Back pain in lower spine is common in recreational runners when it really shouldn’t be. The best way to stop lower spine back pain in running from starting is by avoiding heel striking when you are running. Furthermore, landing with a toe strike, and not on the heel during running, was found to reduce loading on the lumbar spine.
Back Pain in Lower Spine When Running
Toe strike running was found to reduce loads on the lumbar spine compared to heel strike running, suggesting that adopting a non-heel strike landing may bring relief to runners with low back pain.
Please note: toe strike running is different from forefoot strike running –in forefoot strike running, the balls of the foot makes initial contact with the ground, then the heel drops to the ground. The rationale of this article is that a non-heel strike landing protects the back from forceful impacts as compared with a heel strike landing.
How Toe Strike Reduces Lower Back Loads
A study by Delgado et al. found that when heel strike runners ran barefoot ‘on their toes without letting their heels touch the ground’, leg impact decreased at contact as well as shock attenuation -less shock was produced, therefore less shock needed was absorbed by the lumbar lordosis.
- The lumbar lordosis serves as a natural shock absorber during running. The researchers found that toe striking reduced leg shock at touchdown, sparing the lumbar lordosis of elevated shock.
The researchers also pointed out that the toe strike landing led to positional changes in the lower back and pelvis during running.
- A change in stride length, such as reduced stride length in toe strike running, caused positional changes in the pelvis that corresponded to lumbar lordosis changes.
Heel Strike Running: Bad News for the Back
In the same study, the heel strike runners had greater overall foot-ground impact than the toe strike runners, resulting in more shock that is attenuated by the lumbar lordosis. This finding is not the first to suggest that heel strike running is bad for the back.
In addition, the heel strike runners had greater overall low back excursion which may inflict a sizable demand for stability in the lumbar spine, according to the researchers.
The Take Home Message
The study’s findings were encouraging: the farther you land away from the heel when running, the lesser the risk of the weakening of the shock-absorbing structures in the back.
Moreover, these findings represent a watershed moment in biomechanical research on running, clearly demonstrating the possibly both forefoot running and toe strike running prevents or at least, delays impact-induced degenerative changes to the back.
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Femur Fracture – Landing with a heel strike can literally break the strongest bone in the body.
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Delgado et al. Effects of foot strike on low back posture, shock attenuation, and comfort in running. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2013;45(3):490-6.
Driscoll C, Aubin CE, Labelle H, Dansereau J. The relationship between hip flexion/extension and the sagittal curves of the spine. Stud Health Technol Inform. 2008;140:90–5.
Franz JR, Paylo KW, Dicharry J, Riley PO, Kerrigan DC. Changes in the coordination of hip and pelvis kinematics with mode of locomotion. Gait Posture. 2009;29:494–8.
Uetake T, Ohtsuki F, Tanaka H, Shindo M. The vertebral curvature of sportsmen. J Sports Sci. 1998;16:621–8.
Voloshin A, Wosk J. An in vivo study of low back pain and shock absorption in the human locomotor system. J Biomech. 1982;15:21–7.
BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.