A few tips this week for those running with a bad back, or those who simply want to avoid suffering from it.
First - a relevant pre-season story from my days as a professional football physio.
Pre-season would come around and the running would commence. It was customary back then for pretty much the entire first week, if not two, of pre-season to be focused on building stamina and fitness, so the lads would hit the concrete hard, the woods in Durham, or even the paths of Richmond, depending on where we were based that week.
And if I could predict two of the most common injuries that I’d see in the first two weeks of a pre-season, it would be ‘Runner’s Knee’ (pain on the outside of the knee AKA IT Band syndrome), or the complaint of a stiff lower back, which would limit a player’s ability to run as far as everyone else.
Here’s the problem: Most of the time the stiff lower back and the IT Band issue go hand in hand. If you have a weak lower back and struggle to keep pace with the miles you’re running, then the first warning sign is usually stiffness. The second could be a problem elsewhere, such as the outside of the knee.
But an even bigger problem exists, too. See, for runners complaining of a bad back, it’s often the case that it’s not even a bad back causing the pain. There’s such a thing known as Piriformis Syndrome that makes you think you’ve got a bad back or even a touch of sciatica.
However, I can tell you this isn’t a bad back. It’s just another sign of a weak one. It’s often the source of frustration for many pro-footballers at this time of the year (and grassroots runners), who increase their mileage in line with the inviting summer weather, which makes it very difficult to resist another run after work.
Here’s what you need to do if this is happening to you: Firstly, stop running completely. You can walk, bike ride and do other things like swimming and even a stint on the cross-trainer, but you need to stop the running.
Piriformis Syndrome is the result of a muscle right in the middle of your bum that’s got too big, because of all the running you’ve been doing. And it has happened because your lower back isn’t strong enough, meaning that the wrong muscles have been working too hard to support you while you run.
So when your piriformis muscle has got bigger, like any muscle would if you worked it hard, it begins to trap a nerve in your bum, and this can make you feel like you’ve got back pain, or nerve pain, and is frustrating because it often disappears as soon as you stop running.
Rest will do nothing to improve it either. You need deep massage and plenty of ice, both applied a few times per day for a couple of weeks. Do lots of stretching, too. Just as important, you need to strengthen your lower back muscles and you can do that by following core stability or Pilates style exercises, progressively and daily.
Tip: Once the problem is fixed, don’t make the same mistake as most people do and stop your lower back exercises thinking that everything is okay. Do that and I guarantee your sore back will return. Keep doing them and your chances of suffering again will lessen greatly.