Neck pain mostly comes down to perfecting your form, but thankfully, there are simple changes you can make to stop discomfort in its tracks.
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When it comes to running, you might expect some pain in your lower body: tight hamstrings and hips, shin splints, blisters, and calf cramps. But it doesn't always end there. Pounding the pavement can cause discomfort in your neck and shoulders, explains Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault. That's because when you run, every step is a rep, so if your upper-body form is compromised, the pain will continue to add up with every stride, he says. You can imagine what that means if you're clocking a 7-mile run.
Sound familiar? Here are some of the top reasons you could be experiencing neck and shoulder pain during and after a run. Plus, how to fix the problem.
You clench your fists.
Tension travels up through the body, says Yusuf Jeffers, C.P.T., head coach at Mile High Run Club in NYC. So if you're clenching your hands or making a fist while you run, you create tension that travels through your forearm and upper arm and into the trapezius muscle (directly connected to your upper back and neck), which ultimately lands in your shoulder and neck. "If your neck and shoulders hurt, try letting your hands hang as if you're holding an egg; you don't want to crush the egg, and you also don't want to drop the egg," says Jeffers. If the egg cue doesn't work, try holding headphone wires, visualizing a fist-full of chips, or wearing a shirt with thumb-holes, he says, all of which will hopefully allow for some much-needed space in your palms.
You jut your head forward.
The weak posture you often hold at work will translate to weak posture on your runs, and one of the most common at-work positions is head forward, chin down, and back arched, explains Wickham. So if you go from an 8- to 12-hour day at work in that position, immediately into a run, it's not uncommon to continue to move with that same weak posture. Instead, try running with what Wickham describes as a "neutral neck," which is a neck with natural flexion (head tilted slightly down) and shoulders pressed down your back. If you have a hard time pressing your shoulders toward the floor when you run, Jeffers recommends trying to run with straight arms by your side, and then work back up to bent elbows when you feel comfortable holding a neutral neck.
You look down at the ground.
Your eyes might not seem all that important when it comes to running form, but the rest of your body will follow your gaze, so it's important to pay attention to it. "When you run, tuck your chin in and keep your eyes up toward the horizon," says Jeffers. Your body follows your line of sight, so if you're looking down at the ground, it can affect the way you hold your neck, which affects the position of your shoulders and back, which in turn causes pain in your hips and knees, and so on and so forth, he says. Essentially, looking down messes with your entire running form, which is sure to cause you pain and discomfort not only in your neck and shoulders but everywhere else too.
You shrug your shoulders.
By now you know that weak posture from hunching over a computer screen doesn't magically disappear when you head out for a run. The problem, though, is that you might try to compensate for your slouchy posture during a run by marginally pulling your shoulders up closer to your ears, says Wickham. While running with a slight shrug of your shoulders may not feel uncomfortable at first (you might not even know you're doing it), it can cause tension and tightness in your neck if you run that way for a long distance or time, says Jeffers. This is usually when you'll start to notice your form—when you up the mileage—because that's when the neck and shoulder pain starts to creep in. The fix? Just drop your shoulder blades down your back a little more with each breath and be conscious of making those adjustments throughout your run.
You pump your arms across your body.
Efficiency is key, says Jeffers, and not just with your strides. "People often move their arms extraneously," he says. "Moving your arms across your body can cause unnecessary strain in your neck and shoulders, plus it wastes a lot of energy." Try pulling your shoulders down and back, bend your arms at a 90-degree angle at your elbow, and continue pumping, he says. "Remember, the movement is happening at your shoulder, not your elbow. And it's not an exaggerated range of motion, it's smooth, loose, and in control." Your arms should be used to counterbalance your strides, not propel you forward, produce force, or use up energy, adds Wickham. (Check out more ways to improve your running technique.)
You have low mobility in your back.
Tightness in the upper and middle back will mess with even the most ideal running posture, says Wickham. Sometimes this tightness comes from sitting all day, but other times this tightness is just a result of low flexibility and mobility, or even the way you slept the night before. But the good news is that improving flexibility can help you maintain proper running posture and say goodbye to not only neck and shoulder pain, but pain just about everywhere. He recommends foam rolling, and then doing some stretches that will increase mobility in the thoracic spine (the upper middle part of the back).
Try It: Thoracic Spine Rotation
Begin on all fours fingers spread slightly. Place left hand behind your head, but keep right hand outstretched on ground in front of you. Rotate left elbow to the sky while exhaling, stretching the front of your torso, and hold for one deep breath. Switch arms and repeat.
This exercise works the back, chest, and abdominal muscles, and stretches and helps to improve mobility in your torso, while reducing stiffness in the mid to lower back, explains Wickham. (Check out eight more back moves that banish back pain and bad posture.)
Your body feels stiff all over.
If you have plans for a longer run, but can feel the stiffness from yesterday's training still taking hold of your muscles, put your run off for a few minutes and foam roll, says Wickham. Patience pays off in the end. If you're unable to move fluidly, the tension will travel through your body and cause trouble not only in your neck and shoulders but elsewhere. Bottom line: The less pain you feel before your run, the less pain you should feel during and after your run, he says. The importance of taking time for dynamic stretches and foam rolling for hitting the road cannot be overlooked.
You aren't stretching properly.
Before and after you run, you should be stretching your neck, shoulders, and back, in addition to your lower body, says Jeffers. Before you head out, do a dynamic upper-body warm-up, such as follows: Nod your head forward and back on a count of four, then rotate your neck left and right for a count of four. Then, swing your arms forward and back, and side to side. "Before you head out on a run do some of the exercises you see Olympic swimmers do on the pool deck: Roll your neck and shoulders, swing your arms, and activate both the muscles and joints," says Jeffers. Then, after the run, do some static stretching that targets the muscles that hurt the most. (Check out these go-to pre- and post-run stretches for better mobility and less pain.)
"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.
When you're stressed, your body can't deal with the aches and pain that it might normally be used to dealing with, says Wickham. One study from Tel Aviv University, published in the journal PAIN, found that psychological stress actually reduces your ability to withstand physical pain. That means that stress can actually amplify the aches and pains you're already feeling, says Wickham.
Plus, if you're running in a slumped position, which research says your body recognizes as stressful, you'll actually trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol which means instead of decreasing your stress levels while you run (a motivating factor for many runners), you could be increasing them, he says.
So ask yourself "how stressed am I on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least stressed." And if you're more than a 7 or 8 in stress, you and your body would benefit from doing an activity that helps relieve stress, suggests Wickham. For some, running is that stress reliever, so if that's you, go ahead and continue on your planned run and aim to keep a lifted chest and gaze for more optimal mental and physical results. But if you're stressed out and running just sounds like another chore on your to-do list, try yoga, meditation, taking a bath, going on a hike, or simply focusing on two minutes of deep breathing.