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Everything runners need to know about back pain

Runner and physiotherapist Jean-Francois Esculier explains why runners might have back pain and what to do about it

When it comes to running injuries, we tend to focus on the knees, shins, feet and hips. While back injuries are not as common among distance runners, there are those who suffer from back pain, particularly runners who are new to the sport or who are moving up in distance. We spoke with Jean-Francois Esculier, who is a runner, physiotherapist and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, to give you the rundown on why runners may experience back pain, and what they should do about it.

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Esculier explains that contrary to what some might think, running is actually good for the back, and physical inactivity is riskier than running. Most of the back pain that runners experience occurs in the lower back, but he says this is more often due to their daily lifestyle.

“A healthy lifestyle with less sitting and more movement overall every day is helpful in preventing low back pain,” he told us.

That being said, there are some instances where running can be the source of back pain. According to Esculier, two of the most common causes of running-specific back pain are increasing running speed too quickly, or an increase in the amount of downhill running you are doing. He explains that both of these factors cause more extension in your spine when you’re running, and downhill running places more impact on the lower back. Runners who add too much speedwork or downhill running into their training too quickly can irritate some of the joints in that area, resulting in back pain.

Esculier notes that this irritation is usually short-term only, and it is not something to get too worried about. However, if your back is hurting while you’re running, you should take a few days off and try walking instead. Once your back starts to feel better, he suggests resuming running by alternating between slow running and walking on a flat course to initially limit the range of motion and the impact. From there you should gradually increase your volume until you are no longer walking before resuming speed or hills, provided, of course, you aren’t experiencing any pain.

“Sometimes, it can recover quite quickly,” he said. “Some other people need more time, and that’s totally fine. Don’t compare yourself with other people.”

 

He also strongly cautions against sitting all day on the couch or lying in bed if you have back pain. Instead, you should move as tolerated since people typically recover much quicker with movement instead of static positions. He adds that experiencing mild pain with movement is OK, and runners should start doing strengthening exercises as soon as possible, even with mild pain. A physiotherapist will be able to give you exercises that will strengthen your back and other muscles.

If you have recurring back pain, Esculier recommends tweaking your running gait (like taking shorter steps, trying to run softer and reducing the amount of vertical bouncing) or perhaps changing your shoes to something that less cushioning, which can help you feel the ground better and decrease impact.

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The best way for runners to avoid back pain is through a healthy lifestyle with less sitting and more movement overall throughout the day. Esculier also recommends runners follow a strength program that includes trunk and hip exercises to complement their running training. If you are a new runner or you’re looking to move up in distance, be sure to do so gradually to give your body time to adapt to the increased demands you’re placing on it.

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