Posted by: Joe English | February 23, 2009

Training — Starting Running with a Back Problem

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

A reader named Carla asks us a question about taking up the sport of running when she has a pre-existing back problem. Her problem may be more serious than most people’s, but anyone that would want to run with a past back injury could learn something from the answer. First, here’s her question:

I am embarking on a journey of my own .. I’ve decided to become a runner. Now, the reason why this is to be a journey for me is I have a few obstacles to overcome. I have pretty bad asthma that I’ve had since I was a baby. And I have a fused backbone and herrington rods in my back which came from a very severe case of scoliosis.

I’m using a “couch to 5k” plan I found online, and I have completed week one with much excitement. Is there any advice you could give me in my initial training to the 5k?

First, let’s get the nitty gritty out of the way. It is always good to see a doctor to have a physical exam before doing any running for exercise. In the case of people with back problems, this would be doubly true. Ensure that your doctor signs off on running as a sport for you, because injuring your back more seriously could have a serious impact on your life. With that said, running can be managed with former back injuries if proper caution is taken to lessen the impact on the back.

Here are some important things that you can do to lessen the impact on the back when running:

Give yourself enough cushion under you to minimize the impact on your body. Ensure that you kep your shoes fresh and look for shoes with plenty of cushion. Adding additional cushion in the shoes in the way of in-soles may also help.

Get fitted for shoes and make sure to tell the person fitting you that you’ve had back issues. The best place to go is a specialty running store where all the people do is fit shoes for a living. Telling the fitter that you’ve had back issues is critical to make sure that you are going to need a soft shoe to take up the most impact possible.

Focus on flexibility in your legs — The more inflexible your are in the lower-half, the more impact your back will have to deal with. Stretching the calf muscles, feet, hamstrings, hips and quadriceps are critical to the flexiiblity you need as a runner.

Get yourself strong in the legs and the core. The stronger you are in the bottom half, your lower-back and your core (mid-section), the less that the back will have to absorb. Work with a personal trainer or take strengthening classes that will make your stronger to support your body as you run.

Look at your running form — Running with excessive bouncing may cause you some real problems. Try to take short, quick, strides. Stay loose. Try to minimize any extra boucing you may be feeling. Also try to keep your arms going straight forward and backward, avoiding crossing over your belly-button, to keep you from twisting any more than you need to.

With those items aside, there are some general guidelines that might be helpful to you that would apply to all new runners:
Take it slow. Don’t increase distance to quickly.
Don’t run on consecutive days if you can avoid it.
Run on a variety of surfaces, including soft ones like dirt, grass or a running track, rather than always running on pavement.
Replace those running shoes every three months or so to keep that cushion under you.
Set reasonable goals for yourself and work toward them. Take your training in stages that start small and go upwards from there over time rather than setting overly aggressive goals that will just lead you to over-train or injure yourself.

Good luck and we wish you the best in your training.

Coach Joe English, Portland, Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News



  1. I am not sure what your back problem is, but I have a bulged disk in my lower back (from about 15 years ago) and am up to 30 miles per week. My doc says it never really goes away, but it has only been a problem for me when I am NOT running and not doing ab work following a run. I found that after any run, doing sit ups does the reverse of my run, it stretches my back out again. I can feel it cracking and stretching and feel so much better after. This has really helped throughout my training. Good luck!

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