5 Common Causes of Low Back Pain While Running

Did you know that 80% of people deal with low back pain at some point in their lives? Sadly, this statistic does not exclude runners. As you train and prepare for the upcoming Platte River Half Marathon & Relay race in Littleton, the last thing you want to deal with is low back pain.

Since so many runners experience this issue, several biomechanics and movement specialists have researched and diagnosed the most common causes of low back pain while running. Our friends at Studholme Chiropractic have created this helpful resource to help explain why you might have low back pain while running. Additionally, these pointers include tips to relieve or prevent low back pain while running to help you optimize your physical performance. Keep reading to learn more!

Fit woman running in a park

Common Cause #1: Pelvic Drop

Pelvic drop, also known as hip drop, happens during the midstance phase of gait when the contralateral hip to your stance leg drops lower than the other. Hip drop is necessary for walking and running to occur. However, when the hip drops lower than five to seven degrees, compensations of the back extensors and muscles further down the hip and leg have to react accordingly.

Most commonly, excessive hip drop results from reduced activation of the glutes. When this happens, the back-extensor muscles can be fatigued or strained from excessive, repetitive motion that they must go through with each step taken, which can lead to general low back pain.

Ways to Combat Pelvic Drop

Simply put, you want to improve your glute strength! If you haven’t visited our office yet, then you should know we hammer isolated strength, especially isolated glute strength. Glute strength is imperative for controlling the pelvic complex and essential for central stability.

During an appointment, we initially start with isometric holds, and then work to single leg strength, progressing to dynamic and absolute strength. As a result, our patients increase glute strength to help minimize lower back pain while running!

Common Cause #2: Low Cadence

If you wear a smartwatch or wearable fitness tracker, you most likely get a cadence reading. Cadence in running is the number of steps per minute you take. Ideally, the more steps you take in a minute, the better. Dr. Jack Daniels coined the “magic” 180 strides per minute, which has been set as the optimum stride rate in the running community.

If you are running at a lower cadence, your stride is more than likely lengthened, which forces you to extend your leg out in front of you. This prevents your joints from being able to bend (flex) as much as they should to absorb the forces that are being transmitted back up into the body.

Silhouettes of two runners at sunset

Ways to Change Low Cadence

To make a change in cadence, you first need to find out what your natural cadence is. Then, you can try and practice landing your lead leg closer to underneath your body. A more advanced way to increase cadence would be to utilize an external source for you to match. One benefit of changing your cadence is that you can do this while running!

Young fit woman running down an empty road surrounded by trees

Common Cause #3: Upright Trunk

Have you ever been told to run tall? It’s common to hear coaches or other runners give this cue, especially at the end of workouts or races when you’re feeling fatigued. While this might be a good cue, more often than not, runners tend to run too upright to the point of extending or overextending the back.

While we would encourage you to run with your trunk leaning slightly forward, it’s only a slight lean of about 10 degrees. This is challenging to catch with the naked eye, but you can come into our office where we can conduct a running gait analysis. During this analysis, we can record your running form on our Noraxon 3D treadmill, which will provide detailed measurement variables to help us determine improvements to your running posture.

Ways to Correct Upright Trunk

Correcting the upright trunk is more challenging to complete on your own. However, rather than trying to focus on leaning at a specific angle, there are some cues that you can focus on while running to correct an upright trunk.

One cue that you can try to prevent an upward trunk is to hold a forward-leaning motion as you would when you lean your chest over the finish line in a race. While cues like this can seem simple enough, however, the challenge is working on this long enough to make lasting changes.

Additionally, you want to make sure that when you are working on the trunk lean, you feel a greater activation in your gluteal muscles while running. By intentionally working on your gluteal strength as we mentioned above, you’ll become more comfortable in allowing the trunk to lean while running.

Whether you’re just trying to make it through a season of running to complete a race, or you’re a seasoned veteran trying to remain healthy, remember to keep these ideas in the back of your head. And if nagging low back pain starts to creep into your runs, try some of our suggestions to try to mitigate the problems on your own. Lastly, remember — low back pain should have no place in your runs if you consider this information!

Common Cause #4: Quadriceps Weakness

As you know, we runners love to run! That said, for many runners, working out at the gym can be akin to pulling teeth. However, we know that running-specific strength training at least three times a week can:

  • Reduce injuries
  • Make you faster
  • Improve your running economy

That said, the quadricep muscles are one of the primary shock absorbers in the body when you land with each footfall while running. Quadricep weakness can lead to limited or excessive knee flexion when you strike the ground. Each scenario is problematic, as the shock absorption capacity of the muscle is limited and most runners will compensate by running overly upright. (Revisit Common Cause # 3 to understand why this is a problem).

Woman stretching her quads to help prevent lower back pain while running

How to Correct Quadricep Weakness

The best way to correct quadriceps weakness is to do strength training three times a week. Squats, lunges, leg extension machines, and leg presses are all very effective exercises for gaining quad strength. Typically, we recommend 3 sets of 20 reps.

That said, ideally, the last set of 20 should be difficult to finish, and if not, then you need to increase your weight. For those of you pressed for time, one study showed that 1 set of 50 lunges — 3 seconds down and 3 seconds up three times a week — also created meaningful strength gains.

Young woman in a yoga studio practicing breathing techniques

Common Cause #5: Diaphragm Weakness

As you know, breathing is foundational to life. But as runners, we also know that when fatigue sets in, the first thing to break coordination is breathing. That being said, before you “hit the proverbial wall,” you’ll notice that you’ll start to breathe faster and shallower. This change in breathing mechanics will be the first sign of increasing effort.

What’s more, the diaphragm not only controls your breathing, it is also the most important core muscle. If you have a weak diaphragm, as you fatigue, you’ll lose the core stiffness it helps provide as it’s trying hard to manage your breathing. This weakness will force you to compensate with low back tightness to help maintain appropriate core stiffness while running.

How to Improve Diaphragm Strength 

The best way to train the diaphragm is to train it like the muscle it is. There are several devices on the market and our favorite is the Breathe Way Better Respiratory Trainer by Isocapnic. This device allows you to build strength and endurance in your diaphragm and will massively improve your breathing while running, too. Additionally, improving your diaphragm strength will lead to reduced low back pain and tightness. If you don’t have access to a breathing device, then learning how to “nasal breathe” and trying to nasal breathe on all your runs is a great place to start.

preventing lower back pain while running is possible!

Well, there you have it, folks! We hope these tips will help reduce your low back pain while running. Contact Studholm Chiropractic today if you want to learn more about preventative care for low back pain, and to have your running properly analyzed. You don’t have to be in pain when you run and we’re here to help prevent pain from slowing you down. Connect with us to schedule a free consultation, and we’ll show you why so many runners have trusted us with their injuries and are now running pain-free!