Running with Back Pain: Do or Don’t?

Back pain and motherhood go hand in hand. I never suffered from an achy posterior until I had back pain during pregnancy and then back pain postpartum. The around-the-clock breastfeeding and body contortion required to multitasking while carrying a small human equaled chronic back pain.

The worst back pain I had was soon after my second baby was born: It was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done and I regretted it immediately.

back pain in runners
Save these tips to relieve back pain in runners.

I was walking my three-year-old daughter home from pre-school while carrying her school bag and our 2-month-old son. My daughter was tired. We had about a quarter-mile to go. She didn’t feel like walking.

Before having my son, I would have scooped her up and carried her home, no problem. It’s not that far. But now I was carrying another human. He didn’t weigh that much so I figured, “sure, why not?”

I picked her up and placed her on one hip while cradling him in the other arm with the bag over my shoulder. My body was twisted, and I wasn’t walking in a balanced way, but surely these few minutes weren’t going to do much damage.

Or so I thought.

When we arrived home, I unloaded everything and everyone and felt a sharp pain in my back. I hoped it’d go away after things loosened up. But it didn’t. And I was miserable. I couldn’t get into any comfortable position—not even lying down—without my back hurting. I couldn’t do anything that my life required me to do—picking up kids, unloading the dishwasher—without writhing in pain. Oh, and FORGET about running.

Postpartum back pain & back pain during pregnancy 

This was not my first experience with back pain as a mom. I had sciatica during pregnancy and back pain postpartum. I had chronic back pain when breastfeeding and when my kids were of carrying age.

Back pain during pregnancy is really common, especially sciatica during pregnancy. I’m sure many of you reading this have been in similar situations. After all, we mother runners, are mama strong. We cart heavy kids around on each hip without thinking twice about the strain we’re putting on our bodies and how amazing they are to keep doing this again and again. It’s quite remarkable really.

Related: Postpartum Running Plan

Sciatica during pregnancy

Back pain and motherhood start early on in the womb. Many pregnant women suffer from sciatica—irritation of the sciatic nerve which runs from your spinal cord down through your buttocks and backs of legs.

Sciatica symptoms include:

  • Leg pain
  • Poor bladder control
  • Numbness, tingling, or pins and needles in your legs
  • Burning sensation in your lower extremities
  • Pain that worsens with coughing, moving, or sneezing

Why does my sciatic nerve hurt while pregnant?

Women tend to get sciatica during pregnancy because the growing baby puts pressure on the sciatic nerve causing inflammation and irritation. The hallmark pain runs down the back of your legs and sometimes feels like tingling or pins and needles.

Does sciatica go away on its own during pregnancy?

Sciatica during pregnancy is likely to worsen as your baby grows. Some women report relief as the baby switches positions in the uterus, but don’t count on it. Luckily, there are steps you can take to relieve back pain during pregnancy.

How to relieve sciatica during pregnancy

Dr. Carrie Pagliano, a physical therapist and postpartum expert, says there are many little steps pregnant women can take to relieve sciatica during pregnancy.

  • Use a pillow. Put a pillow between your knees and feet when you sleep (if you’re on your side) or underneath your knees if you’re sleeping on your back propped up.
  • Try not to waddle when you walk. Smaller steps and usually walking slower can reduce the asymmetry in your walking that sometimes can make sciatica worse.
  • Keep changing positions. “Your next posture is your best posture!,” she says. Don’t stay in one position for longer than 30-45 minutes.
  • Apply heat. Heat and ice can reduce irritation and inflammation. Studies show that Epsom salt baths can be very effective at reducing back pain and muscle soreness.
  • Try the seated piriformis stretch, child’s pose, or standing hamstring stretch.

Find more tips for relieving sciatica during pregnancy here.

Related: A Practical Guide to stop Leaking While Running (which includes core and pelvic floor strengthening key for running postpartum).

Running with Back Pain

Should you stop running if you have sciatica during pregnancy? That is the question! And, the answer is likely something you don’t want to hear: no.

running with back pain
Running is good for your back. Running is NOT good for back pain.

Dr. Pagliano warns that if your back pain or sciatica is flaring up, it’s best not to run. “Because sciatica usually gets worse with movement, either backing up or pausing on your running may be a good option until it gets under control. You can’t always prevent or control these issues so be prepared with your expectations!”

If back pain or sciatica isn’t new to you, Dr. Pagliano says it is important to get it checked out by a physical therapist or chiropractor. “So many aches and pains like this in pregnancy are common but treatable! Many OB’s don’t know to refer for something as easy to address as sciatica.”

Getting this addressed sooner rather than later may help you stay more mobile longer.

Does running make back pain worse?

Most likely, yes. The compression movement of the spine caused by running is likely to worsen back pain. If you have back pain, it is best to decrease mileage or take a break until you’re feeling better. Instead, opt for lower impact activities like walking or the elliptical. Get other ideas for exercises to do with back pain here.

It is important to pay attention to what irritates your back pain. Physical therapist Joe Norton suggests, “If the pain is 8/10 and worsens immediately with walking, then you shouldn’t run. However, if the pain is 2/10 and feels better with standing or walking, then running may be safe.”

Does running help back pain?

Running does not help back pain but research does show that running can help prevent back pain. In a 2017 study, researchers found that the spinal disks of the runners were larger and contained more fluid — indicating more flexibility and less pain —  than the disks of the people who did not exercise.

Another 2020 study found that middle-aged men who run had less age-related changes to their discs. “Amazingly, those runners who’ve been running for a greater number of years and greater distance per week had a better structure of their disc,” adds Joe.

Therefore, you can tell anti-runners to stop saying running is hard on the body. What is hard makes us stronger, right?

How to prevent back pain

According to Dr. Cole Hosenfeld, a chiropractor specializing in treating athletes, there are quick and easy changes we can make to prevent back pain and make us stronger.

6 Tips to Prevent Back Pain

Mind your movements.

It’s hard to stay balanced when you’re a mom in so many ways, including physically. If you have young children, chances are, one of them is riding on your hip at any given moment. Just being a mother, let alone a mother runner, is physically demanding. You’re constantly bending and lifting all day long. When you do this, do it smartly.

Keep these six rules in mind:

  • Don’t twist your body while lifting something.
  • Don’t bend over at the waist to lift. Bend at your knees.
  • Keep your weight equally distributed. This means, don’t put all your weight on one foot. Try to get out of bed, the car, or from your chair with both feet planted on the ground.
  • Try to keep your spine straight as much as possible.
  • Exhale as you move. When you are lifting, twisting, bending, standing up, breathe out hard to engage those core muscles.
  • Don’t sit for too long. If you sit for work, set a timer to get up every 30 minutes or consider getting a standing desk.

Warm-up and cool-down

Warming-up and cooling-down lower the risk of back sprains and strains in runners. The goal of a warm-up is to facilitate blood flow and allow the muscles time to acclimate to the motion of running. Cooling down can help to flush out the toxic metabolic breakdown products such as lactic acid, preventing soreness and injury.

Here’s how to warm-up and cool-down before running:

  • Before an easy run, do dynamic stretches and air squats.
  • Before a speedrunning workout, be sure to do dynamic stretches, air squats, a mobility routine, and drills before doing a 1-3 mile warm-up.
  • After a run, be sure to jog or walk for at least 2-3 minutes slowly before stopping. Do static stretching of major muscle groups, including stretches for your back, post-run. Also, try this foam roller backstretch.

Related: 8 Running Drills to Run Faster

Strengthen your core.

Having a strong core is good for everything especially mothers, runners, and mother runners. It can make you a faster and stronger mama and ward off injuries. It’s tough to find time to work in strength training when most of any free time you have is spent running, but these key core exercises are easy to fit in and you can do them with your kids. Aim to do each 1-2 minutes 2-3 times a week.

Check out these core routines for runners from The Mother Runners Co-coach Laura Norris.

running and back pain
Be sure to warm-up and cool-down really well when running to prevent back pain.

Have proper foot support.

Flip flops are great, aren’t they? They’re quick and easy. No wasted time or energy bending over to put them on. You know what makes them not so great—actually terrible? They offer no support for your feet, back, or body as a whole. So, I urge you to stop wearing them.

Instead, invest in some comfortable, supportive shoes like Chacos, Birkenstocks, or just wear your running shoes. I cannot tell you how many times Mother Runners (myself included) have gotten injuries and niggles from not wearing supportive shoes in our day-to-day activities.

Get your sleep.

Many of us don’t think about how our sleeping positions can affect our backs, but they do. Many of us also find ourselves sharing beds with tiny nursing babes or crazy octopus-like children, contorting our bodies to give them their space. This can do damage.

I remember how my back ached every day my babies nursed. I was always hunched over in a chair or bed nursing not paying mind to my own comfort (or discomfort).

When sleeping, stick to the back or side position with a pillow between your legs to keep your spine straight and give support to your knees. When nursing, be sure to use a nursing pillow like the Boppy.

Follow a running program.

Following a running program or getting a coach can help you keep your running in check so that you don’t increase mileage or intensity too quickly. To ward off injuries when running aim to not add more than one variable (mileage, speed, or hills) at a time.

This means

  • Do not increase mileage more than 30 percent every 3-4 weeks.
  • Increase mileage, hold it there, then add in some speed starting with strides.
  • Same for the terrain. Don’t add hill work at the same time you add mileage or speed.

Also, have at least one full day of rest to allow your body to absorb the work and rebuild to a stronger version of itself.

Related: The Mother Runners Coaching Services

When should you see a professional for back pain?

It’s a good idea to see a physical therapist or a chiropractor that you can trust if you don’t have relief after taking steps at home, says Dr. Pagliano.

“It is important to seek out care that will help you navigate the cause, help you with supportive exercises, and recommendations to stay active and as pain-free with daily activities as possible,” says Dr. Pagliano.

Much like being committed to improving running by adhering to a regular schedule, when injured you need to be committed to appropriate rest and not try to sneak back into the running schedule until you’re feeling better.

PS-I’d love to help you reach your running goals whether it be to run your first 5k or run competitively! Email me at [email protected] with questions or check out my Coaching Services page!


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