Running with back pain – a risk, or beneficial?

Running has become incredibly popular over the past few decades. Marathons, endurance events, obstacle courses and mud races feel like an intergenerational rite of passage. The popularity of running should be no real surprise – it’s free, accessible to virtually everyone, it’s a challenge, it promotes health and it combats stress.

I’m often asked about the benefit and risk of exercising with back pain. There can be a perceived risk with running, and other exercise, when you have back pain. The key minimising the risk of things ‘flaring up’ is to be doing the right exercise at the right time. As a general rule, if pain is recent, severe and acute, then just stick to walking and normal day-to-day activities. As things improve and stabilise then ‘cardio-vascular’ exercises can be of benefit. Weights and dynamic sports should really only be done when your spine is in top condition. Speak to your chiropractor to be sure you’re doing the right thing.


To strengthen your back I find there are 2 important components: The first is to make sure you are not actively weakening your back. This sounds obvious but at some point we all risk our spinal health and jeopardise our back’s healing. How? – In a word – posture. Every time we bend from our back instead of our knees, and every time we slouch on the sofa or car seat we are putting significant extra shearing pressure on the cartilage discs in our back. Cartilage is a living structure and shearing forces on cartilage are known to cause cell death and cartilage degeneration.

Conversely, natural and normal loading of cartilage is known to improve its health. So what is the most natural and normal way to load cartilage? – Walking and running. We are designed for this, and more than any other activity we are built to run. A couple of studies have demonstrated the effect of running on the health of the spine. Brisby et al. in 2010 showed that 3 weeks of regular running increased cell numbers in the spinal discs by 25% and concluded that regular exercise may augment cartilage matrix production. Luan et al. noted that running promoted cell proliferation in both the soft inner disc and the tough outer fibres of the spinal discs. Back pain and nerve pain improved with running, this was believed to be due to disc repair.

Remember though that running isn’t a cure for back pain. Running with acute back pain or a damaged disc can be risky. However running when your back is good can help to strengthen the discs, muscle and joints of your spine. And of course running with heart or other conditions, or with other injuries, or if carrying a lot of weight also has risks so speak to your chiropractor or doctor if you’re planning to start from scratch. Brisby et al. 2010 Luan et al. 2015