Shoulder Pain When Running: 4 Common Injuries + Prevention Tips 

When running, you can expect to feel some aches and pains, but usually, you don’t expect them in your upper body. However, shoulder pain when running is actually common. 

After all, running is a full-body exercise, and when you’re running, you’re not only swinging your legs, you are swinging your arms and shoulders, too. While your arms and shoulders may not feel the impact of the ground, they are performing a repetitive motion in which they swing hundreds if not thousands of times each time you run (depending on the distance). 

Your shoulder muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones still feel the impact of each footfall as it ripples throughout your body. Your shoulders may not be at ground zero of the force like your feet, calves, knees, and hamstrings, for example, but they can still be negatively impacted by improper alignment, which can cause shoulder pain when running. 

That said, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of why you may have shoulder pain when running. In this article, we are going to cover:

  • Why does my shoulder hurt when I run?
  • Common shoulder injuries from running
  • Treatments for shoulder pain when running, plus
  • Prevention tips for shoulder pain when running 

Let’s go!

A woman experiencing shoulder pain when running.

Why does my shoulder hurt when I run?

Your shoulders can hurt while running for many reasons, which are almost all related to running form. When you run, you need to practice good posture. No hunching or slumping or tensing shoulders, or swinging arms across your body. 

Related: Here’s What Bad Running Form Looks Like: 9 Signs to Look For

When running, have your:

  • Shoulders relaxed with your shoulder blades back and down
  • Chest up and proud
  • Eyes forward 
  • Head over the neck, neck over the chest, chest over hips, hips over feet
  • Arms swinging next to your body
  • Fists loosely clenched (pretend you are holding potato chips between your thumb and fingers, which you do not want to break!)

Related: Lower Back Pain While Running: What Causes It and How to Fix It

A woman experiencing shoulder pain when running.

If you run with poor posture or misalignment, it puts undue stress on your shoulders. This stress is repeated with each step, causing extra tension or friction, which can lead to inflammation or irritation and, in turn, shoulder pain when running. 

Poor posture while running can include the following causes:

  • An injury in the lower body. For instance, if you have plantar fasciitis, you may be turning your foot which is changing your running gait. 
  • Misalignment of the spine. This also causes an uneven running stride
  • Arms swinging too wide or across the body. This can irritate the shoulders.
  • Shoulder and neck tension. This can cause shoulder inflammation and tightness. 
  • Muscle weakness in the core and back. These weaknesses can cause compression and unbalanced anatomical stress. 

4 Common Shoulder Injuries from Running

There are four common shoulder injuries from running. Here’s the list:

A man experiencing shoulder pain.

#1: Rotator Cuff Injury

 A rotator cuff injury is the most common cause of shoulder pain when running. The rotator cuff consists of four muscles, a bursa sac, and tendons around your shoulder blade. 

Signs of a rotator cuff injury include: 

  • Sharp pain near your shoulder blade while running
  • Difficulty reaching for things above you 
  • Pain when putting on a tighter fitting shirt or sports bra
  • Discomfort sleeping on your side
  • Worsening pain between the shoulder blades the longer you run

Cause of a rotator cuff injury: 

The cause of a rotator cuff injury while running is usually related to form. If you are running with your arms swinging wildly or across your body, you will overuse the rotator cuff, leading to inflammation. 

How to treat a rotator cuff injury:

  • Ice and heat the area for 10-20 minutes throughout the day. 
  • Stretch the area several times a day and before you run: Bringing one arm behind your back, grab it with the other arm, pull down, and tilt your head away to feel the stretch. Hold for 20 seconds as you breathe deeply. Repeat on the other side.
  • Run with your arms swinging close to the sides of your body in a relaxed manner.
  • See a physical therapist if your pain worsens or you can’t perform daily functions.
A woman experiencing shoulder pain.

#2: Trapezius Muscle Strain

Another common shoulder injury from running is an overly tense trapezius muscle. The trapezius muscle (or traps) is the muscle that starts at the base of your neck and travels across your shoulders and down the middle of your back. 

Your traps are ground zero for muscle tension related to stress. Many people who feel overwhelmed or anxious unknowingly tighten their traps leading to neck and shoulder pain. 

Signs of a trap injury:

  • Pain in the arms and shoulders
  • Pain when rotating neck or back
  • Neck and shoulder stiffness and/or spasms
  • Headaches

Cause of trap pain:

Trapezius pain while running is most commonly caused by someone running with hunched shoulders. 

How to treat a trapezius muscle injury:

  • Ice and heat the area for 10-20 minutes throughout the day. 
  • Stretch the area several times a day and before you run: Bring one arm up over your head and hold your opposite cheekbone. Gently pull your head toward your arm, stretching the side of your neck. Hold for 20 seconds and breathe deeply. Gently release and perform on the other side. 
  • Try to relax and manage stress by eating and sleeping well and having moments of stillness.
  • See a physical therapist if your pain worsens or you can’t perform daily functions.
A woman experiencing shoulder pain.

#3: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome 

Thoracic outlet syndrome or TOS is when the blood vessels and/or brachial plexus nerve between your collarbone and first rib are compressed. It is a less common overuse injury in runners and can become serious if untreated, leading to blood clots and permanent nerve damage.

Signs of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome 

  • Neck, shoulder, and top rib pain
  • Throbbing near the collarbone
  • Numbness and/or tingling in your fingers and/or bluish color of your fingers
  • Arm pain and fatigue

Cause of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome 

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is most common in athletes who perform overhead arm motions, such as in baseball. However, runners can suffer from TOS due to the repetitive arm motion, especially if these arm motions are overly vigorous and uncontrolled. 

Treatment of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome:

If you suspect you may have TOS, it’s best you see a doctor right away as the condition can become severe and even life-threatening. Depending on the severity of your TOS, you may be prescribed to see a physical therapist regularly, or you may need surgery. 

A woman experiencing shoulder pain.

#4: Cervical Spine Pain

Your cervical spine is the upper spine in your neck. If you have muscle tension in your neck or crane your neck while running, it’s likely you may experience cervical spine pain. 

Signs of Cervical Spine Pain

  • Pain when rotating your neck
  • Neck stiffness and tenderness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Muscle weakness in the arms and legs
  • Radiating pain down the arms

Treatment of Cervical Spine Pain

  • Once again, ice and heat the area for 10-20 minutes throughout the day. An Epsom salt bath soak would be very soothing.
  • Stretch your neck several times a day and before you run:  Slowly turn your head to one side until you feel a stretch in your neck and shoulder. Hold for 20 seconds and breathe deeply. Repeat on the other side.
  • Injuries to the cervical spine can vary in severity. If you have trouble breathing or muscle weakness in the extremities, see a doctor immediately!
A woman experiencing shoulder pain.

How to Prevent Shoulder Pain When Running

While shoulder pain when running can literally be a pain in the neck, it is preventable! Here are four tips to prevent shoulder pain when running. 

#1: Run with Proper Form

The biggest cause of shoulder pain when running is running with poor form. Be aware of your running form at all times. 

  • Ensure your body is properly aligned over your hips. 
  • Swing your arms by your sides. 
  • Make sure your neck and shoulders are relaxed. 
  • Do not clench your fists or hunch your shoulders. 
  • Perform regular body scans as you run to make sure you’re standing up straight with relaxed muscles.
Three people doing planks.

#2: Strengthen your core

If you don’t have a strong core, your posture will slouch as you run, potentially leading to overuse injuries and compression. Ensure you incorporate core strengthening exercises such as: 

  • Planks and side planks
  • Birddogs
  • Dead bugs
  • Supermans
  • Forward lunges with rotations
  • Romanian deadlifts

Be sure to check out our 6 best core exercises for runners

A person doing a downward dog pose.

#3: Stretch your neck and back

Be sure to perform dynamic stretches before you run and core and back stretches after your run. Incorporate the stretches mentioned above regularly as well as: 

  • The Cobra Pose: lie on your stomach and push up so your arms are straight, and your back is arched. Hold for 20 seconds and breathe.
  • Downward Dog Pose: support yourself in a plank position and arch your hips up to the sky, so you are in an upside V. Hold for 20 seconds and breathe.

These stretches will help lubricate the spine and loosen your back muscles.

A close-up of a woman taking a breath.

#4: Breathe from your core

When you breathe properly, your core muscles properly engage and strengthen. This keeps your core strong as you run. Aim to take a two-second inhale for every two steps, and a two-second exhale for two steps. Breathe from your tummy rather than your chest. 

Related: How to Breathe While Running: Make it Comfortable and Effortless

There you have it! If you are experiencing shoulder pain when running, we hope you can get to the root of the problem with the information we have provided. If you happen to have other types of pain, such as foot pain, check out our article about pain on the top of your foot from running.

We’d also love to help you with your training goals, whether for the 5k, an ultramarathon, or simply staying healthy. Check out the Marathon Handbook resources. 

Shoulder Pain When Running: 4 Common Injuries + Prevention Tips  1

Whitney Heins
Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the 2024 US Olympic Trials marathon.

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