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David Freeze: Gotta Run

Running and back pain

Two of my current personal training clients want to become runners but are experiencing back pain issues. I had another topic picked out for this column but changed due to a need to address the issue. There is a huge amount of quality material available on the subject but plenty of misconception too.

Only once in my life have I had a back issue. I stepped awkwardly and felt a twinge. After imagining that the issue wouldn’t be much, I went about my business. What transpired was about four days of discomfort and inability to straighten up. I actually thought my spine was crooked from the way I appeared in the mirror. I kept running and felt pretty good during the effort but the uncomfortable stiffness returned quickly afterwards, made worse by some of my dumb practices.

The company I worked for sent me to an orthopedic exercise professional in Charlotte and it was one of the best and most productive medical visits of my life. At the time, I was beginning to find some real success in local races and the physical therapist knew of me. My first question was, “Will it hurt to keep running?” His immediate answer was, “No, but you need to do away with some bad practices.” I didn’t want to miss a day and therefore loved this answer. Proper stretches and icing were all it took, and some forethought before making an improper step or lift helped later on.

Most back issues for runners come from those other practices. Back issues can result from all manner of activity and inactivity. While some runners experience lower back pain, it may more often be a result of sitting hunched in front of a computer screen all day than from that 5 miles you ran before work.

In fact, research published in the journal Spine, which surveyed 937 former elite athletes from different sports and 620 control participants, discovered that lower back pain was actually less of a problem for athletes than the general population. When the researchers honed in on runners in particular, they didn’t find any correlation between lower back pain and higher training mileage.

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 exercise. 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.

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 then 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 and avoid running on concrete if at all possible.

From my own personal experience, I found all the following to help. Use ice on the lower spine after exercise, stay out of hot baths and whirlpools because they promote inflammation, and use several stretches that really help. My favorite, and I do this every morning before getting out of bed, is to pull the knees to my chest and rock back and forth a dozen times or so. This aligns the spine before it has to support the body. Core building exercise/stretches like planks and the Superman target the core back muscles for strengthening. They work.

If the problem persists, visit your exercise supporting physical therapist or doctor. See www.salisburyrowanrunners.org for upcoming events.

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