Why You Have Neck and Shoulder Pain While Running and How to Fix It

Neck pain mostly comes down to perfecting your form, but thankfully, there are simple changes you can make to stop discomfort in its tracks.

Running, while mainly involving the lower body, can also lead to discomfort in your upper body such as your neck and shoulders. This is explained by Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., the founder of Movement Vault. The reason behind this is that every step you take when running serves as a rep. So, if your form isn't correct in your upper body, this can lead to cumulative pain with each stride, especially on long-distance runs like seven miles. Are you experiencing this kind of pain during or after your runs? Here are some possible causes behind this discomfort in your neck and shoulders. We'll also provide solutions on how to alleviate this problem.

You clench your fists.

Stress can journey upwards through your body, as mentioned by Yusuf Jeffers, a Certified Personal Trainer and head coach at the Mile High Run Club in New York City. If you have a habit of tightening your hands or forming a fist while running, it results in stress that moves through your forearm, upper arm, reaching your trapezius muscle (directly linked to your upper back and neck), finally causing discomfort in your shoulder and neck. "To alleviate pain in your neck and shoulders, try relaxing your hands like you're holding an egg; the goal is to neither crush nor drop the egg," suggests Jeffers. If this technique doesn't help, consider holding onto headphone wires, visualising holding a bunch of chips lightly, or wearing a shirt with thumb holes, all of which can provide needed relaxation to your palms.

You jut your head forward.

Often, the detrimental postures we adopt at work can infiltrate our running habits. A prevalent office posture includes leaning the head forward, lowering the chin and arching the back. Upon transitioning from a full day at work to a jogging session, it's typical for this compromised posture to persist. Wickham suggests adopting a "neutral neck" during your run, characterized by slight downward tilting of the head and shoulders drawn down the back. If maintaining your shoulders in this position poses a challenge during your run, Jeffers advises beginning with arms straight beside you while running. Once you're comfortable holding a neutral neck position, you can gradually return to running with bent elbows.

You look down at the ground.

While running, your line of sight significantly influences your form. It's crucial to maintain an upward gaze towards the horizon and keep your chin tucked in, advises Jeffers. The position of your eyes can impact your neck posture, which subsequently affects your back, shoulders, hips, and knees. Essentially, staring down disruptively alters your entire running form, leading to potential discomfort and pain in your neck, shoulders, and beyond.

You shrug your shoulders.

You're aware by now that the poor posture from slouching over a keyboard won't automatically rectify itself when you go for a jog. However, the issue arises when you unconsciously try to rectify this hunched stance during your run by slightly elevating your shoulders towards your ears, mentions Wickham. Initially, running with a mild shoulder shrug may not seem uncomfortable (you might not even realize you're doing it), but if sustained for an extended distance or time, it can trigger tension and stiffness in your neck, notes Jeffers. You generally become aware of this form while increasing your running distance because that's when neck and shoulder discomfort begins to manifest. The solution? Simply lower your shoulder blades down your back a tad more with each inhale and remember to make those modifications throughout your jog.

You pump your arms across your body.

Jeffers highlights the importance of efficiency, particularly when it comes to your stride. He notes that many people have a tendency to move their arms in a way that is not necessary. "Excessive arm movement can lead to unnecessary tension in the neck and shoulders, not to mention it's an energy drain," he explains. He advises pulling the shoulders down and back, bending the arms at the elbow to form a 90-degree angle, and maintaining this arm pump. "It's crucial to remember that the motion originates from the shoulder, not the elbow. The movement should be controlled, smooth, and relaxed, rather than overly exaggerated."

Wickham adds that the function of your arms while running is to counterbalance your strides. They are not meant to drive you forward, generate force, or expend excessive energy. (Find more tips on enhancing your running technique here.)

You have low mobility in your back.

Experiencing reduced flexibility and mobility in your upper and middle back can negatively impact your optimal running posture, states Wickham. This stiffness can arise from prolonged periods of sitting or even due to insufficient flexibility, mobility or a poor sleeping position the previous night. The silver lining is that by enhancing your flexibility, you can ensure a proper running posture and eliminate not only neck and shoulder discomfort, but also pain in virtually any part of your body. He suggests using foam rollers followed by stretches aimed at improving mobility in the thoracic spine (the section of the back located in the upper middle part).

For example: Thoracic Spine Rotation

Start in a tabletop position with fingers slightly apart. Position your left hand behind your head while keeping your right hand stretched out on the ground before you. Rotate your left elbow towards the sky while exhaling, stretching the front of your torso, and hold for one deep breath. Alternate arms and repeat.

This exercise targets the muscles in your back, chest, and abdomen. It also stretches and aids in improving torso mobility while reducing stiffness in the mid to lower back region, according to Wickham. (You can try eight additional back exercises that help eliminate back pain and bad posture.)

Your body feels stiff all over.

Should you be preparing for an extended run but feel the lingering tension from your previous workout, it's recommended to postpone your run and spend some time foam rolling, according to Wickham. Being patient in this scenario works in your favor. If your movements aren't fluid due to stiffness, the strain will permeate throughout your body and may result in discomfort not only in your neck and shoulders but other areas as well. The key takeaway is that the lesser the discomfort you experience before your run, the minimal should be the pain during and post-run. The significance of dedicating time for dynamic stretching and foam rolling before setting off cannot be understated.

You aren't stretching properly.

It's important not to neglect stretching both before and after your run, advises Jeffers. Start with a dynamic warm-up of your upper body before setting out for your run by moving your head forwards and backwards over a count of four, then turning your neck from left to right for the same count. Swing your arms frontwards and backwards, then from one side to the other. Before beginning your run, emulate the exercises often seen being done by Olympic swimmers on pool decks which involve rolling your neck and shoulders, swinging your arms, and activating both muscles and joints, recommends Jeffers. After completing your run, engage in some static stretching focusing particularly on the most pained muscles.

You're dehydrated.

"Dehydration can cause cramping all over, including your neck and shoulders," says Wickham. While there are other neuromuscular reasons why you might experience a muscle cramp, remembering to hydrate in the one- to five-hour period before you head out should help prevent it on a run. If you're a morning exerciser, this is really important as Wickham says your body will naturally wake up dehydrated, so going for a run before you've had enough to drink means trouble.

You're stressed.

When you're under stress, your capacity to tolerate existing discomfort or pain reduces, as stated by Wickham. A study published in the journal PAIN from Tel Aviv University found that mental stress can decrease physical pain tolerance, amplifying any pre-existing aches or pains you might be experiencing. Moreover, if you happen to run with a slumped posture, which is perceived as stressful by your body, it triggers the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Contrary to popular belief, instead of reducing stress levels during your run, you may be inadvertently increasing them. Thus, gauge your stress levels on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represents minimal stress. If your stress score exceeds 7 or 8, engaging in a stress-relieving activity would greatly benefit you and your body, suggests Wickham. For some individuals, running serves as a stress buster. If this applies to you, continue your planned runs but ensure you maintain an upright chest and gaze for optimal mental and physical outcomes. However, if running seems like another task on your overwhelming to-do list, consider alternatives such as yoga, meditation, taking a soothing bath, hiking, or even dedicating two minutes to deep breathing exercises.

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