There are many possible causes for your shoulder tension when you run. Your shoulders might feel tight because you’re running with your spine slightly flexed; learn more about that here. Other likely causes, however, are the very things you’re doing to try to improve your running technique.
If that’s the case with you, then I have good news for you. By the end of this article, you’ll discover there’s a whole bunch of extra work you’ve been doing, you’ll realize you can stop doing it, and as a result you’ll run faster and feel better.
Sound good? Then read on.
“Run with good posture,” “Pull your shoulders down and back,” and “swing your arms front-to-back, don’t let them cross your body” are all common running form/technique recommendations.
However they can all cause shoulder tension.
I can hear your hoot of skepticism all the way from here. Give me a sec and I’ll explain.
First up, “run with good posture.” People usually interpret this to mean that they should run with what would be considered good posture for standing and walking. However running isn’t standing or walking, it works quite differently.
The most important difference for your shoulders is that you organize your spine vertically for standing and walking (head aligned above pelvis), while in running you organize your spine on a forward angle, putting your head in front of your pelvis. Read more about that here.
Leaning forward also requires you to move your skull forward on your atlas vertebra so your head is oriented to the horizon. This means your head and your spine are not in the same relationship in running as they are in standing and walking.
One effect of this is that your shoulders might feel rolled forward relative to your head because your spine is tilted forward. If you percieve this to be “hunched” or “slouching” shoulders, you’ll try to pull them back… using your trapezius muscle group.
Those trained in movement for rehab and fitness might say it will just be your lower and middle trapezius working to pull your shoulders back and down, but the knock-on effect of doing this is that you interfere with the healthy rotation of your ribcage and thoracic spine–which should ideally be the origin of your armswing.
If your arms can’t swing from the movement of your ribcage and upper spine, they’ll swing from your shoulders, but you’ll usually lift the shoulders a little to do this and voila, even though your shoulders don’t look hunched they’ll often feel tense.
Next let’s tackle “pull your shoulders down and back.” Now even as a piece of posture advice this one should ring alarm bells. Because if you throw a ball up in the air, do you have to pull it back down?
Not on planet Earth. We have gravity to do that.
Why would your shoulders be any different? Gravity will pull them down if you just stop lifting them, and organize yourself so there’s a “down” for them to go to (i.e. don’t hold yourself with your back rounded constantly).
In running and even in walking, not only will gravity keep your shoulders from hovering around your ears unless you’re lifting them, but also your shoulders aren’t held in any position, they move.
In both gaits your upper body turns and your shoulders coordinate with that so that the shoulder blades are constantly shifting closer to and then farther from your spine. If you try to hold your shoulders in any position–up, down, together–you’re interfering with the movement.
Now, with all of that said, to explain how this causes shoulder tension, the mechanism is the same as “running with good posture.” The lower and middle trapezius are contracted to pull the shoulders down and back, so they begin to feel chronically tense, and then to create the movement of running the upper traps fire as well.
In addition, it tends to pull your upper back upright, pulling you out of your forward lean, without bringing your head back. And that puts you back in the position I wrote about last week, where your upper trapezius has to work continuously to hold up your head.
Finally, let’s look at “swing your arms front-to-back, don’t let them cross your body.” I’ve already explained that the upper body turns when you run and your shoulder blades move as well on this rotating platform of your ribcage/back.
And that carries your arms along with it.
Making your arms swing front-to-back as your shoulders turn requires some fancy work in your rotator cuffs and also–surprise!–tenses your trapezius.
To feel how that works, hang your arms by your sides and bend your elbows 90 degrees. Then, just like in the classic rotator cuff strengthening exercise, keep your elbows by your sides as you move your hands apart. (This means your upper arms rotate away from each other.)
Feel how your shoulder blades moved towards each other and pretty much your entire upper back tensed?
This puts you right in the same position as if you just were trying to pull your shoulders down and back, but with the added pleasure of tense rotator cuffs and even more inhibited movement of the upper body–and that makes your legs have to work much harder.
Now if you’ve been doing any of the things I’ve just covered, you’re probably someone who’s been working really diligently on your form, and discipline may come fairly naturally to you.
But I would love for you to save that discipline for the things that will really make you a better runner. Let that be the inner strength that gives you energy when it really counts. Let that be the discipline of listening to your body, getting enough sleep, and taking good care of yourself.
Don’t waste it on micromanaging your shoulders.
Here is an audio lesson that will help you coordinate movement of your shoulder blades with your head, back, and spine. It’s not specifically for running; I recorded it for my clients ages ago and I’ve never shared it on this blog before. You can do it sitting at a table or a desk, so if that’s where you are now…there’s no time like the present!
This lesson is my go-to for teaching the core action (which supports and carries your shoulder girdle and arms), definitely give it a go.
Finally, here’s a really quick lesson you can do midrun to help you drop shoulder tension by freeing up your neck. Not only will it help with that problem, but if you’ve done the two lessons I’ve listed above, this one will work will help recall what you learned so your whole body works better.
I’ll be demonstrating some of the things I’ve described in this two-part series on shoulder tension on Facebook Live this coming Friday, April 21, 2017, at 1:15 pm Central European Summer Time. Go to The Balanced Runner’s Facebook page, “Like” it so you’ll be notified on Facebook when I go live, and then look for me on the page at the scheduled time.
Looking forward to seeing you there!
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.