Many of you who wrote in with questions wanted to know how to manage lower back tightness, and I think it is a great lead into proper running mechanics and body position to optimize your running. As we proceed, I will be operating under the assumption that you have been evaluated by a professional and that all serious lower back conditions have been ruled out. What I would like to address is the best and easiest kind of lower back pain to deal with—just plain old muscle tightness and soreness.
Primarily, there are two main issues that can lead to lower back tightness. The first is pelvic position and the second is a lack of proper core strength and control.
By far, the runners I work with that have muscular lower back pain have what we call a “lordotic posture.” There is a lot of arch to their low back and their pelvis is dumped forward. Think about your pelvis as a bowl full of water and you are dumping water out of the front of the bowl. This is what lordotic posture looks like. It is indicative of people that run with, what I call an extension-biased gait pattern. Typically, these folks drive their running through pawing at the ground and pushing out the back, which is not super efficient. The extension needed to drive your gait pattern this way leads us to dump our pelvis forward and actively overuse our lower back muscles and hamstrings more for propulsion. This lordotic posture also makes our abdominals and glutes long and weak, which causes us to use rotation through the lumbar spine to get excessive extension at the hip. The combination of increased lordosis and lumbar rotation with this gait pattern can lead to extremely tight lower back muscles.
Core Strength and Control
It has been said many times before: core strength and control for proper running is key. The problem is, most folks think that they have a strong core and know how to activate it properly, but more often than not, they don’t. The muscle that I focus on a lot is the Transverse Abdomius. This muscle is like a tube that runs around your midsection. Its bottom attachment is along the ring of the pelvis and its top attachment is along your ribs. When this muscle is activated, all sides of the tube pull toward the center and your pelvis and lower back are supported. The key to activating this muscle is that it needs to be separate from your breath. Think about when you laugh, and your stomach pulls in. This is proper Transverse activation. When you have this muscle turned on properly, your pelvis is in neutral and your back is flat, offloading your lower back muscles.
So, how do we fix lower back tightness with runners? The answer is to activate your Transverse Abdominus and run with more hip flexion to drive your stride. With Transverse activation, our pelvis is pulled into a more neutral position, flattening the back and decreasing the lordosis. This allows us to share the love between our core and lower back muscles, decreasing lower back tightness. This also puts the pelvis into the optimal position for glute engagement, which decreases the amount of lumbar rotation we will use for hip extension, further decreasing lower back muscle use.
By focusing more on hip flexion to drive our gait pattern, we can also decrease lower back tightness. Think about driving the running motion by marching or bringing your foot up from the hip, rather than driving back. Our stride length is determined by how forcefully we bring our knee up and forward, not how hard we push back. This gait pattern uses the bigger muscle groups of the hip to drive the running motion, rather than our hamstrings and lower back muscles to move us forward. Combine this with constant Transverse Abdominus activation when running and not only do we have less back pain, but we get in a great core workout as well.
As always, a good foam rolling and stretching routine is also important for keeping lower back tightness at bay. But if you keep your core engaged, your pelvis in neutral and drive your running stride by marching, you can rest assured that your lower back will feel better and you will run faster and more efficiently. See you on the trails!
Medical Disclaimer: What I write here in no way substitutes for an in-person, thorough evaluation by a licensed physical therapist. As with many body issues, there can be multiple factors involved with your aches and pains, and in some cases, more serious underlying conditions that can be manifesting as physical symptoms. This is particularly important for lower back pain. It is always best to have a PT that you can see when you have concerns so that you can make sure your personal situation is being addressed appropriately and safely. This column should, in no way, serve as a substitute for seeing a licensed medical practitioner.