Even though running is one of the simplest forms of exercise, each person's body responds differently to it. Running is a high-impact exercise. However, because of differences in stride, weight and coordination, running can be either good or bad for back pain, depending on the individual. If your back pain is chronic or intense, talk to your physician.
Causes of Back Pain
One factor that makes the relationship between running and back pain complex is that there are many causes of back pain. Several structural problems are often the culprits, including bulging or ruptured disks, sciatica, arthritis, skeletal irregularities and osteoporosis. These may only be fixable by surgery, if at all. However, lifestyle risk factors that can cause back pain include obesity, sedentary work and stress.
How Running Can Cause Back Pain
Running is a high-impact exercise. The faster you run, the harder your feet hit the ground. The repetitive jarring can be very hard on the joints and the spine. Studies such as the one published in the September 1986 issue of the "British Journal of Sports Medicine" found that the spine shrank by several millimeters after a 6 km run, and the shrinkage was directly proportionate to running speed. Although the relationship of spinal shrinkage to spine pain isn't fully known, those results show how much stress running can put on the spine. If you experience chronic back pain, running may not be an option.
How Running Can Reduce Back Pain
Running can remedy or reduce some lifestyle causes of back pain. Obesity is a major contributor to back pain, and running is an excellent way to lose weight. A sedentary lifestyle can also cause back pain, by allowing the core muscles that support the spine to lose strength. A study published in the December 2009 issue of "Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism" found that running activated trunk muscles as well as core-specific exercises. Stress, anxiety and depression are also contributors to back pain, causing the muscles of the lower back to lock up. Exercise is one of the best ways to combat stress.
Techniques and Alternatives
Even if you experience back pain during or after running, you might not have to give it up. Spine-Health.com explains that there are several things you can do to minimize or eliminate back pain caused by running. Warm up before your run. Don't take off as fast as you can; walk for awhile and work your way up to speed. Stretch your hamstrings several times throughout the day. The hamstrings can pull at the lower back, causing pain and putting the spine in a suboptimal position to receive the impact of running. Perform weighted core exercises. Wear good, supportive shoes; avoid running on concrete if at all possible. If you have access to a pool, a study published in the July 2011 "American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation" found that deep-water running actually significantly reduced pain in patients with chronic back pain by increasing muscular strength and lumbar range of motion.
- "Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism"; Trunk Muscle Activation During Moderate and High-Intensity Running; D.G. Behm; December 2009
- Spine-Health.com: Running and Lower Back Pain
- "British Journal of Sports Medicine"; Spinal Loading During Circuit Weight-Training and Running; P. Leatt; September 1986
- "American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation"; Exercise, Manual Therapy, and Education With or Without High-Intensity Deep-Water Running for Nonspecific Chronic Low Back Pain; A.L Cuesta-Vargas; July 2011