Ultrarunning: Lower Back Pain and Running an Ultra

April 17, 2012

This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Lower Back Pain and Running an Ultra”, please leave it below in the comments section…

Lower back pain can happen whether it’s just regular daily activities or the intense training and competition of an ultramarathon. More often than not the problem for ultrarunners is poor posture. Some practitioners of this extremely challenging sport just aren’t conscious and don’t notice how far their spines bend backwards when running.

Admittedly, the resulting fatigue involved in running all those miles can easily make one lose focus. It’s hard to worry about running form when you’re also dealing with thirst, hunger, and all the other aches that come with an ultramarathon. But without proper form weight doesn’t get distributed evenly and the lower back gets more load than it should carry. Naturally that part of your body is going to complain.

Stabilizing and mobilizing muscles

Poor posture is often the result of weak core muscles – those groups in your abdomen, hips and back. Because certain sports involve only a particular range of movements, some muscle groups get more developed than others. This muscle imbalance can easily lead to improper movement and form. To better understand this, you can divide your muscles into two general kinds, those that help you move and those that help you control movement. A well-developed example of mobilizing muscles in runners is the hamstring, while the iliotibial band is an example of a stabilizing muscle.

Mobilizing muscles are unavoidably built up in the course of training. It’s the stabilizing ones that are sometimes taken for granted. In terms of the lower back, some of the muscles you ought to focus on strengthening are the transverse abdominals, multifidus, and pelvic floor. These three are known to support the spine and with more strength can be developed to reduce excessive movement of that particular body part and area. The glutes are said to be important as well as they help keep the pelvis steady especially when bearing weight only on one leg – the actual state that occurs with every foot strike. A steady pelvis is a stable and supportive platform for your lower back.

Strength building and coordination

You probably won’t find a lack of materials and references when it comes to strengthening core muscles, from the standard crunches for the abdomen to the more inventive ones that are meant to build up the glutes. There is a recent study however from the University of Copenhagen that proposes coordination be developed alongside muscle strength.

Having stronger stabilizing muscles increase the capacity to maintain better posture and efficient movements but according to the Copenhagen study that may not be the only way to achieve optimum biomechanics. The researchers divided the volunteers, all of whom have experienced lower back pain, into two groups. One group did the typical strength and endurance exercises for the lower back. The other group carried out special coordination exercises. After the set 3-month period, both groups were asked to accomplish a certain series of workouts that would test their backs. There were no significant differences in performance between the strength-trained group and the one trained in enhanced coordination. Strength may but will not always lead to better movement. You can develop agility in parallel and still save your lower back from pain.


Do you have questions about managing lower back pain, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.

Comments (5)

  • Roger says:

    This article is well written and proposes techniques which may help someone suffering from lower back pain, runner or not. Occasionally, someone suffering from lower back pain experiences relief when they perform non-provocative strengthening exercises. This is desirable of course.
    Back pain management trends over the last few years have promoted concepts related to "core" weakness or instability. This is endorsed by a few studies supporting the idea that people with lower back pain have some inherent trunk weakness, and also by anecdotal evidence from single case studies and those who have taken the time to write text books full of presumptive concepts. Although it is true that someone with back pain may have measurable trunk weakness, it is also true that someone with a meniscus tear and subsequent pain of the knee will often be found to have thigh (quad) weakness too. Is the solution to this persons knee pain to strengthen the quads? Did weakness cause back pain, or is it the result of back pain?
    Questions for thought:
    1) a review of literature from the 1970's to today (more than 5 studies) which asks the question "what is back pain", reveals some significant uniformity in conclusions. Back pain is most often related to IVD (intervertebral disc) dysfunction. So we must ask the question, are discs damaged as a result of weakness, or did weakness occur as unusually high stress loads on someone's spine began to deteriorate their intervertebral discs?
    2) a distance runner who experiences back pain may be suffering from poor posture related to fatigue or "core" weakness (as stated in the article), or they may simply have an underlying back problem which rears it's ugly head when everything else is falling apart too. Back pain is as common as a toothache (supported by studies). Nearly everyone experiences lower back pain at some point in their lives, and it is often episodic and recurring.
    3) A study in New York comparing strength changes of core muscles in subjects with back pain, found no difference in subjects given core strengthening exercises compared to subjects given pain reducing movements (non strengthening movements). Could it be that by reducing pain we see improvements in strength? Does this lead to further questions about the etiology of back pain?
    Thanks so much

  • Bruce andersen says:

    My back pain always happens after I sit around too long or after a night's sleep. After I go for a run,swim or bike ride the pain subsides. I do notice that after hard training the pain ,after resting, is more intense. I went away for a week several weeks after a 50k and every day without exercise my back pain got worse.

  • Sarah says:

    Before bed I use the tens belt: http://www.allegromedical.com/personal-care-c532/

    And I've also started cryotherapy treatments. Has anyone else tried these things?

  • Luis Stoute says:

    Hi…, I have been searching for somebody that is familiar to my special situation. I run ultras. Have done 14. Three 100 milers. I do a lot of core and back strengthening and elasticity workouts. Despite that, in two races my lower back has hurt me to the point of making me tilt to a lateral side, and I have run for hours like that to the point of not being able to move. The pain starts probably after 16 or 20 hours of running, very light, and gradually increases taking me all the way to a stop…, with my body tilting to a side. The problem has just happened in 2 races. I am trying to figure out what is that I do that causes that. Do you know of any specialist I can consult with this problem.

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