Alleviating Back Pain for Trail Runners

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When you think of trail-running injuries, the following may come to mind: bloody toes, stiff hamstrings, runner’s knee and bruised egos. But it’s not just our legs that are taking the brunt of our hill repeats. We often forget about the importance of core stabilization, shoulder stability and spinal health.

If you watch a pro in a race, his or her upper back and shoulders are solid and there isn’t much sway (other than the natural curve) in the lower spine (that is, until after mile 60. After that, all bets are off). Healthy runners focus on maintaining control in their upper body just as much as building strength in their legs and feet; a strong and controlled upper body helps support the lower body and guides the runner to stronger form.

Running with a sore, or even just a stiff back can make a workout unbearable. Many runners also struggle with sciatic pain (the nerve that exits from L5 and extends through the pelvis and down the leg and into the foot) which can be caused from myriad issues from bulging discs to aggravated hip flexors and psoas muscles.

Incorporate the exercises below into your regular workout to help alleviate any existing pain and to prevent yourself from tweaking your back in the future.

NOTE: These exercises are for daily maintenance. If you have a specific injury, consult your physician for appropriate stretching and therapies.

Target: Back and shoulders
Use: Strength

How to: Lie on your stomach and reach your arms in front of you. Separate your feet so that they’re a few inches apart. As you breathe in, engage your abdominals and lift your chest, arms and legs off the ground. Keep your gaze down to the ground to protect your neck. Lower your limbs down as you exhale. Do 3 sets of 20-30 reps.

Seated forward folds
Target: Low back and hips
Use: Stretch

How to: Sit on the ground and extend your legs in front of you. Leading with your chest, lower your torso toward your legs and rest your arms alongside, or on top of your legs. Let your head be heavy and relax your shoulders. Hold for 2 to 5 minutes to really help the spine lengthen and allow for the stretch to get into your hips and hamstrings.

NOTE: If you suffer from a posterior bulging or herniated disc, this stretch may not be for you. Consult a physician for beneficial stretches.

Lacrosse ball hips
Target: Hips
Use: Release hips and low-back pain

How to: Lie on your back with your feet on the floor and knees up. Cross your right ankle over the left thigh, so your right knee is out to the right side. Put a lacrosse ball or tennis ball under your right glute and gently roll around until you feel sensation—when you hit a knot or a tight spot you’ll feel it right away. Pause in this position until the sensation starts to subside, and then keep moving around until you find the next sore spot. Make sure to breathe!

This one is really good for anyone with low-back pain, especially sciatica. The muscles in our hips, glutes and hamstrings are all connected to our low back, so, by releasing those big tension spots, our backs automatically feel better. Move around until you no longer feel any points of tension then move on to the next side.

Target: Core
Use: Strength

How to: Start on hands and knees, then lower onto your forearms and keep your shoulders stacked over your elbows. Step your feet back, staying up on your toes. Engage your legs and pull your belly button towards your spine. Remember to breathe! Hold for 30 seconds to start, then work your way up to one minute, and so on.

An alternative is to come up onto your hands for the hold, with the shoulders over the wrists. You can also take your knees onto the ground for a bit more support.

Legs Up The Wall
Target: Low back
Use: Stretch and restore

How to: Find a bare spot on the wall and lie down with one hip and shoulder against the wall. Then swing your legs up the wall as you pivot on your hips. You want your bottom to be as close to the wall as possible. Your legs are straight (a slight bend in the knee is OK) and heels against the wall.

This is a good alternative to a forward fold stretch as it allows the low back and hips to lengthen, and release tension. It may be more comfortable to place a pillow or folded towel under your hips if they are tight. Rest in this position for 2 to 10 minutes.

Supine Twists
Target: Spine
Use: Stretch

How to: Lie on your back and pull your knees into your chest. Take your arms out to the side, like a T. Inhale here, then as you exhale, drop the knees over to the right. You can rest your gaze to the ceiling or to either the left or right side, whichever position is most comfortable for your neck.

Place a pillow or towel under your knees to support them if they don’t reach the floor. Hold here for 1 to 3 minutes, then roll onto your back and take the knees to the left side. This twist helps to release tension in the spine and the muscles that hold it together. It can also be beneficial for anyone with sciatic pain or who works at a desk.

—Meaghan Archer is a runner, yoga instructor, and wellness blogger from Canada’s Okanagan Valley. When she’s not on her mat or out running, you can find her in the kitchen whipping up healthy eats. 

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