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At the Core of Back Pain in Runners

Dr. Anand Blog

February 5th, 2018

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 H-E-A-L-T-H-Y. Well, a new study in the Journal of Biomechanics has us looking deeper into one phenomenon that you may not know about runners – they can battle some pretty serious low back pain.

At the Core of Back Pain in Runners

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 of time, may lead to regular episodes of back pain. While this explanation can be true for some, what this recent study highlighted was something else entirely – back pain in runners may actually 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. In fact, it is the muscles deep below those superficial ones that do the bulk of the bodyguard work in protecting the spine. The study found that many runners who suffer from chronic low back pain ALSO had weaker deep-core muscles. This caused a domino effect – tapping into the superficial muscles to engage in a technically-perfect run was still possible, but doing so put a lot of pressure on the spine in order to compensate. The result? Pain. The question becomes: how do we prevent it and how can we in the medical community get the word out about focusing on those deep core muscles more during exercise?

With the increase in the use and popularity of online social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat in recent years, 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, it doesn’t mean what they’re saying is true. Or safe.

When it comes to core muscles, the most important work you can do in keeping them strong won’t necessarily net you a six-pack result. In fact, the deep core muscles that protect the spine are underneath the muscles that provide you 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 (runners, this includes you too!), everyone should focus on working the deep core muscles - not 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” is 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 a number of 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 is 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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