Why Your Back Hurts After Rucking and What You Can do About It

Originally published in The Raider Patch: Magazine of the U.S. Marine Raider Association

Rucking can be really tough on your back. All of our clients who regularly participate in rucking have experienced at least occasional back pain. Of course, some muscle soreness is to be expected; after all, carrying 90+ pounds is no easy task, even over short distances. It’s almost like carrying another person. And the fact of the matter is that your spine is only meant to bear your own weight.

But some people experience pain that goes beyond the typical muscle soreness. If that sounds like you, you’ve probably wondered what causes that pain and whether or not you should be worried about it. 

The internal suspension system 

Carrying heavy gear causes stress and compression on the spinal column—in particular, on the rubbery, gel-filled discs. These discs are fluid-containing shock absorbers stacked between the bones of the spine, and their internal water pressure fluctuates naturally throughout the day. Have you ever heard that people are shorter at night and taller in the morning? That’s true! Water gets squeezed out of the discs throughout the day as part of normal living, and then is naturally replenished during sleep. 

However, if those discs are subjected to sudden, intense stress—or if they’re not given time to recover between events (for example, through sleep)—there can be serious long-term consequences. Stiff, dehydrated discs are like flattened cushions. They make for poor shock absorbers. When this situation occurs, the muscles around the spine kick into overdrive in order to compensate and protect the back. They work harder to provide control and stability, which can result in tightness, pain and even spasms. These muscles will continue to provide auxiliary support until the discs are able to come back online and carry out their normal functions. Unfortunately, this doesn’t lead to stronger muscles as some people think, but to frazzled, weakened ones. 

If you’ve ever suffered from back pain after a hard ruck that someone said was “just tight muscles,” but which didn’t go away (or even got worse) after a good night’s sleep, that may be a warning sign that a disc is in trouble; your muscles might still be tight because the disc never replenished itself and started working properly again.

You’re not going to stop rucking. So what should you do?

There is good news! Discs are remarkably resilient structures, capable of withstanding substantial wear and tear. We wouldn’t be walking around on two legs if they weren’t pretty darn tough. 

Discs respond and adapt to exercise—if done right. Exercises aimed at relieving compression and lengthening the spine can remodel the rubbery disc walls and increase fluid levels. Over time, the body can adapt and your “tire pressure” can improve. The key ingredients are a routine maintenance schedule and proper execution of a thoughtfully-designed workout program.

If you have back pain after rucking, a simple exercise called the bench unloader may help. This exercise relieves pressure on the spinal discs, which helps to restore fluid levels, improve spinal alignment and reduce painful muscle spasms. For best results, you should do the bench unloader as soon as possible after rucking, or after extended periods of time on your feet. 

How to perform the bench unloader

Place your hands on the edge of a truck tailgate, a heavy-duty table, or a countertop. Lean forward and relax your weight over your hands, with your elbows locked, until you feel a gradual release of pressure in your lower back. Keep your toes in contact with the ground. Hold this position for as many seconds as possible. Repeat for three to five minutes, and again every hour until the pain resolves. Adjust your technique or stop if the pain worsens. 

Bench Unloader

What if the exercise makes my back feel worse? 

Remember those hard-working muscles we talked about earlier? A rapid change in spinal pressure can cause an alarm to go off in those sensitized muscles. If that’s the case, a more gradual decompression strategy may be required. 

Try using less “lean” forward while performing the exercise. If that doesn’t work, this exercise might not be right for you, or you might need to change your mechanics.

Low Back Ruck Relief Plan:

A 15-minute exercise routine involving spinal decompression and key muscle stretches can restore fluid balance, joint alignment, and reduce painful muscle tightness. Perform the following exercise routine as soon as you can after rucking, or extended periods of time on your feet. If completing the event in the morning, do another round of exercises later that afternoon or evening. If you wake up with low back pain or stiffness the next morning, continue the exercises 2-3 times per day until you are no longer waking with pain. If pain persists longer than 1 week, consult a healthcare provider that specializes in the spine.

When should you seek professional help? 

There are a few important things to watch for that may be signs you have a problem that will not respond to rest or basic exercises. Take the time to be checked out by a healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  1. The pain persists even after sufficient rest
  2. The pain lasts longer than one week
  3. The pain shoots down one or both legs (especially when you bend forward or stand up from a chair). 
  4. You notice leg weakness, or difficulty lifting your leg or foot when walking

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