Why Does Running Hurt My Spondylolisthesis?

spondylolisthesis pain when running

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Over the last few weeks I have spent a lot of my free time reading and studying about the human body and movement.

The more I learn about movement the more I realize how important of a role it plays in those with spondylolisthesis or spondylolysis.

There are many runners out there that suffer from spondylolisthesis and spondylolysis and the more I learn about movement the more I start to understand why running causes so many with spondylolisthesis or spondylolysis trouble.

Over the years I have learned a ton from physical therapist and creator of the Functional Movement Screen, Gray Cook, and this week I watched one of his DVD’s titled “Key Functional Exercises You Should Know”.

In this DVD Gray talked about a term called “self limiting exercise”.

In a quick nutshell and according to Gray Cook, a self limiting exercise is one that requires a coordination of attributes that is not often used together.  Self limiting exercise also requires attention to detail to be performed correctly.

Without proper movement and timing these exercises are not possible to perform.  If they are not performed correctly you simply cannot do them.

A perfect example of a self limiting exercise would be jumping rope. Without perfect posture, timing and coordination you would keep hitting the rope and not completing the jump.

Basically, there is no way to cheat this exercise.

On the other hand, going for an afternoon run is not a self limiting exercise. 

You can slouch over, run on the outside of your feet, use smaller muscles for movements that are supposed to be handled by larger muscles and so forth. This is part of the reason you see so many people run so many different ways.

spondylolisthesis running

Not everyone runs the exact same.

You can cheat running and most people do. In reality you have to be in shape to run and most people run to get in shape and this is where problems occur.

Now you might be wondering what this has to do with your spondylolisthesis or spondylolysis…….

The answer to this question is simple:

There is probably a large percentage of people who suffer from spondylolisthesis and spondylolyis who also have very poor movement.

The poor movement could stem from anywhere.  It could come from improper hinging of the hips, overactive hamstrings, improper timing of the core, poor thoracic spine mobility, etc.

When movements occur poorly, areas above and below are greatly affected. Compensations occur and could eventually lead to pain, discomfort and overuse injuries.

Now, think about running and think about how many times your feet touch the ground with each run or jog…The answer could range from hundreds to thousands.

Now think about the movement and the muscles that are required to make your feet move each time. You use your quads, hips, glutes, core, and upper body to make this movement happen.

Basically you use everything!

If one area is not working correctly, compensations start and affect everything.  Since running is not a self limiting exercise you can easily cheat it and recruit your stronger areas to handle the work. This leads to overuse, stress, and possibly pain……Perhaps spondy pain!

You do not have a world class running coach teaching you how to run and yelling at you each time your posture gets a little out of line. You keep pushing and getting more fatigued and the cycle continues.

The important thing to realize is the exact cause of your spondylolisthesis pain is a mystery UNTIL it is addressed by a professional. It could be a weakness or tightness that is leading to a movement issue or it could be something else.

To simply say THIS (insert any reason here) is why running hurts your spondylolisthesis, without a full body assessment, would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

bales of hay

Guessing the cause of your spondylolisthesis pain is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Everyone is created differently and everyone could have a different reason for pain.  

To simply perform a stretch on your “sore” area or strengthen you core will NOT solve your pain or movement issue. It may provide some brief relief, but that pain will be right back during your next long run until your poor movement habits are corrected.

More than likely after the selected stretch does not cure your pain, you will go back to the internet and search for the next stretch or exercise and continue the guessing game of why the pain keeps coming back.

So what can you do?

Now that you hopefully understand the complex answer to the question why running affects your spondylolisthesis or spondylolysis, it is time to do something about it.

The first thing you should do is to visit our Spondy Toolbox page and find a local therapist or strength coach that is certified in the Functional Movement Screen or one of the other full body screens we recommend and personally use.

These full body screens will look at how your body moves as a whole and will help the certified professional develop a proper plan of recovery.

Once your movement issues are discovered, certain corrective exercises are prescribed to help you move the way you are intended too.  Improving these movement issues may help to improve your areas of weakness that are leading to compensations and pain.

There are hundreds of different things that could be causing your spondy pain to increase, flare up, or hurt during each jog or run.

One exercise or stretch will more than likely not provide you with long term relief of comfort. It will more than likely take a collective effort of progressive exercises attacking specific weaknesses to accomplish the goal of moving and feeling better.  The sooner this is realized the sooner you can start to move and feel better.

If you would like to learn more about how movement relates to your spondy and how to go about getting help, make sure to check out our Step-By-Step Spondy Improvement Path.

Hopefully this sheds some light on a very difficult question. The answer is complex and can change on an individual to individual basis. 

This article may raise even more questions and we would be happy to answer them. Simply chime in below in the comments box or send us an email. We love all questions and feedback!

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Leave A Reply (4 comments so far)

  1. Elizabeth
    3 years ago

    I am a runner recently diagnosed with a spondy…have recently emailed the site with running questions but this article brought up some more.
    Is there any literature that you have found that discusses the long term affects on your spine from running with a spondy? I was told at some point I would need surgery, no way to tell when, but running would speed up that process.
    I’ve already got follow-up doctor apmts scheduled to discuss this further, but any thoughts or knowledge on the subject, or references, wound be great!
    Thank you!!

    • Spondy
      3 years ago

      Hi Elizabeth.

      To my knowledge there is no literature or studies that have looked at what running does to spondylolisthesis over the long term. My question to anyone who does perform any kind of study would be what affects the spondy or site of the spondy during running? Is it the poor movement (as mentioned in this blog post) that causes compensations and the recruitment of muscles (both stabilizers and global) that may not be designed to handle the demands of running, thus causing inflammation on tissues and muscles affecting the spondy? Or is it the actually repetitive pounding that the body absorbs after each step thus leading to issues at the direct site of the spondy? My guess for lack of literature or studies would be due to the unique nature of spondy’s. As we have discussed in previous posts there are several different kinds of spondy types along with different grades. This creates several different combinations of possible spondys and to complicate things even further each person has individual movement issues in combination with muscular and stability weaknesses. Not only does this make performing studies hard it also makes diagnosing and coming up with treatment plans difficult. This quote comes exactly from a study performed on conservative management on degenerative spondylolisthesis or DS:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2270383/
      “the absence of consensus guidelines from national or international organizations, the treatment of DS remains highly dependent on patient and physician expectations and preferences”. This shows why getting multiple opinions is sometimes the best route. I know this does not answer your exact question, but I hope it helps to show you that there really is no definitive answer to many of the questions that are out there in regards to spondy’s and there treatment. One doctor may say running is horrible and you should stay away, while another suggests easing back with aggressive therapy and a solid treatment plan. I hope others can chime in to this conversation that have experience with running and having a spondylolisthesis. Until then I would recommend writing down several of the questions you have to ask you doctor at your next appointment. Best of luck!

  2. Salo
    2 years ago

    I was told by few doctors that running is not good for spondy patients. A therapist told me that you can run if you do interval running. Meaning, you Sprint let’s say , 15-20 seconds and then walk fast for another 30-40 seconds, etc. Do you know of any research about this?
    Thanks again for such a great website.

    • Spondy
      2 years ago

      Hi Salo,

      I have had some doctors tell me it is o.k. to run as long as there was no pain and then again I have had other doctors tell me to avoid running. I have looked for research regarding running and spondy’s and have not come across anything. The conflicting information that is provided by doctor’s is further proof in my opinion that there are no studies pointing towards running and spondy’s being either negative or positive. I really think the answer is case dependent and it all goes back to the individual, their specific variables (grade, type, other conditions, movement related issues, etc) and the running involved (volume/intensity).

      Personally I enjoy interval running (I have a grade 1 spondy) and as long as I am smart and listen to my body, I have had no issues with it. However, if for some reason I am having a “flare up” or discomfort I would avoid running to allow the inflammation to subside. But this is just me and your case and other’s who find the site need to speak with their rehab professional to determine what their best options are.

      I hope this helps!

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