Advice to improve your movement, fitness, and overall health from the world #1 in orthopedics.
People who play sports tend to suffer a lot of wear and tear on their bodies. Whether you’re a competitive athlete or more of a professional gym-goer, it’s wise to think about strategies you can use to protect your back during physical activity.
For many recreational athletes, pain often strikes in the lower back. A common cause is overuse of the muscles. Specific repetitive movements also make the lower back more prone to pain and injury than others. For example, “mistakes with form during squatting and deadlifting are a common reason why different recreational athletes come to see me,” says James Wyss, MD, a sports physiatrist at HSS.
Another culprit in low back pain is that many athletes may simply push themselves too hard and not listen to their bodies when they start feeling fatigued. They may push for additional repetitions or add more weight to challenge themselves further. The problem with this is that when you get tired, your form breaks down, making the lower back more prone to injury and pain.
The first step is to listen to your body and when it’s telling you to slow down or stop, says Dr. Wyss. It’s also important to intentionally prepare for the activity or sport you’re about to do. Even if it’s just going for a run, first warm up your body by doing some power walking before you break into a full run. Longer-term goals also need proper preparation. If, for example, you’re training for a triathlon, you’ll want to give yourself a few months to work your body up to the level it needs to be to perform in the main event.
“One thing that's proven to be most beneficial in preventing injuries is a dynamic warm-up,” explains Dr. Wyss. This type of warm-up usually incorporates motion and dynamic activities, such as lunges or fast-paced walking. While stretching can be helpful as a cooldown after you’ve performed your workout, it usually doesn’t help as a warm-up to prevent injury. During the cooldown is when you’ll want to pay attention to tight areas that need stretching or icing.
Most people don’t need to see their doctor every time they have lower back discomfort or tightness. First, it’s important to try to change up your workout if you’re experiencing lower back pain. “Modify your workouts a little bit and make sure you're doing an appropriate warm-up and cooldown with ice afterwards,” suggests Dr. Wyss. But if your pain is severe and interfering with your movement or daily functioning, it’s usually best to seek out a doctor’s help.
If you are returning to sports after experiencing lower back pain or injury, it’s important to reintroduce activities slowly. If you start at a slow pace and don’t notice a major recurrence of pain, you should be okay to advance the activity the next time. This is another time it’s important to listen to your body and not push yourself to the point of making your pain worse, Dr. Wyss says.