Why Does Running Hurt My Spondylolisthesis?

spondylolisthesis pain when running

If you want to learn more about spondy’s and how you can improve your chances of moving and feeling better, make sure to take advantage of our FREE Ebook.

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!

[hcshort id=”9″]

Tags: , , ,

Leave A Reply (30 comments so far)

  1. Elizabeth
    4 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
      4 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
    3 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
      3 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!

  3. Chinny
    1 year ago

    is there a way to make spondylolisthesis heal faster ?

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      Hi Chinny. This is a tough question because of the multiple factors that would need to be answered to set a baseline of where we are beginning. For example, is this a grade 1 spondy? A grade 2 or 3 or 4? Is it an isthmic spondy, degenerative spondy or another classification? Remember, once a break AND slip occurs, this will not heal itself. It is possible to feel better with a proper rehabilitation plan and medical team at your side. But to actually have a spondylolisthesis that heals itself completely is extremely rare (I have never heard of a case of this happening yet). If you have a spondylolysis (just the break) and catch it early enough, then yes, the break and injury can heal before it progresses to something worse. Thanks for the question and I hope that makes sense.

  4. Tapsy
    1 year ago

    Hi. Just a few questions if you don’t mind. For some reason I thought I read somewhere that you had a grade 2 slip. Is your grade 1 spondylolisthesis an L5/S1 spondy? Is it the isthmic version? If so, do you think you acquired it in early childhood – the initial break and then relatively slight slip?

    Do you xray it occasionally to see its position or have any concerns about it?

    I’ve read somewhere in the past of a few studies that showed some peoples spondlylolisthesis had reduced in terms of slip. I think it was an exercise study – maybe brace – not sure. I don’t know if that is always necessarily a good thing (since it likely can never reattach and maybe in coming back a little it could disturb established and developed structure in the area) but if it happened slowly maybe it could be good… neither here nor there just a ramble.

    I’ve read that it is rare that a (stable) grade 1 slip progresses in adulthood. It seems women have a tougher time with this though. Maybe because the ligament that is attached to that vertebrae is laxer with them due to various hormones etc? And I guess the different shape they have. They seem to generally lean more toward lordosis and swayback.

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      Hi Tapsy,

      I was diagnosed with a grade 1, stable, isthmic spondy in the L5S1 area. The doctors never gave me an exact explanation on how I acquired it. Personally I think certain tightnesses and weaknesses I had led to the eventually break and then slippage (I was VERY active growing up with sports and activities). Like many spondy patients I waited until the pain was unbearable before I went to the doctor. At this point the slip had already occurred. I had an x-ray a few years back to determine if the spondy was still stable – and it was.

      If you could, please send me a link to the study you read. I have never read, nor heard of someones slip reducing permanently. That does not mean it is not possible, just that I have not run across this yet. Braces are usually used by doctors when someone is diagnosed with a spondylolysis (pre-slip) it an attempt to let the fracture heal before the slip occurs.

      From what I understand there are certain spondy’s that are a greater risk to progress past a stage 1 when compared to others. Degenerative spondy’s would be an example. But this also depends on so many factors about the individual and their spondy. As far as women go, I believe you are on the right path with their ligaments being lax/etc due to the hormones involved. I know the birthing process the body prepares for is an example of this and may play a role.

  5. Tapsy
    1 year ago

    I’m going to dig around and see if I can find it. I think it was an exercise study and it was looking at progression of slip over time and a couple of people had a very slightly reduced slip all within grade 1 range. Not a big deal was made of it it was just noted. If I find it I’ll post.

    What about the idea that when you have a spondlylolisthesis, some/many people’s body may make compensations to help stabilize the vertabrae. The body sort of does it naturally in its wisdom etc The hamstrings may stiffen etc. Many recommend stretching the hamstrings and doing things that may affect the way the body compensates.Sometimes I wonder if that is the best approach or what approach is best because it is sort of an attempt in affect to defeat the bodys attempt to stabilize the vertabrae.If one was able to dramatically change their muscle dynamics/balance, could that create forces that make the vertabrae more apt to move etc.

    On the other hand, like you said, maybe a persons motor habits contribute to the slip in the first place and by changing some things you could reduce negative/shear forces in the area, create less pressure on the back etc.

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      I think the best approach Tapsy is really a case by case basis. There are so many variables or characteristics involved with each spondy patient that make them/their case so unique. I wrote about 10 of them here: https://spondyinfo.com/10-things-that-make-your-spondy-unique/

      This is why we are such big believers in full body screening and taking a look at the entire body to help determine which direction to go as far as therapy, exercises, movements, stretches, etc. Anyone of the factors I mentioned in the above article could play a key role in making the patients spondy case unique and different.

      I agree with your hamstring comment. I think in many cases tight hamstrings are a reaction to the issue and not the cause of the issue. Or, like you mention, it could be the bodies amazing way of attempting to provide some stability for the injured area. It’s important to ask WHY the hamstrings are tight, not just to go stretching them because they are tight. Searching for answers for YOUR specific case is the important thing. Spondy’s, in my opinion, do not have a ‘one size fit’s all’ rehab approach like all back injuries. For example, stretch your hamstrings or strengthen your core if you have pain (which is the traditional method or advice for back pain). Everyone and every case can be slightly different due to various characteristics. Narrowing down or discovering your individual weaknesses can greatly improve your chances of moving and feeling better.

  6. Tapsy
    1 year ago

    I tried looking for the study and thought I would find it on an old forum but looks like the older posts from there are gone. Anyway, its possible I’m mistaken but that’s what I recall.

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      Thanks for looking Tapsy. If you run across it, please post a link. I have yet to see a study like this so I am very interested. I would also be very interested into the types, grades and individuals that were studied.

  7. Tapsy
    1 year ago

    Thanks for the comments. I may in the near future sign up for your program as it seems very reasonably priced. I have a mild grade 1 L5/S1 isthmic spondylolisthesis – it generally doesn’t bother me unless I do some extension move like changing ceiling light bulbs on a ladder – and even then not always. I have never found standing for long periods very comfortable. But I’ve never really had strong pain with my spondy – though i did one time hyperextend my lower back with a pushup gone wrong and it took a long time to get better – the spondy was unaffected grade wise though. I think it was just a lumber strain. And sometimes my back feels great. I know without doing any screen that I have movement issues – tight hams, quads, stiffish lower back etc, slight forward lean, tight muscles in general. Some of it probably from just over sitting. Main thing is I don’t want to do harm and I don’t want to invest too much into the idea that the spondy is causing all these problems – a nocebo effect. I know so many people who appear to have good posture or were told such and normal spines on radiograph who have way worse “spine/pain” problems than me – they take painkillers etc. And there are people with terrible posture and spines and they are relatively fine and pain free. And then you have some like the pain science guy who claims that there seems to be little connection between posture and pain and that even if there was there is little one can do to really change it in any case. I don’t know. I know from some experimenting that diet and dietary habits seem very important with pain and inflammation and I wonder sometimes if that is more a driver of pain than a given structural difference. On other hand, I’d like to learn a little bit about how the muscles interact and what is considered optimal/better and maybe gently see how it goes so I think I’ll soon check it out. Thanks.

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      No problem Tapsy. I have always advised readers to increase their education any way possible. That includes keeping an open mind about their body and condition, reading as much information about the condition and their bodies and then using all of that information to come to a conclusion. The conclusion being which path is best for them. As far as the program goes, if you are hesitant to engage in any exercise activity I would recommend waiting until you feel ready. Our program is not a magical cure to this condition. It is simply a collection of all the exercises that target some of the main weak points of those with spondy’s. We have gotten some fantastic feedback from customers, but we also highly encourage people to make sure they are healthy enough to engage in physical activity. Another option is to seek out professional guidance to keep a close eye on your movements.

      If you are interested in learning more about how the body and muscles work, etc. I wrote a blog post with some recommendations that might be helpful.

      Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers was personally the most helpful book for me.

  8. Tapsy
    1 year ago

    You know one exercise thats always bothered my back a little when I’ve tried it occasionally is bird dog. I think stuart mcgill recommends it as part of 3 exercises he suggests for the back. The multifidus solution book also recommends it. Every time I’ve tried it, it causes an uncomfortable feeling in the back for a few days. I usually just stop because its not a good pain and doesnt seem to improve after a few every other day tries. It is supposed to be safe for spondy I believe but to me feels a little extensiony. Bridges are similar but they don’t hurt near as much..they feel a little extensionish. Maybe its due to too tight muscles? I have a feeling my psoas and quads are very tight. I remember when I was younger doing inclined situps with a 10 pound weight behind my head. Crazy now when I think about and how now the situp is considered bad for the spine. I think the military is phasing it out and replacing with crunch.

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      The question you need to answer is “why”. Why are these specific exercise bothering you. It’s foolish of me to try and guess over the internet without knowing anything you, your history, your body, etc. Remember, when people talk about something being safe for a spondy it does not apply to everyone because of the individual characteristics that are present with each individual. Also, it may be “safe” for a spondy, but what if you have some other back condition present? I have always advised people to listen to their bodies and take the safe route. It sounds like for some reason your body is having difficulty with these specific movements. The only way to really find out for sure is to get a movement screen from a professional. Otherwise we would just be guessing.

  9. Tapsy
    1 year ago

    One last question – sorry for all the posts.

    Are you able to lie flat on your back on the floor with legs extended with no lumbar back pain or tightness?

    If not, can you do it on a mattress?

    I have to put a large pillow under my knees to lay on back on mattress (forget about the floor) and if I avoid the laying on the back position for a while and sleep on side (meaning I avoid lying on back for a few weeks) it can be quite uncomfortable at first when I try it again but then it improves and the muscles etc lengthen but still – with pillow under knees.

    Do you think that is likely due to muscle tightness due to over sitting, spondy, poor body use etc? Of course, I guess it could be various things. Does seem to have a muscle tightness component.

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      Hi Tapsy. When I have a flare up this position bothers me. Currently, I can lay on the floor in this position with no issues. I have not had a flare up in a while as I have really learned what to do and what not to do. It really sounds like you may have some kind of issue in the pelvic complex. Could be tight muscles, restricted range of motion, poor motor control, etc. It is a very common thing with spondy patients. The deep intrinsic muscles in these areas (core & pelvis) are often culprits, but again this is all guesswork on my part.

  10. Tapsy
    1 year ago

    Great thanks for all your responses.

    With the movement screens, when they test you, if you can’t do a position or if even it going into it slightly hurts, nothing is forced right?

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      Hi Tapsy. The screens I am familiar with, that is correct. No one should be forcing you into specific positions if you are not comfortable doing them. Just simply explain your pain and the problems should be worked around. I would HIGHLY recommend the SFMA for your situation due to the fact that it designed for those that are currently experiencing pain or have pain with certain movements. SFMA screens are also administered by board certified physical therapist. You can learn more here:http://www.functionalmovement.com/certification/sfma

  11. Tapsy
    1 year ago

    Great – thanks, I’ll check that out.

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      Anytime Tapsy. I hope it helps!

  12. nihilum
    1 year ago

    Hi! Great advice and a very informative article as always. What I have been wondering for some time is, if I have no pain during and after running (or any other exercise as well), does that mean I can do it safely and it causes no problems to my spondy? I am afraid when I work out, run, bend, etc, even if I have no pain – could I be causing damage, making the slippage progress, and not even knowing about it? It is a thing that can make me go crazy!
    I completely agree with you on this “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”. I started running when I already had 1 year of basic strength and endurance training and I had a trainer to teach me. When I see so many ppl running with terrible form I get angry at all the stupid advice in magazines “wanna lose weight? start running!” – well, it is not that simple! As a matter of fact running with improper form is like weight lifting with improper form – it can do so much damage especially of you are overweight.

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      Hi nihilum. When trying to decide if an activity is making things worse you have to consider several factors. Some of the main things to keep in mind are what kind of spondy you have, what the grade is, and how risky is the activity is on the body. With that being said I cannot give you any definitive answer to your question for your exact situation. This is something that you would have to discuss with your doctor.

      I understand that most doctors give very vague answers to these questions. Especially for spondy patients. Doctors often take the conservative route which can be frustrating in a way. I was told by several doctors to avoid certain activities like running, golfing and weight lifting. I now enjoy all three on a regular basis. Personally, I listen to my body and do what I enjoy. If I feel good before, during and after an activity I have no worries moving forward. This has worked for me and I am not saying it is what you should do (you should talk to your doctor, weigh the options and make a decision). Most importantly, I listen to my body. I constantly work on improving my physical weaknesses, avoid doing what hurts or I know will hurt me, and stay positive. I hope that helps!

  13. Layla
    1 year ago

    Hello. I am also a runner with grade 1 (10mm) spondy at the 1st vertebra. When I begin to train for races (pick up speed and distance) I do hurt. Sometimes during and after long runs most of the time. I usually dont have to take anything for the pain except for days that I run more than 10 ish miles. I take some Ibuprofin. I have taken weeks off after races to heal but it ultimately comes back. Do you think this will make my slippage worse? Do you NEVER have pain during or after a run?

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      Hi Layla. Your question depends on a few factors.

      1. What kind of spondy you have. There are a few different kinds of spondy’s and certain types put you in a category for being in a greater risk of further slippage (such as a degenerative Spondy) with activities such as running. You can learn more about the kinds of spondy’s by reading this blog post: https://spondyinfo.com/the-different-types-of-spondylolisthesis/

      2. Your age
      3. Your injury history
      4. Your current state of movement (tightnesses, weaknesses, etc)

      There are a few other factors to consider as well, and the best way to get an accurate answer is to discuss this with your doctor. They will have all of the available information from your MRI and information.

      For me personally, I do not run long distances often. I mainly focus on short distance sprinting and tempo runs. I rarely have pain following these now that I have improved my weaknesses. I hope this helps! Thanks for the question!

  14. Layla
    1 year ago

    Thank you for the response. I do have a great sports medicine chiro that I’m working with but its nice to talk to others in my shoes. My spondy is from an old fracture but I don’t know how it happened. Pain began after I got back into running after delivering my 3rd child so the doctor believes the changes during pregnancy caused the slippage to become painful. I am 34 years old. I get some lower back pain and tightening in my hamstrings during and after runs.

    • SpondyInfo
      1 year ago

      No problem Layla. It is very possible the changes that occurred during your pregnancy led to slippage. I have read about all of the physical changes that take place during pregnancy, and there are several. One of the main ones that I believe affects spondy patients is the increase in Progesterone levels. This specific change allows for the loosening (laxity) of joints and ligaments in preparation of the birthing process. I think it could be very possible that these changes also affect spondy patients as well. I have exchanged several emails with readers who have fallen into this category. They did not experience pain or discomfort until after pregnancy, leading to speculation that the pregnancy affected their spondy in someway. I hope you find success and improvement with your rehabilitation. Stay in touch with updates and best of luck!

  15. Cameron
    12 months ago

    Hello I’m 18 years old about to begin my senior track season as a sprinter I was diagnosed with a spondly in August but I have had the pain off and on since summer going into my junior year, however I have been active through this whole period, sometimes the pain was there and sometimes it wasn’t, I was actively running through this time though. This last summer I assume it flared up too much for my mental state to handle so I went to a doctor and was diagnosed. I had to miss my senior year of cross country. I have been in a back brace since August and have been going to physical therapy to strengthen my core as well as doing other exercises since early December. The pain is no where near where it once was but it is still there, especially when I bend over to touch my toes for example.I have done no sort of physical activities other than PT since August and track begins soon. I go to the doctor tomorrow to hopefully be cleared. What impact will this coming track season have on my spine?

    • SpondyInfo
      12 months ago

      Hi Cameron. Your story sounds very similar to mine. I was diagnosed going into my senior year with basketball being my main focus and love. I had to sit several games with back pain and discomfort and it was a very hard thing to grasp as a young growing teenager. I encourage you to stay positive, keep working and focusing on improving. Its hard to stay positive at this age when something like this happens, but I can tell you from experience that things can and will improve.

      As far as your question goes, I have to be honest. I have no way of knowing what the upcoming season has in store from an impact perspective on your back. Your doctor should be able to answer this question with more accuracy than I. Mainly due to the fact he has all of the information, imaging and background of your specific situation. Hopefully you caught the injury soon enough and the brace has done its job, if not you always have options moving forward. Unfortunately, at this point in time the best thing you can do is remain confident, listen to your doctors advice at your next visit, then assess the situation with further facts. If you receive news that is not what you wanted to hear you can always visit another doctor and seek further assistance through additional rehab options. Often times spondy patients go through several doctors and therapy clinics. So do not worry, keep your head up no matter how hard it may seem.

      Feel free to contact me if you have further questions. If you need advice on where to go or what to do I can help point you in the right direction. You can reach me at info@spondyinfo.com

      Best of luck!