You may not think your lower back has much of a role in running, but it actually plays a pivotal part in the kinetic chain that powers your running mechanics.
Your core muscles—not just your abdominals, but the muscles that wrap around your midsection—support your spine and lower back. And your core, hips, glutes, and hamstrings together form one big stability machine, so weakness in any one of those muscles forces the others to take up the slack.
If you have weak hip and gluteal muscles, for example, as they become fatigued during a run, your lower back is forced to work harder to keep you upright and stable, and you become vulnerable to injury. That’s why it’s important to include lower back exercises in your routine.
Once lower back pain strikes, it can sideline you, but strengthening your core and stretching the muscles that support the lower spine can help. Research backs this—one 2016 review of studies published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that exercising can play a key role in preventing lower back pain. But to properly address the issue, it’s important to understand the root of the problem.
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What can cause lower back pain?
While every case is different and individual, there are three common causes of pain in your lower back:
- Muscular pain that comes on suddenly in your lower back is often indicative of a muscle spasm. Your muscles will feel as though they have locked up, and the pain can be severe and debilitating. You will not feel the shooting pain characteristic of sciatic or discogenic pain.
- Pain in your lower back that is associated with shooting pains down the back of one or both legs indicates sciatica or discogenic pain. A pinched nerve causes this discomfort. It often feels sharp compared to the muscle-gripping sensation that you would feel with a spasm.
- If you feel a chronic general achiness across the whole area of your lower back, you may have arthritis.
How do you strengthen your lower back?
To prevent back pain, you need to work on strength and flexibility through the entire kinetic chain. Your spine and spinal muscles get lots of support from your core.
In addition, tightness or weakness in your glutes, hips, quads, and hamstrings will impact the muscles in your lower back, putting more strain on those muscles and setting them up for a spasm. Adding strength exercises and stretches that target your lower back can help.
What are the best exercises for lower back pain?
If you’re trying to fix that nagging back pain—or more importantly prevent it—try the following strength exercises and lower back stretches, demonstrated by Hollis Tuttle, certified personal trainer and run coach in New York City. Add this routine to your workouts one to two times per week. As always, consult with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine to ensure it’s safe for your condition.
How to use this list: Complete 3 to 5 sets of the following exercises in order. Perform each exercise for the specified number of reps or seconds, resting for 30 seconds between exercises. Add these moves to your routine 2 to 3 times per week. You will need a large stability ball and an exercise mat.
Start on all fours. Lower onto your forearms with shoulders directly over elbows. Step feet back into a plank position. Draw your shoulders down and back—not hunched. Engage abdominal muscles tight to keep hips in line with shoulders so your body forms a long, straight line. Squeeze legs and glutes for support. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds. Gradually add time as your core gets stronger. Repeat for 3 to 5 reps.
Make it harder: Roll onto your right forearm and stack feet to perform a side plank. Repeat on other side.
Stability Ball Back Extension
Start facedown on a stability ball with feet resting on floor and core engaged so body forms a straight line. Keeping your back naturally arched, place hands behind ears and lower your upper body as far as you comfortably can. Squeeze glutes and engage back to and raise your torso until it’s in line with your lower body. Pause, then slowly lower your torso back to the starting position. Repeat for 12 to 15 reps.
Stability Ball Pike
Start in a high plank position with shoulders directly over wrists and tops of feet resting on a stability ball. Your body should form a straight line from head to ankles. Without bending your knees, roll the ball toward your chest by raising your hips as high as you can toward the ceiling. Pause, then lower hips as you roll the ball back to the starting position. Perform 12 to 15 reps.
Make it easier: Start with a Knee Tuck: In a high plank position, place shins on ball. Draw knees toward chest without raising your hips as you roll the ball to feet. Repeat, then work your way up to the pike position as you get stronger and more stable.
Stability Ball Reverse Leg Raise
Lie facedown on a stability ball with your hips on the ball, hands on the floor with shoulders over wrists, and legs extended out straight, toes resting on floor. Keeping legs as straight as possible, engage your glutes and your lower back to lift legs until they are in line with your torso. Lower back down to the starting position. Repeat for 15 reps.
Lie faceup on the floor with knees bent, feet flat on the floor, arms resting at sides. Squeezing your glutes, lift your hips until your body forms a straight line from shoulders to knees. Pause for 3 seconds, and then lower back down to the starting position. Repeat for 15 reps.
Lie facedown on the mat with legs extended straight and arms down at your sides, palms down. Contract your glutes and lower back muscles as you lift head, chest, arms, and legs off the mat and rotate arms so thumbs point toward the ceiling. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, and then relax back to the floor for 5 seconds. Repeat for 10 reps.
All images by:Julia Hembree Smith
This article has been excerpted and adapted from Dr. Jordan Metzl’s Running Strong: The Sports Doctor’s Complete Guide to Staying Healthy and Injury-Free for Life.