Neck and shoulder pain while running: 6 quick fixes

Neck and shoulder pain while 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. 

Over the years I have experienced neck and shoulder pain while running to varying degrees. Naturally, I tend to hold quite a lot of tension in my neck, shoulders and upper back. 

And it seems I’m not alone. 

We runners tend to hold a lot of stress and tension in our upper body, especially if you have a job that involves a lot of sitting at a desk where you’re hunched over. 

So what are the best ways to combat neck and shoulder pain while running? In this blog post I’d like to offer a few tips on how to combat this pain and hopefully prevent it from returning in the future.

If you haven’t already done so, check out my posts on how to improve running form and how to run properly. You will also want to check out my post on proper arm swing for runners

neck and shoulder pain while running

Neck and shoulder pain while running: What causes it?

Aching and cramping in the neck and shoulder muscles are attributed to poor running form or holding too much tension in those areas.

In the post below I’m going to examine the ways in which your running form could be causing you to experience pain in these areas and offer ways to fix the problem. 

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. 

To fix this, try and relax your hands and let them hang instead of clenching them. Imagine you have a delicate insect or butterfly in your hand and you don’t want to crush it as you run.

Another good trick is to place your thumb on your forefinger on each hand, facing towards the sky. 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.

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.

To combat this weak posture, 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. 

neck and shoulder pain while running

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. 

So 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. 

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

These types of dynamic stretches as part of a warm up will help to combat neck and shoulder pain while running.

You look down as 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.

To fix this, tuck your chin in and keep your eyes up towards the horizon when you run.

neck and shoulder pain while running

Your arms cross your body when you run

I’ve spoken about proper arm swing a few times on my blog as I believe it’s incredibly 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. 

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. 

You’re not stretching before and after a run

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

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

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. 

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

Then after your run do come static stretches as part of your cool down. Target the muscles that feel the tightest. 

Improving your flexibility and mobility can help you maintain proper running form and posture and say goodbye to neck and shoulder pain while running. 

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Caroline Geoghegan

Caroline Geoghegan (aka Run With Caroline) helps people become faster and stronger runners. She started her blog in 2018 to share her passion for running. Caroline is a UK Athletics qualified Run Leader and Run Coach and NASM qualified Personal Trainer.

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