Running Into Back Pain: What Runners Should Know About Lower Back Pain

Runners are generally healthy people, but an alarming number of these athletes—whether recreational or professional—suffer from back pain. If you are an avid runner but also complain of back pain, you are certainly not alone. Here are the basics of back pain and why you, as a runner, might have an increased risk of suffering from back pain.

Three Types of Back Pain

Doctors identify three primary types of back pain: muscle-related, bone-related, and discogenic pain.  

  • Muscle-related back pain results from spasms, tightness, and overall weakness. There are several reasons why you might experience muscle-related back pain; for example, too much stress can cause your lower back muscles to remain tense in a "fight-or-flight" response. If you are not working out your abdominal core muscles, your lower back will over-compensate and your posture will also suffer. Old age and lack of exercise can also cause your back muscles to become weak and unstable.
  • Bone-related back pain can be a sign of a more serious medical condition. One in five Americans suffer from arthritis, which can interfere not only with your athletic performance, but also your daily activities. Another frequent cause of back pain, osteoporosis, affects a huge percentage of the elderly population. The primary symptom of osteoporosis is the reduction of bone density.
  • Discogenic back pain is more commonly referred to as "disc pain." One of your spinal discs degenerates over time, causing lower back pain and even leg pain. Doctors are still learning about the causes of discogenic back pain, which can sometimes get better over time without treatment.

Back Pain and the Runner

Runners are a unique breed because they frequently report back pain, yet typically have core strength, healthy habits, and exercise regimens that should lower their susceptibility to back pain. This is a curious phenomenon, but not without explanation.

If you have an existing back problem, like a weakened disc, running will expose it quicker than if you lived a sedentary life. Running is a high-impact activity that places stress on the lower spine. Thus, your back pain may not be the result of running; instead, the activity highlights your already existing condition.

Because running is such a high-impact activity, it can also cause back pain that you previously did not experience. As silly as it sounds, there is actually a right way and a wrong way to run. If you have poor running form, your technique can lead to both immediate back pain and also long-term chronic back pain.

Runners frequently ignore strength-training exercises, focusing instead on stretching and cardiovascular training. Strength training had a bad rap among runners for a long time, but it can actually enhance your performance. It also makes your body less susceptible to injury, including lower back pain. If you are holding on to the myth that you should avoid lifting weights, you should reconsider your position, if only for the sake of your back.

If you are a runner but suffer from lower back pain, consult with a doctor at a clinic like Bronx Physical Therapy LLP to determine what kind of back pain you are experiencing. By changing a few things, like your form, you might radically reduce your aching back.