When I see a new client for the first time I always ask them, “Is there anything you try to do with your form when you run?” By far the most common answer is something along the lines of, “I try to keep my shoulders relaxed because they get pretty tight.”
For clarity’s sake I ask what they mean, and the answer always comes back that they feel like their shoulders rise and they get sore in their upper trapezius muscles, between the shoulders and the neck. And then to ease that soreness they often try to move their shoulders down and backwards. But it’s a losing battle.
Sometimes their ideas about what will ease the shoulders extend further, as they try to run more upright, keep the chin from sticking out, and “activate” the core muscles to keep themselves aligned. But these efforts are never really successful at getting rid of shoulder tension, bring a whole new level of struggle into their running, and can even end up hurting their performance and causing stress other places in their bodies.
So why is shoulder tension such an epidemic, and what can be done about a problem that seems to have so little to do with actually running?
There are three basic ways to do this. The most common is the same thing that causes tense upper traps (trapezius muscles) when you spend long hours hunched up at your desk. The tension would seem to come from lifting your shoulders, which you keep doing no matter how many times you remind yourself to stop. However the problem is deeper.
In fact, you are sitting with a rounded rather than straight spine, and this positions your head in front of your spine. The considerable weight of your head needs to be held up somehow, and the muscles that connect your skull to your upper spine and shoulders–your upper trapezius muscles–are the ones in position to do the job.
So while they seem to fatigue from the constant lifting of your shoulders, what you’re usually unaware of is that they’re also holding your heavy head up, and that’s the really tiring work.
Many runners take this flexed sitting position with them into running, rounding their backs (even if only slightly) into that same C-shape that’s so familiar they don’t even notice they’re doing it.
Consequently the head is forward, the back muscles are lengthened and in poor position to support the head, and the upper traps step in, complaining all the while.
No matter how much you try to put your shoulders down, they’ll keep getting moved up and forward by the shape of your back and the contraction of your upper traps as they work to support your head.
This kind of rounded-back head-forward position stands out to any form-minded coach or movement teacher, and they often respond by telling you to stop your head from shifting forward.
However this advice tends to backfire, as pulling your head back flattens the natural curve of your neck, tenses the muscles in front of your neck, stiffens your spine, and increases your impact and overall level of effort.
And if you do what feels like the sensible thing, pulling your shoulders back and down to try to fix this movement pattern, you end up just adding tension in your middle and lower trapezius muscles to the load of extra work you’re doing.
And worse, tension in these areas interferes with the way your back, ribcage, and shoulders are supposed to move when you run–what I call your core action. This slows you down, shortens your stride, and even stresses your IT bands.
The problem here is not that your head is forward of your pelvis–in fact that’s a necessity for good running. The problem is *how* your head is being moved forward–namely by rounding your spine. Read more about that here.
Any real solution to this problem has to happen throughout your body and not just in your neck or shoulders.
The temptation here might be to simply try to straighten up, activating your core to help you straighten your back and trying to just have better posture somehow.
This doesn’t do the job, however, because posture is an irrelevant concept in running. There’s no position that you hold–your entire body moves. So look for healthy movements rather than anything to do with alignment or position.
Movement is, in fact, exactly the cure for a rounded-back head-forward situation. Specifically, your core action.
Your core action is a twisting action of your torso, in which your pelvis and upper body turn opposite each other and also tilt side-to-side. This isn’t some exotic running technique; these movements are present to some extent if you can run at all. However making them optimal gives you a huge payoff in reduced effort and tension, and increased speed.
Tuning up your core action un-flexes your torso because it uses the muscles that fold you up–your flexors–and the muscles that stretch you out–your extensors–in rhythmic alternation, balancing the effort between them and making it impossible to hold yourself in that C-shape.
So your spine naturally straightens and your whole body–including your shoulders and the two sides of your neck–begin working in rhythmic partnership rather than continuously without a break.
If you think you may have tense shoulders because you’re running with a slightly rounded back, try this lesson to feel how your back supports your head when sitting and how to do that without flexing:
Then take the next step by doing this essential lesson to optimize your core action in running so your body works in balance and your shoulders get some relief.
You’d think that shoulder tension would be a simple problem to explain and relieve compared to more serious problems like IT band syndrome and runners knee.
But the opposite is true: shoulder tension is the canary in the coal mine, telling you there’s something really fundamental about your running technique that needs to to shift.
It’s also more complicated, since it affects and is affected by everything else that goes on in your body. And there is more than one way it comes about.
Today we talked about the most common version, however there are also running form “fixes” that people do intentionally that have thte same effect of causing discomfort. I’ll write about those next time, so stay tuned!
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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.