade injuries to our lower lumbar spine, L4, L5 and L5, S1 segments in particular can create a weakness. 

This weakness is coupled with poor general movement skills, and inadequate muscular strength. The consequences of these inadequacies are that the discs in that lower lumbar spine bear more force and load than they can comfortably manage on a day to day basis, perhaps they’re just hanging in there. 

Now let us add in running to the above system. The main force is one of impact going through the body, the joints of the lower limb, ankles, knees and hips, and then into the spine, L5, S1 and then L4, L5. This is a repetitive impact that can often amount to too much and this is why you might have found that your back pain came on after taking up running for the first time, or returning to it after a hiatus. 

It is, in short, a cumulative impact that the suboptimally conditioned lower back is simply not able to manage.

If you are someone that has been running for years continuously, it is unlikely that you’re going to experience this issue, however, you might well find that there are some ways that running can contribute to your back issue, although not in the way described above. 

Running, for all its many benefits, in the healthy individual with a healthy back, has one major flaw. This is the lack of full range movement. Those that run to a higher level can be tempted to focus solely on running, and therefore miss out on full range movements of the hips, knees and ankles as a result. Running just doesn’t expose these ranges of motion. So for the few of you that have no back issues, are consistent runners, and want to keep it that way, the discussed ideas at the end of this post will be helpful for you too, particularly the part on resistance training. As this gives you an opportunity to work full range movements that will keep your hips, knees and ankles strong and flexible, you might even find it has a beneficial effect on your running performance too!

Action Plan For Getting Back Into Running Successfully

How we do anything is often more important than the specifics of what we do, and running is no different. Here we have 3 steps to help you get your back in shape and feed running into your routine safely and effectively, so that it isn’t just another fad, but a major turning point in your health and wellbeing!

Step 1: Foundational Resistance Work For Your Back

Whether or not you have lower back pain right now, the first step is vital, that is to build some foundational strength. Working through simple movement patterns such as squats, lunges, hip hinges and core work to strengthen these regions that will be involved in the action of running is essential. This first step focuses on building competence and skill in a static environment. Building a foundational level of core control will help with supporting your spine and posture, as you run, but also keeping the midsection tight so your spine is held “primed” or supported by the surrounding musculature. That way those repetitive impacts from the thousands of steps you might take on some of your runs will be going through a “composed system” in your lower back. This reduces the likelihood of any one segment, perhaps one which has previously been problematic, from being exposed and exploited.

Strengthening will also help you build competence and strength in the movements of the lower limb joints. These are just as important, and issues with the knees for example, can be avoided if we have some foundational strength at least to provide a more robust starting point. 

The question with this first step is, how far do I go with strengthening before I pick up running? The answer is easy for members of the Back In Shape Program. Once you’re at Phase 3 able to complete 5 sets of 10 reps of the workouts, you should consider yourself ready to start testing running. Think about it, if you cannot even do a reasonable number of lunges with good form and without pain, perhaps running is a little premature. 

Step 2: Sets & Reps Approach To Running For Your Back

Ideally you would have a treadmill for this first step, only because it is so terribly easy to be accurate, but simply using a known distance outside and calculating your speed that way can work fine too. 

With getting back into running, we’re thinking primarily about the impacts on our back first and foremost. Because we have a back injury. So this step has two parts.

Firstly, we want to be running at about 10 km/hr, some running coaches talk about this being the point at which running can move away from a plod and good form can come in a little more. This could be a point open to contention but it is a good starting point for many. 

Next we can take a time, 30, 60 or 90 seconds. Whereby one set would mean running for the chosen seconds then resting for the same. I.e. 60 seconds running at 10km/hr and then 60 seconds resting or walking as slow as you like. This makes up 1 set. To a certain degree here, you need to just try it and see. It’s always best to be on the side of caution when first trying these things though.

Now we can run for 5 sets, 60 seconds at 10 km/hr and 60 seconds walking or resting, and see how our back holds up with the chosen intensity. Give it the rest of the day to see how your body fared and evaluate the next day. 

You will need to spend a certain amount of time here, playing with the sets and the durations, but once you’re happy that the number of impacts that are taking place during the running workout are not aggravating or overwhelming your lower back, you can move onto the next part.

Here, we need to look at the intensity, as let’s face it, you’ve chosen running to improve your cardiovascular fitness as much as anything else, so we need to be running these workouts at the right level to improve our fitness. This part is about adjusting the speed, and perhaps experimenting with the number of sets or the duration of the sets to find the point at which you’re being “challenged” by the workout. If you’re serious about getting back into running, then a heart rate tracker such as an apple watch, garmin, whoop strap or fitbit are all very affordable options.

A final tip for this part is to take periods where you stick at a given workout intensity for a week or two, this gives your discs and other “metabolically slow” tissues a chance to catch up to everything else that’s changing. Using the sets and reps model, with small incremental increases you can always have an appreciation for your workouts impact on your low back. Because you’re running shorter distances faster, you should never be in a position where you’re running for long periods of time with very bad form as you should nearly always be strong and engaged, apart from perhaps the last few seconds of the last couple of sets when you’re really pushing yourself. Compared to longer “plodding runs” such as 5km or 10km or more, you can easily get to a point where you’re running slowly with less than ideal form, but just “carrying on”. Your back won’t thank you for this!

Step 3: Creating A Long Term Healthy Back Running Routine

The final step here is to feed this all together, let us map out an example for you next. You might do a full “workout” something akin to our Phased workouts in the Back In Shape Program. This might well take you 30 minutes, and checks the “resistance workout” box. You might follow this up with 6 sets of 90 seconds on, 90 seconds off at 10km/hr. You now have a 20 minute cardio workout. You can follow this up with a 10 to 15 minute post workout routine of lower body stretching. 

All in all the above is just over 1 hour of workout time and includes some nice stretching at the end. You could even, if you’re in a rush, move your stretching to the end of the day before bed and spend perhaps 20 minutes on the stretching. 

The above routine could be done 3 to 5 times per week and you would have the foundations of what you need to keep your back strong for the long term. Benefiting from the running in numerous ways, whilst also building strength in your back and body in general in a very complimentary manner. 3 to 5 hour spells every week – every 168 hours to be exact – is not too onerous for any of us to achieve, should we have the discipline to do so. 

Can Running Be Good For Your Back Pain?

Like we mentioned earlier, how we do these things is the major factor. If you follow a plan like the above and do not neglect your resistance training work, then you really can build a strong and healthy back. Running offers a way to directly challenge the discs through repetitive impact. So long as this impact is manageable for the lower back discs, and not too much for them to handle, the discs will use the stimulus as guidance, like the muscles do to resistance training, and like our heart and lungs do to the cardiovascular strain. They provide the direction for our bodies to know where to deploy resources to enhance the competence of the system or structure. 

Make sure you acknowledge the fact that these tissues in the back are slower in their rate of adaptation, working on strategies such as scaling the speed you run at instead of the distance or sets, can offer you ways to increase the cardiac strain without increasing the number of “impacts” in a session. Hopefully you’ve found this particular episode and article a little more practical and helpful and as always, if you have any comments or questions, do post below.

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