According to a study in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, running might actually protect you from the most common musculoskeletal issue: low back pain. But if you do experience aches in the low back, you’re certainly not alone—it’s the most common cause of inactivity and disability across the globe, according to other 2020 research.
If your aches tend to pop up after a run, it’s a sign your body is working hard through every mile. “With an increased volume of running and an upright posture, you use your core muscles a lot,” Rena Eleázar, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., co-founder of Match Fit Performance in New York City, tells Runner’s World. “As they fatigue, your body’s ability to absorb the shock of running also fatigues over time. And a lot of times, people feel that in the lower back as all the muscles, joints, and bones absorb the impact.”
One way to avoid this: a better warmup routine and improved posture on the run. In fact, a questionnaire-based study in the journal of Pain Research and Management, found that while the incidence of low back pain in marathoners was low, there’s a link between those who have the aches and an insufficient warmup and poor running posture, as well as fatigue and environmental factors.
Eleázar says she often sees people with low back issues when they kick up their training load or if they’re experiencing something extra stressful or anxiety-inducing in their life. “It’s often a mobility or strength issue,” she says. “And that can be addressed through different types of exercise to improve the tolerance of impact and improve muscular endurance.”
So, to help you sidestep any back aches before, during, or after a run, Eleázar offers the best lower back stretches and exercises. These moves not only help improve mobility, but they also strengthen the back, core, and lower body—all advantages that pay off when you hit your stride. Plus, the moves simply feel great for your back and the rest of the body.
How to use this list: Complete 1-3 sets of the following exercises in order. Do each exercise for the number of reps listed below. Each move is demonstrated by Eleázar so you can master the proper form. An exercise mat is optional.
4 Lower Back Stretches
Child’s Pose With Lateral Bending
Why it’s great for runners: Get a stretch in the low back extensors during your typical child’s pose. Then, by reaching to each side, you stretch out the quadratus lumborum (or the QL), one of the deepest ab muscles, located on either side of the lumbar (or lower) spine, which will feel amazing postrun.
How to: Start kneeling. Send hips to heels and extend arms straight out to hit child’s pose. Hold for 5-10 deep breaths. Then, walk both hands to the left side of the body. Hold for 5-10 deep breaths. Then, walk both hands to the right side of the body. Hold for 5-10 deep breaths.
Lower Trunk Rotation
Why it’s great for runners: Another star stretch for the QL and your low back extensors, this one also stretches the glutes—all spots in which runners commonly feel tightness.
How to: Lie faceup, arms out to the sides to form a T, knees bent and feet planted. Keeping shoulders on the floor, drop both knees to the left. Pause with knees and shins on the floor (or as close as possible), then take them back through center and to the right. Continue alternating for 5 reps per side.
Why it’s great for runners: Get a stretch through the abdomen and front of hips while working on extension of the thoracic (or upper) spine. This all helps improve posture as you hit your stride.
How to: Lie facedown, legs extended and forearms on the floor, elbows by shoulders. Press forearms into the floor and lift head, neck, and chest. Hold for 5-10 deep breaths.
Why it’s great for runners: Runners use the hamstrings and glutes to power runs while the back of the upper body works to maintain an upright posture. Get a stretch in all these spots—the entire posterior chain—with a downward dog stretch.
How to: Start on all fours, shoulders over wrists and knees under hips. Lift hips straight up and back and extend arms, so shoulders and head come between arms. Hold for 5-10 deep breaths.
4 Lower Back Strength Exercises
Why it’s great for runners: Build strength in the glutes (the powerhouse of your runs), as well as the spine extensors (the muscles that keep you upright and stable) with this exercise.
How to: Lie facedown, arms and legs extended straight out. Lift arms, chest, thighs, and feet off the floor. Pause, then lower back down. Repeat for 10-15 reps.
Bear Hold or Crawl
Why it’s great for runners: You need a strong, rigid core for solid run form and this move helps you build it, while teaching you proper spinal positioning (read: a straight, neutral spine).
How to: Start on all fours, shoulders over wrists and knees under hips. Lift knees just an inch off the floor and press hands into the floor. Hold here for 30 seconds. When this feels easy, take it to a crawl by stepping right hand and left foot forward. Then, step left hand and right foot forward. Continue alternating until you reach the top of the mat, then crawl backwards. Maintain a flat back the entire time. Repeat for 30 seconds.
Why it’s great for runners: Strengthen the low back extensors, glutes, and hamstrings with this exercise, while also getting a dynamic stretch in the back of the legs. You can also load this move: Add weight to the shoulders to focus on strengthening the lower back or hold weights in the front of the body to build strength in the hamstrings and glutes.
How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Place hands behind head, elbows out to the sides. Send butt straight back, hinging at the hips, and bending knees just slightly. Drive feet into floor and engage glutes to stand back up. Repeat for 10-15 reps.
Why it’s great for runners: Runners need strong hip flexors to hit a strong stride, and this move will dynamically lengthen and eccentrically strengthen those hip flexors and quads of the front leg. It also toughens up the glutes of the back leg, offering you more power at take-off and up hills.
How to: Stand with feet staggered, right foot in front. Place hands on hips. Lower into a lunge position, both knees bending 90 degrees. Drive through feet to stand back up. Repeat for 8-12 reps. Then switch sides.