An older runner looks for a way to maintain back and core strength.
A reader writes in with a query: I’m a 60+ runner and am looking for some good lower back/hip stretches. I have been running for over 40 years and it seems my lower back and hips are slowing me down. Any advice you have is appreciated.
A strong back and running are mutually dependent: not only will back strength keep your running program on track, but exercise is also the foundation of back pain treatment. Still, the lower back often plagues runners. So before we go too far into solutions, it’s important to know how the back and hip muscles work, and what they’re meant to do.
The spine is basically a column of blocks (vertebra) supported by the muscle and fascia that forms the body trunk. Imagine the trunk of the body as a tube or cylinder, with the base of the cylinder at the pelvis and the top at the rib cage. The cylinder is supported in compression by the lumbar spine, but the spine alone cannot keep an upright posture, so the muscles and fascia layers between the pelvis and rib cage must work in concert to help.
The supporting tissues function much like the guy wires on a tall TV tower, holding the spine in place by keeping it in proper alignment and stable. In addition, the muscles supporting the pelvis and rib cage must also function well to keep the spine in line.
The vast majority of the torso’s bending and twisting motion occurs beneath the ribs and above the pelvis, between the last thoracic vertebra and the last lumbar vertebra.
As long as the discs between the vertebra bones and the other vertebral articulations are functioning well, the spine movement through this critical lumbar segment usually remains intact. But like the rest of the joints in the body, these articulations in the spine are subject to wear and tear. The best way to limit damage is to maintain stability with strong muscle support.
The other critical segment in lower-back health is the pelvis. The sacroiliac – or SI – joints move through about five degrees of rotational motion with every step in a normal running gait. If the SI joints are not moving well, that extra motion is transferred to the opposite SI joint or to the lumbar spine, adding wear and tear to those areas.
So on to solutions: first, people do slow with age, so as a 60+ runner, you will not be able to maintain the same pace as in your younger years. Second, stretching the back is not the answer, as stretching does nothing to support or control the trunk.
The key is to maintain strong neuromuscular control to allow the lumbar spine, pelvis, rib cage and related muscle-fascia units to work in harmony. Neuromuscular control for back health addresses the entire kinetic chain to keep the trunk and pelvis muscles strong to control the pelvis bones and the trunk fascial tissues.
Stuart McGill has a low back stability program that outlines four simple exercises to protect the back: the cat and camel, the birddog, the curl up, and the side bridge. The cat and camel gets the lower back moving. The others work the muscles that support and control the trunk fascia.
The other key component is the core strength that controls the pelvis throughout the motions associated with running. As the saying goes, “you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe”. The glutes and other butt muscles are targeted for this part of your back health program. Properly done, squats and lunges are a mainstay, but there are additional muscle groups you can target.
Yoga utilises many of these strength and stretch poses. And there are also programs through health clubs that emphasise core strength and control. A physical therapist or personal trainer should be able to launch you on a program to protect your back allowing you to run and age gracefully.