Back Pain in Runners

Back pain in runners often stems from weak core muscles.

WHEN WE THINK OF AVID runners, we often conjure in our minds people who are at the peak of fitness – active and agile, with maybe the occasional bout of knee pain, but never anything too serious because these people are healthy. Well, study after study has shown the medical community that there are a variety of issues that can affect the body of a runner, and not only his or her knees, as many would suspect. As it turns out, avid runners can battle some pretty severe low back pain.

The explanation for why runners suffer episodes of low back pain may seem straightforward – the impact of foot to pavement could have a jarring effect on the spine, and over a long enough period, lead to regular episodes of back pain. While this explanation can be real for some, studies have highlighted something else entirely: back pain in runners may stem from weak core muscles.

How can that be, you ask? Well, the muscles that protect our spines are not the same muscles that give us those Instagram-worthy, picture-perfect six-pack abs. The muscles deep below those superficial ones do the bulk of the bodyguard work in protecting the spine. Research has found that many runners who suffer from chronic low back pain may also have weaker deep-core muscles. This phenomenon can cause a domino effect – tapping into the superficial muscles to engage in a technically-perfect run is still possible, but doing so can put pressure on the spine to compensate. The result? Low back pain. The question becomes: How do we prevent it, and how can we in the medical community get the word out about focusing more on those deep core muscles during exercise?

With the increase in the use and popularity of online social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, the world has seen a proliferation of “fitness profiles” flood their screens with tips, tricks and information on how to work out and what to eat. As has always been the case, just because someone is speaking through the megaphone of the internet doesn’t mean that what they’re saying is true. Or safe.

When it comes to core muscles, the most important work you can do to keep them strong won’t necessarily get you a six-pack result. The deep core muscles that protect the spine are underneath the muscles that provide you with a rock-solid abdomen. It may seem fine to ignore them in pursuit of the aesthetic result, but I guarantee it won’t be worth it if you ever suffer a severe bout with back pain.

Instead – and runners, this includes you, too – everyone should focus on working the deep core muscles. This isn’t in order to look better, but to safeguard the body against injury. The best way to do this is to engage in static exercise that holds the body in place while firing the core muscles. Plank exercises do this well, but even they need to be “built up to” for some, especially first-time exercisers. “Dead bugs” are a great intro core exercise for beginners. These focus on core stability and engaging the right muscles for optimal result. From there, you can work up to more plank exercise varieties that are sure to get those deep core muscles firing.[ 

Whether you consider yourself a seasoned runner, avid fitness enthusiast or neither, it’s always important to engage in exercise that addresses those crucial, if not always seen, deep core muscles. Your spine will thank you for it.

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