Not warming up and starting off your run too fast are the most common reasons that people experience back tightness with running. 

Other factors could also be related to limited hip extension on one side, however, this would not be the first thing I would look at. 

running on pavement

Why does your lower back get tight when you run?

  • Not warming up. Warming up with running has some controversy behind it. Some say you should stretch, some say you should do lunges and calf raises, and others say that you should just go right into your run, but slowly. 

  • Decreased or insufficient hip extension for the speed that you’re trying to run. If you are starting off your run too fast, and you are overstriding with your steps, this likely sets you up for a higher risk of back tightness. I just want to say that this is very much my professional opinion and not backed by any literature that I have seen or read, but based on the clients that I have worked with over the years. 

  • Excessive sitting. I don’t believe that this is an issue in the traditional sense. Our body is adaptable. If we are sitting all the time our body can adapt to that. If you’ve been sitting for several hours you’ll probably just want to extend your warm-up time for a few extra minutes and you’ll be fine. 

  • “Trunk stability.” This is a poorly defined term and truthfully, 95% of people likely don’t have this issue as the pelvis and hips are inherently very stable structures. The sacroiliac joint (SI joint) only moves a few millimeters. Yes, there are folks with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome where there is true ligamentous laxity, but this is not the majority of the population. 

  • “Lack of core strength.” Again, this is simply not true. Even if you never do crunches or any other abdominal exercise, these muscle groups have enough contractile capacity to create a more than stable enough spine. Additionally, there are plenty of passive structures (ligaments, facet joints, etc.) that hold the spine in a very stable position, too. Stability has become a sexy term over the past few decades, but even the author of the original spinal stability articles from the late 1990s has stated multiple times that core strength and stability have no bearing on whether someone will experience low back pain or tightness. 

How To Stop Lower Back Tightness When Running

  • Start slow. Start at a slower pace than you are used to. Allow your heart rate to gradually increase and to feel that your body temperature is then elevated. Once this has occurred, feel free to try increasing your pace to your working pace. 

  • Include a pre-run warm-up. If starting slow doesn’t work for you and you’re still experiencing tightness, including a simple pre-run warm-up usually does the trick. Here are three movements I like to do before my runs and what I give to clients.
    • Single leg calf raises 2 x 15
    • Long-step lunges 2 x 10 
    • Standing backward bends + Goodmornings 2 x 10

  • Start including a stretching and strength training routine ~ 2-3x/week. If the above two examples don’t help, then including a stretching and strength training routine would be the next step. This, of course should be a staple in any runner’s weekly routine, especially strength training as it:
    • 1. Reduces injury risk, making sure that you can continue to run longer without injury
    • 2. Increases pace. By increasing the overall strength and endurance of your musculature through strength training, you will effectively increase your pace at a greater rate than if you were not lifting weights.

If you follow these three tips above, you should be in good shape and be at a much lower risk of any significant low back tightness with running. 

Is It Okay to Run With A Tight Lower Back?

Yes, it is okay to run with some low back tightness and even pain. As long as the tightness and/or pain is tolerable and does not get significantly worse an hour after or 24 hours later, it is fine. 

The error people make is that they experience tightness and soreness, it’s worse 24 hours, and then they keep doing the same thing over and over again. This is not a winning strategy. 

This is similar to my powerlifting clients who have severe pain after lifting yet continue to try and “push through,” only to be met with ever-increasing pain and discomfort. 

Listen to your body, check in, and make sure that it’s not significantly worse, and then implement the above strategies to start to reduce overall symptoms while maintaining your current endurance levels.

Why does my lower back hurt on one side when I’m running?

  • Random. If this is a one-time occurrence or it’s very infrequent, then I wouldn’t read too much into it. If it happens multiple times on one side, this is when we should look a little further into it and apply the above strategies. 

  • Decreased hip extension on one side, leading to overstriding on that side and increased repetitive stress to one side. If it’s a recurrent issue, this is the logic that makes the most sense to me. 

  • Decreased hip extensor strength. Again, this is not a super common issue, as most people have nearly identical strength through each limb, usually around 5-10% differential. I do occasionally have clients who have 20%+ differences in limb strength as measured with a force plate (dynamometer), and it is more common for them to experience recurrent issues on the same side. 

If you address the above potential issues, it’s very likely that you’ll eliminate or reduce the frequency of the tightness/low back pain. 

Why Does My Lower Back Hurt When I Run Uphill?

The most likely reason for this is that you either haven’t warmed up well enough and/or the intensity of this run was much higher than you are used to. 

If you are a runner who routinely runs hills and warms up well and still has back pain with running uphill, please refer to the above sections discussing possible issues as they apply to this as well. 

Generally, if you warm up well, implement a strength training program, and don’t spike your intensity and volume levels too quickly, you have a much lower chance of experiencing pain, injury, and tightness. 

It is worth noting, that most if not all people who run and are active will experience pain and tightness at some point in their life. It’s important to not go down the panic rabbit hole as this will force you into a corner of bad decisions. Instead, observe what’s happening, accept it, and then make the best logical decision in how to address it. 

This will keep you running until you’re 100!

What do you think? Does this jive with what you were thinking? Do you have any questions that I didn’t adequately answer? I make sure to update all of my posts to reflect the questions people have, so please ask away and I will update!