Research uncovers potential key to preventing back pain in runners

deepcorerunning_large2Low back pain is a common complaint among both elite and recreational runners, but the true cause of it has remained a mystery. To begin finding a solution to this problem, my team and I examined the biomechanics of the low back pain in runners, focusing on the role of the core muscles. 

In order to examine the role of the core during running, we used our 3-D motion analysis lab, which includes specialized high-speed cameras and force-measuring platforms embedded in the floor to measure the dimensions of runners’ bodies and how they moved. Using this data, we were able to create a computer model that’s specific to each person, allowing us to examine how every bone moves and how much force is put on each joint. We then used that simulation to ‘turn off’ certain muscles and observe how the rest of the body compensates.  

What we found is that when your deep core is weak, your body is able to essentially run with the same movements or running form, but to do that it has to compensate by forcing the superficial muscles to do the work that the deep core should be doing.

This is problematic because the overcompensation of your superficial muscles puts more strain and compression on your spine with each step, and repeating this motion thousands of times as a runner’s foot hits the ground can cause things like lower back pain.  

What are deep core muscles?

The core muscles that you typically would see when someone isn’t wearing a shirt are your superficial core muscles. The deep core muscles are the ones you can’t see closer to the spine itself. They typically activate before your foot hits the ground in anticipation of the impact, and they stabilize your spine and whole upper body during all upright activities including running. 
It’s important to remember that working on a six-pack and trying to become a better runner is definitely not the same thing. If you look at great runners, they don’t typically have a six-pack, but their muscles are very fit.  

How to strengthen your deep core muscles

Contrary to a lot of fitness advice, traditional ab exercises with a large range of motion, such as sit-ups or back extensions, will not give you the strong core you need to be a better runner.  In fact, I’ve found that many fitness magazines and online articles have a lot of misinformation about how to properly strengthen your core. 

Instead, static exercises that force you to fire your core and hold your body in place can help strengthen those deep core muscles. Adding moves like planks and side bridges to your workout routine can help you support your body with each stride and prevent back pain associated with running. 

If you’re thinking of getting into running, it’s critical to remember that you should start slowly and build up slowly. So that means don’t get up off the couch and all of a sudden run two or three miles. You should also consider that your core and other body parts that aren’t as strong as they need to be to support running.   

I would suggest incorporating some of these static core exercises into every strengthening workout you do, with some walking or running sprinkled in. If you feel good doing that, continue to build up a little bit of mileage and doing a larger percentage of running verses walking each week until you can reach your goal and stay pain-free.


Injured? Ohio State Sports Medicine can help:

Ajit Chaudhari, PhD, FACSM, is Associate Professor of Physical Therapy, Orthopedics, Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at the Jameson Crane Sports Medicine Institute at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. 

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