Shoulder Pain When Running: 4 Common Injuries + Prevention Tips 

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Aches and pains seem to come and go as you run, but usually, you don’t expect them in your upper body. However, shoulder pain when running is more common than you might think.

After all, running is a full-body movement, and when you’re running, you’re not only engaging your legs but also activating your arms and shoulders. Running is a dynamic movement that calls upon multiple muscle groups.

Your shoulders may not be at forefront of the force like your feet, calves, knees, and hamstrings are, but they still have significant force transference through them.

There are several tips that can help prevent your shoulders from hurting as you run; we’ll look at each one in-depth and get you back running pain-free.

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of why you may have shoulder pain when running.

In this article, we are going to cover the following:

  • Why Does My Shoulder Hurt When I Run?
  • 4 Causes Of Shoulder Pain When Running
  • 4 Common Shoulder Injuries
  • Effective Treatment And Prevention Of Shoulder Pain When Running

Let’s go!

A woman experiencing shoulder pain when running.

Why Does My Shoulder Hurt When I Run?

First of all, it is important to differentiate between shoulder pain which hurts when you run, and shoulder pain, which ONLY hurts when you run.

If your shoulder pain is consistent throughout the day, irrespective of whether you have gone for a run, the scope of possible causes is vast. There will be a crossover, but today we’re primarily focusing on shoulder pain that is caused by running.

Upper body locomotion is immense when running, with shoulder pain most often related to running form, good posture, and shoulder strength.

As a general rule, try to avoid hunching, slumping, tensing, and swinging your arms across your body. 

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

A woman experiencing shoulder pain when running.

4 Causes of Shoulder Pain when Running

#1: Tension In The Upper Body

It’s easily done. Most of us work jobs that require us to sit for long hours, so it’s easy for our shoulders to creep up. The muscles get used to a slight state of contraction and can remain tight when we run.

Try and relax them right now. Were they tense? Mine were.

Relaxing the upper body isn’t as easy as it sounds on paper. It requires repetitively checking ourselves, and over time we will start to see changes.

Before you head out on your next run, make sure you warm up. Include some shrugs and shoulder swings to get the trapezius and deltoids active and loose.

Pay particular attention to your body at the latter portion of a long run or during your hard efforts; it is easy to inadvertently tense your upper body at these points.

Muscle tension is essential; it’s what keeps us standing! However, holding excessive tension in our shoulders will eventually cause them to fatigue and tighten, leading to soreness.

A person holding their shoulder in pain.

Here are a couple of pointers for your next run:

  • 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

#2: Overuse

If you have recently ramped up your training volume or intensity, you may be falling foul of overuse symptoms.

As mentioned earlier, running is a dynamic movement with the thoracic spine and shoulders involved as you run. If the body’s physical capabilities are outweighed by what you are demanding from it, pain or soreness can be expected.

In the short term, reduce your training volume and see if the symptoms follow suit. Over a period of time, you can slowly increase your running volume/intensity, allowing the body adequate time to adapt.

It may be the case that the upper body is in need of some strength work to increase its load tolerance. We’ll look at that in greater depth later.

A person at a desk with poor posture.

#3: Poor Posture

If you run with poor posture or misalignment, it can put undue stress on your shoulders. This stress is repeated with each step, eventually leading to shoulder pain when running. 

As you run, be aware of whether you are hunching or rounding your shoulders, as this can put extra force through the trapezius.

Furthermore, running with your arms swinging too wide or across the body can irritate the shoulders.

#4: Muscle Weakness

Excessive weakness in the muscles of the upper back, neck, and shoulders will put them at greater risk of being overloaded and aggravated.

Even if you have the perfect form, over the course of a run, weak muscles will soon fatigue, and the aforementioned posture issues will prevail.

Form follows function, so build up the strength in the shoulders, and you’ll likely see a reduction in pain.

We’ll look at some specific exercises to strengthen the upper body later!

4 Common Shoulder Injuries

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. However, running is often not the cause of a rotator cuff injury itself.

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 T-shirt or coat
  • Discomfort sleeping on your side
  • Worsening pain between the shoulder blades the longer you run

Cause of a rotator cuff injury: 

Rotator cuff injuries are usually the result of excessive use, particularly when lifting things above your head, poor biomechanics, and direct trauma.

Rotator cuff injuries come in all shapes and sizes but can usually be categorized by a tear of the muscles or tendons, acute inflammation, or chronic irritation.

How to treat a rotator cuff injury:

Rotator cuff injuries are famously hard to treat. I would recommend seeking out a physical therapist local to you. They can individualize a plan best suited to you and support you along the way.

A woman experiencing shoulder pain.

#2: Trapezius Muscle Strain

Another common shoulder injury from running is a strained 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 trapezius injury:

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

Cause of trapezius pain:

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

How to treat a trapezius muscle injury:

  • If necessary, ice or heat the area to help reduce pain
  • Mobilize the area several times a day and before you run
  • 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.
An ice pack on a shoulder.

#3: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome 

Thoracic outlet syndrome or TOS is when the blood vessels and/or the 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 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, you should 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 portion of your spine. If you have muscle tension in your neck or crane your neck while running, 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

  • The area may be irritated and needs a rest. Try reducing training volume and see if the symptoms settle.
  • Pain management techniques such as ice and heat and NSAIDs may help. Check with your doctor before taking medication.
  • Mobilize your neck several times a day and before you run.
  • 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.

Effective treatment and prevention of shoulder pain when running

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

#1: You Can’t Go Wrong with Getting Strong!

Strengthening your upper body is crucial in treating and preventing shoulder pain when running.

It will increase your body’s tolerance to load and allow your posture to maintain itself even under the stress of the long run.

Start with a manageable weight that doesn’t illicit pain and work up from there. Upper back work can be done at home or at the gym.

Here are some exercises that target the upper back and shoulders:

  • Shrugs
  • Shoulder Press
  • Front Raise
  • Bent-Over Rows
  • Pull-Ups
  • Face Pulls
  • Rear Delt Raises
  • Press Ups

If you don’t have a strong core, your posture will slouch as you run, potentially leading to overuse injuries and compression

Three people doing planks.

Ensure you incorporate core strengthening exercises such as: 

  • Planks and Side Planks
  • Birddogs
  • Dead Bugs
  • Supermans
  • Leg Raises
  • Crunches

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

#2: Mobilize and 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.
A person doing a downward dog pose.

#4: Breathe From Your Core

When you breathe mindfully, your core muscles are more likely to engage. This keeps your core strong and active as you run.

Aim to take a two-second inhale for every two steps, and a two-second exhale for two steps. This might be hard to do on your faster runs, so initially incorporate it on your lower-effort days. Breathe from your tummy rather than your chest. 

There you have it! Our expert tips on mitigating shoulder pain when running and hopefully avoiding it altogether!

For more upper back exercises to help strengthen and improve your posture, check out our workout guide: Upper Back Workout For Strength And Definition

A close-up of a woman taking a breath.
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Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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