Running with Sciatica: Understanding, Managing, and Overcoming

Running with Sciatica

Sciatica can induce incapacitating pain that extends from your lower back to your feet, making running a formidable challenge. In this post, we will explore root causes and remedies so you can keep running with sciatica.

What is Sciatica?

The sciatic nerves, the longest in your body, runs down each side of your pelvis, through the hip, buttocks, and down the leg. They control your hamstring muscles and transmit sensations from your lower leg and foot to your brain.

Sciatica results from irritation of the spinal nerve, typically causing pain radiating from the lower spine down the back of one leg. However, sciatica pain can manifest in various ways and locations, leading to pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness in the buttock, hamstring, calf, or foot. Typically, the pain is unilateral, i.e. felt on one side only, and can vary from mild numbness to intense, shooting pain.

In severe cases, symptoms may include the loss of bladder or bowel control, as well as difficulty in moving and controlling the leg.

Sciatica nerves in a runner

What Causes Sciatica?

The most common cause of sciatica is a slipped (prolapsed) disk in the lower back. However, any pressure on the nerve, such as from a tight muscle or injury, can irritate sciatic nerves. For runners, a tight piriformis muscle is often the culprit of sciatica.

Various factors can trigger sciatica, including:

  • Running with a tight piriformis muscle, indicated by sharp pain in the buttocks, worsening with prolonged sitting or exercising and coinciding with decreased hip range of motion.
  • High-impact activities like running or skiing, especially when performed with poor form and weak supporting muscles.
  • Traumatic impacts, such as falling down stairs.
  • Lifting with poor form, using your back instead of your legs.
  • Prolonged sitting and poor posture leading to spinal compression.
  • Excess body weight stressing the spine and lower back.
  • Age-related degeneration if not countered with exercise.
  • Smoking, which has been linked to an increased risk of developing sciatica.
  • Pregnancy, due to weight gain, shifts in center of mass, and hormonal changes.

A Test for Sciatica

One way to test if you are suffercing from sciatica is the slump test. To perform this test:

  • Sit down in a chair
  • Sitting on your hands, bend forward
  • Extend your knee by lifting your lower leg
    If you feel pain radiating down the leg with leg extension, it indicates sciatica.

Can I Keep Running with Sciatica?

The incidence of lower back pain during running is low and running can actually be a preventive measure for lower back pain. However, if you’re already experiencing sciatica symptoms, consult a physiotherapist or medical professional to determine the root cause and ensure that further exercise supports recovery without causing harm. This is crucial if you’re experiencing severe pain, numbness, weakness, or changes in bowel or bladder function.

Running can exacerbate sciatica symptoms, but the long-term benefits, such as stronger muscles and lower weight, may help reduce sciatica pain. Pay attention to your running form and incorporate strengthening and mobility exercises to make a difference in your running experience. Here are running form tips and exercises for running with sciatica.

Optimize Your Running Form for Running with Sciatica

Good running form can lower impact forces and maintain a neutral spine, distributing forces evenly throughout your body. Consider the following running form tips:

  • Increase cadence to shorten step length and reduce the chance of heel strike.
  • If you’re a heel striker, consider adopting a midfoot strike and landing closer to your body.
  • Avoid excessive arm movement to prevent twisting your spine.
  • Maintain good posture with a straight back, avoiding bending your upper body forward or backward.
  • To address potential running form issues, consider an online running form analysis at Movaia.com for a quick and easy assessment.

10 Exercises for Running with Sciatica

When running with sciatica, keep running distances low until you build the strength for your muscles to support your spine. While some discomfort may be experienced, avoid running to the point where pain worsens. Here are exercises to strengthen your body and increase flexibility, reducing stress on your spine:

Piriformis Stretch

Purpose: Relieves tension in the piriformis muscle, alleviating pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Steps:
a. Sit on the floor with one leg straight and the other leg crossed over, placing the foot flat on the ground.
b. Hug your raised knee with the opposite arm, gently twisting your torso.
c. Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds and switch sides.
Mistakes to Avoid: Avoid excessive twisting; focus on stretching, not straining. Keep your back straight and engage your core.

Glute Stretches

Purpose: Targets the glute muscles, promoting flexibility and reducing sciatic nerve irritation.
Steps:
a. Lie on your back with both knees bent.
b. Cross one ankle over the opposite knee, creating a figure-four shape.
c. Clasp your hands behind the thigh of the uncrossed leg and gently pull towards your chest.
d. Hold for 15-30 seconds, then switch legs.
Mistakes to Avoid: Don’t force the stretch; go only as far as comfortable. Keep your lower back on the ground for proper alignment.

Hip Hikes

Purpose: Strengthens the muscles around the hips, improving stability and reducing sciatic nerve pressure.
Steps:
a. Stand on a step with one foot hanging off the edge.
b. Drop the hanging hip down and then lift it back up.
c. Perform 10-15 reps on each side.
Mistakes to Avoid: Avoid leaning too far forward or backward; maintain controlled movement focused on the hips.

Cobra Stretch

Purpose: Stretches the lower back and strengthens the spine.
Steps:
a. Lie on your stomach with hands under your shoulders.
b. Press your upper body off the ground, keeping your hips down.
c. Hold for 15-30 seconds.
Mistakes to Avoid: Avoid hyperextending the neck; lift only as far as comfortable to prevent straining the lower back.

Plank

Purpose: Builds core strength to support the lower back.
Steps:
a. Begin in a push-up position, with your weight on your forearms and toes.
b. Maintain a straight line from head to heels.
c. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
Mistakes to Avoid: Don’t let your hips sag or push them too high; aim for a straight line. Engage your core throughout the exercise.

Side Plank

Purpose: Strengthens the obliques and stabilizes the spine.
Steps:
a. Lie on your side with your elbow directly beneath your shoulder.
b. Lift your hips, creating a straight line from head to heels.
c. Hold for 30 seconds on each side.
Mistakes to Avoid: Avoid letting your hips drop or rotate backward; maintain a straight alignment. Support your body weight properly on your elbow.

Hollow Hold

Purpose: Activates deep core muscles, enhancing overall stability.
Steps:
a. Lie on your back with arms extended behind your head and legs straight.
b. Lift your legs and upper body off the ground, forming a shallow “U” shape.
c. Hold for 15-30 seconds.
Mistakes to Avoid: Don’t strain your neck; keep it relaxed. If the lower back lifts off the ground, modify the position to reduce intensity.

Bridge

Purpose: Strengthens the glutes and lower back muscles.
Steps:
a. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
b. Lift your hips towards the ceiling.
c. Hold for 15-30 seconds.
Mistakes to Avoid: Avoid over-arching your back; engage your core and squeeze your glutes. Don’t lift the hips too high, maintaining a straight line from shoulders to knees.

Supermans

Purpose: Targets the lower back and glutes.
Steps:
a. Lie face down with arms extended in front.
b. Lift your arms, chest, and legs off the ground simultaneously.
c. Hold for 15-30 seconds.
Mistakes to Avoid: Avoid straining the neck; lift only as far as comfortable to prevent overextension.

Glute Bridge

Purpose: Strengthens glutes and hamstrings.
Steps:
a. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat.
b. Lift your hips towards the ceiling.
c. Hold for 15-30 seconds.
Mistakes to Avoid: Don’t push through the lower back; focus on using the glutes. Ensure controlled movement without arching the spine.

Bird-Dog

Purpose: Enhances core stability and balance.
Steps:
a. Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position.
b. Extend one arm forward and the opposite leg backward.
c. Hold for a few seconds, then switch sides.
Mistakes to Avoid: Keep your back flat; avoid arching or rounding. Control your movements to prevent wobbling.

Other Tips for Running with Sciatica

Other than avoiding risk factors mentioned above, improving your running form and building a strong and flexible body with exercises here are some additional tips that make running with sciatica easier:

  • Run on soft surfaces can lower impact forces.
  • Upgrade old running shoes and rotate them to provide more variation in movement patterns.
  • Reduce the intensity and volume of your running until the pain settles down.
  • Ensure sufficient rest and healthy nutrition to support your recovery.


In Conclusion

Running, when performed with good form, can be a preventive measure for sciatica. Even if diagnosed with sciatica, it doesn’t have to be the end of your running journey. After excluding issues requiring medical attention, consulting with a doctor, check your running form, and incorporae strengthening and stretching exercises. This can pave the way for pain-free running in the long term.

Further Reading

Davis D, Maini K, Vasudevan A. Sciatica. [Updated 2022 May 6]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507908/
Woolf SK, Barfield WR, Nietert PJ, Mainous AG 3rd, Glaser JA. The Cooper River Bridge Run Study of low back pain in runners and walkers. J South Orthop Assoc. 2002 Fall;11(3):136-43. PMID: 12539937.
Maselli, F., Storari, L., Barbari, V. et al. Prevalence and incidence of low back pain among runners: a systematic review. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 21, 343 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-020-03357-4
Maitland, G.D., 1985. The slump test: examination and treatment. Australian journal of physiotherapy, 31(6), pp.215-219.