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Neck and shoulder pain when running: 6 quick fixes

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Neck and shoulder pain while running is more common than you think. It can often be attributed to poor form or too much tension in the neck and shoulder muscles. 

Many runners experience neck and shoulder pain while running to varying degrees. Many beginner runners over the years have asked me:

  • Why does my left shoulder hurt when I run?
  • Why does my right shoulder hurt when I run?
  • Why do I have a sharp pain in shoulder when running?

Naturally, many runners tend to hold a lot of stress and tension in their neck, shoulder and upper back, especially if they have a job that involves a lot of sitting at a desk hunched over.

So what are the best ways to combat neck and shoulder pain while running?

In this guide we’ll explore:

  • What causes neck and shoulder pain when running?
  • Is running good for neck and shoulder pain?
  • How do I stop my neck and shoulders from hurting when I run?
  • Neck and shoulder pain when running: 6 quick fixes

Ready?

Let’s go!

neck and shoulder pain when running

What causes neck and shoulder pain when running?

Neck pain while running, head and neck pain after running, and aching and cramping in the neck and shoulder muscles are all attributed to poor running form or holding too much tension in those areas.

Here are some ways in which your running form could be causing you to experience pain in your neck and shoulders.

Common causes of neck and shoulder pain when running:

You clench your fists

When you clench your fists while running, you create tension in your hands which then travels up your forearm, upper arm and into your shoulders and neck. 

Over time, especially on those long runs, this can cause considerable stress and tension in your arms, neck and shoulders which impacts how you run. 

You push your head forward

This is common in runners who have office jobs or who find themselves behind a desk all day. 

At work, people often sit with their head forward, chin down and back arched. This in turn translates into their running form, and not in a good way.

You shrug your shoulders

As mentioned above, weak posture caused by sitting behind a desk all day can translate into your run.

Many people overcompensate for their poor posture during a run by pulling up their shoulders.

Whilst this may not feel uncomfortable at first, over time it can cause tension and tightness in your neck and shoulders. 

You look down when you run

There’s a reason why running coaches tell runners to keep an upright gaze when running. Looking down when running can cause a whole host of issues when it comes to your running form. 

Looking down can affect the way you hold your neck, which therefore affects the position of your shoulders and back.

This can then have a knock on effect on your hips and knees, and so on.

Your arms cross your body when you run

Arm swing is important to get right on a run. It takes practice over time, but once you have a good arm swing, it can do wonders for your running form.

As with most mainstays of proper running form, efficiency is key.

Moving your arms across your body can cause unnecessary strain in your neck and shoulders. Not to mention it wastes a lot of energy that could be better used elsewhere. 

You’re not stretching regularly

A good stretching routine is key if you regularly experience stress, tension and tightness in your neck and shoulders. 

In fact, a 2012 study linked concluded that stretching is an effective way to reduce chronic neck pain when performed twice weekly. 

Is running good for neck and shoulder pain?

Most upper body pain related to running is caused by poor running form or too much stress and tension, which can cause neck and shoulder pain.

For example, if you round your shoulders when you run and hunch over, you’re more likely to experience neck and shoulder pain.

Whilst running can build strength in your lower and upper body, research has shown that exercises that stretch and strengthen your either the neck alone or the neck and shoulders improve pain in the short and long term compared with standard pain relief medication.

The key takeaway? Improve your running form and dabble in workouts like yoga that stretch and strengthen your neck and shoulders.

Related: 11 symptoms of overtraining: How to overcome running fatigue

How do I stop my neck and shoulders from hurting when I run?

If you regularly experience neck and shoulder pain on your run, then try some of the 6 quick fixes at the end of this guide.

Simple things like unclenching your fists, relaxing your neck and shoulders and keeping your gaze upright can go a long way to help alleviate neck and shoulder pain.

Dynamic stretches done before your run can also help to reduce neck and shoulder pain.

Don’t exercise if you have severe neck and shoulder pain or weakness in your hands and arms.

If the pain is stopping you from doing your day to day activities, then speak with your healthcare professional immediately and ask for advice.

neck and shoulder pain when running

Neck and shoulder pain when running: 6 quick fixes

Now you know about the causes of neck and shoulder pain while running, here are 6 quick fixes to help you get rid of neck and shoulder pain for good!

Unclench your fists

As discussed earlier, clenched fists creates tension in your hands. Try and relax your hands and let them hang instead of clenching them.

Here are some good tips to avoid clenching your fists:

  • Imagine you have a delicate insect or butterfly in your hand and you don’t want to crush it as you run.
  • Imagine you have a penny in between your thumb and your forefinger and you don’t want to let it drop as you run. Your thumb should be placed gently on your forefinger – don’t push down too much – as this will cause tension. 

Fist clenching can also be seen in runners during the winter months who wear long sleeved running tops and pull the sleeves over their hands to keep them warm. 

This inadvertently creates tension as you grasp the sleeve. To combat this, opt for running gloves instead. This way you can let your hands hang in a more natural way.

Related: Proper arm swing and 5 ways to improve it

Relax your neck

Try running with a neutral neck with your head tilted slightly down and your shoulders pressed down your back instead of hunching them. 

There are a few running drills that can help you to keep your shoulders down while you run.

The one I recommend is to run with straight arms by your side and then work back up to bent elbows when you feel comfortable holding a neutral neck.

It may feel strange at first, but this way you can train your body to keep your shoulders down. 

Relax your shoulders

If you find yourself pulling your shoulders up towards your ears when you run, drop your shoulder blades down your back a little. 

It’s also a good idea to focus on exercises during your warm up that focus on loosening your neck and shoulders, especially if you’re heading out for a run after a long day at work. 

Here are some good exercises to help you loosen up your neck and shoulders which can be included as part of a pre-run warm up:

  • Arm circles
  • Arm swings
  • Shoulder drops
  • Neck rolls

These are all types of dynamic stretches that will help to combat neck and shoulder pain while running.

Keep your gaze upright

Tuck your chin in and keep your eyes up towards the horizon when you run.

Don’t let your arms cross your body

Pull your shoulders down and back, bend your arms at a 90 degree angle at the elbow, and pump your arms forward and backwards from the shoulders. 

This movement shouldn’t be exaggerated. The range of motion should feel smooth, loose yet in control. 

Make stretching part of your routine

Improving your flexibility and mobility by adopting a regular stretching routine can help you maintain proper running form and posture and say goodbye to neck and shoulder pain while running. 

When it comes to running, focus on dynamic stretches before a run as part of your warm up to activate both the muscles and joints in your neck and shoulders. 

As discussed earlier, arm circles, arm swings, shoulder drops and neck rolls are all good exercises to include in your warm up.

After your run do some static stretches as part of your cool down. Target the muscles that feel the tightest. 

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