Here’s exactly why your back hurts—plus exercises that’ll have you running pain-free again ASAP.
If you ever have lower-back pain, you’re far from alone: According to the University of Maryland School of Medicine, nearly 80 percent of the population will experience lower-back pain at some point in their lives.
And if you’re a runner? You’re even more likely to deal with this annoying issue. Lower-back pain is especially common in runners because a weakness or imbalance in your core and hip muscles can mess with your body’s ability to run with proper form.
More proof: Recent research from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that runners with weak core muscles were at a much higher risk of developing lower-back pain, while another study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that doing lower-body strength exercises improved lower-back pain and overall running ability.
A strong core is like having a strong foundation built into your pelvis, hips, and legs. When these areas are supported by strong muscles, they can bend and extend better, and more fully, says Audrey Lynn Millar, P.T, Ph.D., FACSM, chair in the department of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University.
But that doesn’t mean you should crank out a million crunches: “The hip muscles control the movement of running, so instead of focusing only on abs, focus on strengthening all the trunk and hip muscles that intertwine and surround the lower back,” she says. Millar recommends performing leg and core exercises two to three days each week as well as incorporating overall strength, flexibility, and balance work into your weekly workout routine. All this will help your lower-body muscles work in sync for pain-free running.
And if you work nine-to-five in an office, you’re probably even worse off. Sitting all day leaves your lower back and hips tight. Tight hips restrict your ability to move and extend your stride while running, and that means the surrounding muscles—including those in your lower back—have to overstretch and strain to compensate, says Millar. She recommends taking walking breaks during the day, incorporating a standing desk, and stretching at night to relieve any sitting-induced tightness. She offers a quick note of caution, however, if you’re having lower-back pain that radiates to your hips or knees, or pain that’s spreading to other areas in your body. In that case, it’s time to see your doc.
Exercises to Help with Lower-Back Pain from Running
Add these six exercises into your workout to target the core and lower-body muscles that specifically support your lower back when running:
The side plank “requires activation of the deep hip rotators and deep core muscles that stabilize the low back when running,” says Millar. Lie on the floor, balancing on the right elbow and outside of the right foot. Lift hips off the floor to hold a side plank position, forming a straight line from head to heels.
Hold for 15 to 20 seconds, and then release. Repeat on your left knee and left forearm.
This exercise activates the lower back to help stabilize your torso, explains Millar. Start on hands and knees on the floor. Lift the right hand and left foot up off the floor at the same time, extending right arm forward, biceps by ear and kicking the left foot straight backward. Engage core to keep back from arching.
Hold for 30 seconds, and then release. Repeat on the opposite side.
This exercise helps reduce lower-back pain for runners because it gently stretches and reduces tension in irritated nerves, allowing you greater range of motion while running, says Millar. Start on all fours on the floor. Exhale and gently round spine up to the ceiling, dropping head and tailbone toward the floor. Then inhale and drop belly button toward the floor, arching your back, extending head and tailbone toward the ceiling.
Do 5 to 10 reps.
SIDE-LYING LEG RAISE
This exercise strengthens the gluteus medius hip muscle, says Millar. It’s a critical muscle for holding your pelvis in place and reducing the torque on your lower back when running. Lie on the floor on the right side with legs extended. Lift the left leg up about 6 inches, then slowly lower it without touching it to the right foot. Keep the range of motion small and controlled.
Do 10 reps. Repeat on the opposite side.
Bridges strengthen all of your upper-leg muscles, including your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Lie faceup on the floor with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift hips up about 6 inches, pause, and then slowly lower.
Do 10 reps
Stand on the right leg. Hinge at the hips and right knee to slowly lower about 6 to 10 inches into a partial squat. Return to standing.
Do 10 reps. Repeat on the opposite side.
This dynamic running exercise helps to strengthen the leg you’re standing on to work against the movement of the other leg, mimicking the motion of running, says Millar. Stand on the right leg. Keeping torso upright and in a slow and controlled motion, draw the left knee up toward the chest, then kick it forward, down, and back, making a circular motion as if pedaling a bike or running.
Do 10 reps. Switch sides and repeat on the opposite side.