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How to Recover from a Lower Back Injury So You Can Run Again


Korey Huyler for GBMC

September 17, 2018
The popular Baltimore Running Festival is Oct. 20, and thousands of runners will take part. Unfortunately, lower back injuries like an irritated nerve or a pulled muscle can sideline even the best runners.

Some injuries like stress fractures or nerve irritation may require you to take time off from running, while others may require a modification of your training program. Here are ways to recover from your injury, plus what you can do to make sure you can be ready to lace up your sneakers in October. Keep in mind that the following suggestions don’t replace the need to see a physical therapist for personalized guidance on returning to running and exercise training.

Everything takes time

First, give it time, says Christina Penny, physical therapist for Active Life Physical Therapy, a GBMC affiliate. Full recovery time can range from four weeks to three months depending on the tissues involved; this can be determined by a physical therapist or physician. However, it is essential to keep up cardio during that time, says Penny. This exercise might include walking, biking swimming or water jogging.

If those weeks go by without cardio, you will be starting from ground zero as opposed to maintaining a healthy baseline.

Start stretching

You can begin stretching after an injury as soon as possible, as long as it is within a comfortable pain-free range. Stretching should be a mild to moderate sensation without pain.

“Movement and stretching early leads to a better recovery,” says Penny.

There are a variety of stretches you can do: Knee to chest (lie on your back and pull one knee to your chest at a time), thoracic extension (lie on your back on top of a foam roller or rolled towel) or the piriformis stretch. Do this by lying on your back with feet flat on the floor and knees bent. Pull the right knee up to your chest, grasp it with your left hand and pull it toward your left shoulder. Hold the stretch. Repeat with left knee and pull it toward your right shoulder.

Or try kneeling hip flexor stretching. Kneel on one knee, keeping your chest up tall and lower back flat. Gently lean your body forward into the stretch, and feel this in the front of your kneeling hip.

Of course, it is necessary to note that stretching is just one way to get the body back into healthy running condition. Strengthening is important and should be included in your recovery program as well.

Walk this way

Next? Start walking. One critical indicator that you are ready to return to running is whether you can walk with a normal gait. The ability to walk normally is a significant milestone.

“Once you can walk at least 2 miles within 35 minutes without increased pain, you are ready to begin walking or jogging,” says Penny. “Tissue has progressed into the next phase of healing and is now ready for loading.”

Loading is the amount of force that goes into joints and muscles as your body interacts with the ground. Walking is less of a loading activity because there is more time spent with two feet on the ground. Running loads more on the body because there is increased time spent on one foot.

Ready to run

Ready to run? To start, hop on a treadmill or go around the block for a 10-minute cycle, two to three times per week. Penny suggests a 30-second jog, followed by a one-minute walk, then repeat.

Increase time spent running and see how you feel. Do you have pain in your legs, neck or lower back? If so, switch back to walking and try running again in a few days.

If there’s no pain, you can resume your running routine. If you’re planning to participate in the Baltimore Running Festival, consider joining Team RUN GBMC to benefit Gilchrist Hospice Baltimore.
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