Most professional runners say that if you run properly and use the right shoes you shouldn't experience back pain. While this may be true, at least to some extent, research suggests that runners can develop back problems. Nonetheless, the health benefits of running are unparalleled, and there are ways rack up your mileage without having your spine suffer the consequences.
For runners, the most common causes of back pain relate to weak muscles around the midsection, poor technique, and foot imbalances, all of which translate into disequilibrium of body mechanics and structural irregularities. In addition to this, the impact of running on hard surfaces in the long term can cause damage to your spine.
The cause of most back pain experienced by runners, once identified, is easily rectifiable and therefore not much cause for serious concern. For example, by using anti-pronation devices to counter foot imbalances, or correcting posture and technique. What runners should be more concerned about is the effect of the stress endured by the spine over an extended period of time. According to Dr. Christopher Bono, writing in “The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery” in 2004, disc degeneration is higher in athletes than it is in non-athletes; and the fact that sacral stress fracture occurs almost exclusively in marathon and track runners alone suggests that extensive running on hard surfaces poses a threat to the longevity of your spinal column.
According to Dr. Timothy Noakes, author of “Lore of Running," there are measures you can take to cure back pain associated with running. Do stretches and exercises--such as abdominal crunches, wall squats and leg raises--to strengthen your core and back muscles; use appropriate shoes or insoles to curb foot imbalances, maintain a good posture and refine your running technique. Cut back on uphill mileage to reduce the angular changes in your spine, and train on softer surfaces, such as sand or grass, to lessen the force generated by the impact of your foot, thus reducing strain on the vertebrae.
Although back pain is usually impermanent and curable through rest and self treatment, there are rare occasions where the underlying cause may be of a more critical nature. These include spinal stenosis, malformation of the spine, a slipped disc, infection or collapse of the vertebrae, osteoporosis and cancer. Therefore, if chronic back pain persists you might want to seek medical advice.
Just because you're a runner and you happen to experience back pain doesn't necessarily mean that running is the cause. There are many other factors, completely unrelated to the sport, that may be the source of your discomfort. Improper lifting of heavy objects, poor sleeping positions, unsuitable pillows, hefty backpacks, sudden movement, and stress can all contribute to back pain.
- “The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery”; Low-Back Pain in Athletes; Dr. Christopher M. Bono; 2004
- “Lore of Running”; Dr. Timothy Noakes; 2001