When you think of pain and injuries from running, it's likely that what comes to mind are below-the-waist issues, such as knee, foot, hip, hamstring or thigh problems. Back pain, however, rears its head in runners more frequently than you may think. Sometimes the pain is primary -- that is, it results from the act of running itself -- whereas in other cases, it doesn't result from running but becomes noticeably worsened by the activity.
Types of Back Pain
The stress of hitting the ground 1,500 times a mile affects your lower back as well as your legs, and runners who experience back pain usually feel it not far above the waist. Problems specific to the lower back include herniated or "slipped" discs and degenerative disc disease, which are discs that simply wear out as you age. Running causes neither of these but can certainly aggravate them. A lower-back muscle strain is simpler and you can treat it with gentle stretching, ice or heat packs and anti-inflammatory medications as directed by your physician or other health care provider.
Rehabbing on the Run
If your back pain doesn't abate completely on its own after a day or two of rest, switch tactics and try more aggressive interventions. If you ordinarily run on asphalt roads or concrete paths and sidewalks, switch to a treadmill, grassy paths or dirt trails; this relieves stress not only on your back but on all of your joints. Stick to level surfaces, since running downhill generates increased landing forces, which is the last thing you want when any part of you is sore. Consider getting a deep-tissue massage from a practitioner who specializes in sports massage. Finally, eliminate speed work in favor of light jogging or easier medium-long to longer runs.
If you've had back pain while running in the past and don't want a recurrence, switching to lower-impact forms of exercise a couple of times a week is probably your best way to avoid further trouble. You can try using an elliptical trainer; riding a stationary bicycle; walking, perhaps on a treadmill for extra impact reduction; swimming; and aqua-jogging. Always replace running shoes before their cushioning is entirely gone, which can help protect not only your back but your joints, muscles and tendons in your legs and ankles. Be sure to warm up properly before you run with your preferred stretches and also ease into every run gently before picking up the pace for the workout of the day.
Think Whole Body
According to Lewis G. Maharam, M.D., the medical director of the New York City Marathon, eight in 10 Americans will experience some kind of back pain in their lives. If you're an athlete, he says, it's probably not your specific sport that's to blame but weak muscles throughout your body, in particular your abdominal muscles, hip flexors and butt muscles. Imbalances in strength in any of these can lead to back pain, thanks to bad posture when you're sitting or standing and running. Maharam suggests finding a physical therapist who can provide specific guidance on what exercises you need the most and doing, say, 10 reps of each of these exercises three times a week to start.