“Why does my back keep hurting,” you wonder as you can’t make your target pace for the 3rd time this week. This is certainly not how you thought training for a 5k was going to go. Your friends convinced you to try running, and all they can talk about is how good running makes them feel. The stress relief, the endorphins, the “runner’s high”, blah blah blah…….
Then why does going for a little jog make you so miserable? Why do you have to throw an ice pack on your back as soon as you get done with anything over half a mile? It’s simply not fair.
Why Does Your Back Keep Hurting?
For novice runners, 2 primary reasons why you are having low back pain are:
1. Poor Body Movement and Biomechanics
2. Poor Running Form/Technique
Limitations in one, or both, of these areas will not only lead to decreased running efficiency, but will also put you at a greater risk for pain and injury.
Listing poor movement and biomechanics first is not by accident or random chance. Pain in one region of the body, especially when it comes to repetitive activities like running, is often due to overuse of that region. And overuse of that region is often due to underuse of another. If your movement capabilities are not in order to begin with, you leave yourself open not using your body and muscles properly, which can quickly lead to low back pain.
But even if you have great movement capabilities and biomechanics, there are common breakdowns in running form that can also lead to low back pain. Believe it or not, proper running form isn’t just for running faster and more efficient, but it will also help you stay pain-free and avoid injury.
So, What Are You Doing Wrong?
The biggest area of poor movement that can lead to low back pain is poor hip extension. Hip extension is the movement of your leg going behind you. During running, this is the portion of your step that you are pushing off your back leg, using your glutes to propel you forward.
But what if your leg can’t get far enough behind you (i.e., limited hip extension)? Well, then you are not going to be able to use your glute to push forward. So how do you keep moving forward? Muscles in your low back will begin to push you forward. With every step you take, you begin to use your low back more and more, instead of your glutes. Constantly using your low back for something it wasn’t meant to do is the exact type of overuse that will lead to low back pain.
The second common mistake novice runners make is leaning forward from the hips instead of at the ankles. Leaning forward from the hips will just push your upper body forward, creating an excessive arch in your low back, which again can place too much stress in the area and lead to pain. A lean from the ankles, a la Smooth Criminal Michael Jackson, will place your body in a more efficient position and allow you to place the stresses of running more through your muscles and tendons in your legs.
Ok, Now How Do You Fix It?
Step 1: Restore Proper Hip Extension
Improving hip extension requires using your hamstrings to help pull your leg bone underneath and behind you. Once your leg is more behind you, your glutes can help finish the motion and then push you forward.
Here is a starting exercise to learn how you can get your hips more underneath you, use your hamstrings, and set yourself up to have full hip extension:
Once you’ve learned how to use your hamstring to give you some more hip extension, you can progress to getting your glutes involved with these exercises:
Step 2: Improve Your Foot Strike Placement
A significant heel strike is often a result of your foot landing too far forward in front of your center of mass with each step you take while running. A fast way to improve this is actually by increasing your cadence, or steps per minute that you take. If you are stepping faster, you will ultimately be taking more steps, and your feet will have to get off the ground faster with each step. This faster stepping will mean your foot doesn’t have the time to get all the way out in front of your body, and will land more underneath you, in a better midfoot strike position. Many in the running world recommend a cadence of 180 steps per minute.
This drill can help you practice what it is like to step at a higher cadence before you go on your runs:
(If your cadence is significantly lower than 180 steps per minute, jumping straight to that many will be difficult. Try increasing by just 5 steps per minute for every 4 weeks of practice.)
Step 3: Learn How to Lean from the Ankles
This last step is likely the most difficult, but will probably improve your running efficiency and form the most (as long as you have mastered the steps 1 and 2 first). Running a 5k or for distance is different than sprinting. Sprinting involves crazy amounts of effort and driving hard into the ground, literally propelling yourself forward with as much force as you are capable. Running for distance should look more like a controlled fall. Like your steps are really only happening because they prevent you from falling straight on your face.
Watch this video here, for a visual of what it actually means to lean from your ankles instead of your hips.
While low back pain is incredibly common and likely to be experienced by any runner at some point in time, no two cases will present the exact same. What causes your back pain will not be the same reasons that someone else is having back pain. The information and exercises above are a great starting place to getting out of pain and back to running, but if you want to be moving and feeling your absolute best, then a more individualized approach is necessary. If you are currently experiencing back pain that is limiting your performance and enjoyment of running, then call us at (469)626-7254 to schedule an evaluation where you can learn exactly what you need to get out of pain and perform at your very best. Whether specific exercises to improve your movements, or drills to improve your running form, at Human Function and Performance you will get an individualized plan to help you get back to achieving your goals.
If you have any questions about low back pain, running, or anything else related to rehab and performance, then please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I would love to continue a conversation about these fascinating topics with you.