Running has a reputation for giving the body a pounding, and for some runners with lower back pain that can be a very real experience. For others, running itself is fine but the pain appears afterwards. The solution is the same in either case, and believe it or not it doesn’t involve stretching.
The solution is also the same if you have back pain and aren’t even a runner! This is because, unlike many common running injuries that are produced by the distinctive way we move when we run, lower back pain is a more general problem that can be triggered or aggravated by running but doesn’t really come from running.
As a Feldenkrais practitioner I’ve had a lot of clients with lower back pain, both runners and nonrunners. This is because lower back pain is generally a very easy thing to sort out through Feldenkrais lessons. We eat back pain for breakfast, in other words.
My clients with lower back pain have certain things in common. We’ll look at those in a moment, but first let me clarify that I’m not talking about sciatica, where pain radiates down a leg, or spinal stenosis or spondolysthesis or any other back condition. I’m talking about garden-variety, the-doctor-can’t-find-anything-wrong-with-your-back kind of back pain.
Generally speaking, people with lower back pain focus on stretching and/or relaxing their backs. Sometimes this brings temporary relief, and other times it just seems to irritate the back. However I’ve never seen a person with low back pain for whom tense back muscles were the primary problem.
The muscles may indeed be tense but that comes about as the result of something else going on, and no matter how much you stretch them you aren’t addressing the real issue.
Very frequently, that issue is limited hip joint range of motion. The freedom of your legs to move comes in large part from your hip joints–ball-and-socket joints designed to make quite large movements possible. By comparison, the range of motion your spine can contribute is quite limited.
Hip joints allow the thighs to lift up in front (flex), lengthen backwards (extend), lift out to the side (abduct), come towards your center or even cross to the other side (adduct) and turn inwards and outwards (rotate internally and externally).
When you run you need to be able to do all of these things in both hip joints. However most of us semi-sedentary adults have lost track of how to do them all as easily as we should.
If you move your leg but don’t allow the necessary action in your hip joint, then your pelvis gets pulled along and this results in your leg pulling on your back, sometimes with a great deal of force. Then your back “pulls back” because your nervous system correctly identifies an unhealthy demand. And voila, tense back muscles and a sore back.
Even worse is when only one hip joint has limited range of motion, since that creates an asymmetrical pull on the back and that can set up not just achiness, but spasms as well, as your nervous system tries to prevent your back from being pulled ever deeper into a twist in one direction only.
Then trying to stretch your back means trying to fight your brain’s efforts to protect you. So of course as soon as the stretch is over (or within a day) the tension is back again.
Asymmetrical upper body movement habits can have the same effect. For instance a habit of bending a bit to one side or turning your shoulders one direction and not the other.
And finally, the opposite extreme of excessive pelvic stability can create a chronically achy or tense back as well. Because while on the one hand you don’t want your legs dragging on your back due to lack of freedom at your hip joints, on the other hand you do need your pelvis to move in coordination with your legs to facilitate your shift of body weight from leg to leg.
An effort to interfere with that movement (or simply a habit of not moving your pelvis) requires a lot of tension in your trunk, including your back muscles. It also increases your impact because your weight isn’t in the right place on footstrike and your trunk can’t function as part of your spring system.
A couple of years ago when I had the opportunity to try some things in a gait lab I compared myself allowing my pelvis to move and trying to hold it still, with this surprising effect.
Unsurprisingly, my first recommendation is that you stop stretching your back and focus instead on hip joint mobility of all kinds. This should be done in combination with movement of your trunk rather than while trying to hold your trunk still.
Chances are that if you switched from back stretches to glute, hamstring, quad, hip flexor, and adductor (inner thigh) stretches today you’d feel some improvement right away. However I don’t recommend static stretches, and here’s why.
Instead, I recommend dynamic or active isolated stretches, since they work through a range of motion and enlist your nervous system to help you become more flexible and mobile.
It will be more powerful and long-lasting, however, to work on changing some of the movement habits that resulted in your back pain to begin with. For that you’ll want a Feldenkrais lesson–probably more than one. As I said at the outset, this method is really good with back pain.
I’ve put together my best Feldenkrais lesson for runners’ lower back pain and a video of my favorite sequence of active isolated stretches to create a resource to help your back feel better as soon as possible. Get it here:
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.