The question “why do my shoulders get tight when I run?” is a common questions from runners. If you find yourself feeling a tight shoulders, achy pain in the region of the shoulder blade or between the shoulder and the neck during or after a run then be sure to read on!
There are two main reasons why you may get tight shoulders and achey in the neck when running.
- You’re tight in there day-to-day anyway and running aggravates it
- You have butt muscle issues!
Either way, both of these points actually come down to the same thing – muscle imbalances. Whether you feel this tension most days anyway, but especially when running, or if running is the only time you feel it, both are more than likely caused by postural issues and muscle imbalances elsewhere in the body.
Upper Crossed Syndrome
This is a fancy name for poor upper body posture! The jist of the problem is a slouched, rounded shoulder, chin jutting out, type posture which over time causes a shortening of the Pec Minor muscles (in the chest) and the muscles at the back of the neck. This causes a knock-on effect of inhibiting the muscles around the shoulder blades and those found deep in the front of the neck.
If the muscles around the shoulder blades (especially Serratus Anterior and the mid and lower fibres of Trapezius) are inhibited, it means they are not functioning as they should and essentially not ‘pulling their weight’. This means another muscle group has to take over and the most likely to do this is the upper fibres of Trapezius (between the shoulder and the ear) and the Levator Scapulae (between the base of the skull and the shoulder blade). These muscles then work overtime and end up becoming tight and painful.
Lower Crossed Syndrome
This is a very similar scenario but in the pelvic region. In this case, the hip flexors at the front of the hip and thigh become overly tight, as do the lower back extensor muscles. This is usually due to long periods of sitting, although not always. This combination helps to tilt your pelvis anteriorly (so your bum sticks out) which in turn lengthens and therefore inhibits the glutes (in particular Gluteus Maximus) and abdominals.
The role of the Glute Max, alongside extending the hip is to support the lower back. It does this via a connection to the Thoracolumbar fascia – a thick sheet of connective tissue which covers the lower back. When the Glute Max contracts it tightens this fascia, to help stabilise the lumbar spine.
If the Glute Max isn’t firing when it should, the lower back needs extra support and so another muscle which attaches to the thoracolumbar fascia steps in – the Latissimus Dorsi – or Lats. These big muscles, found on either side of the back, extend up and actually attach to the upper arm, close to the shoulder. If they are working overtime due to Glute Max inhibition, they too will eventually tighten up and cause a downward force on the shoulder joint. This causes the Upper Trapz to fight this force to elevate the shoulder and hey presto – they become overworked here too!
What’s the Answer?
There are some simple exercises which will really help. Whilst it feels like the right thing to do is to stretch the tight area, this will not have any long term effect as the muscles simply tighten up again. The best thing to do is to focus on correcting the postural issues.
Instead, spend time stretching your hip flexors, lats and chest. Strengthening exercises for the scapula stabilisors are vital. An exercise known as Scaption has been shown to best recruit the lower / mid Trapz and Serratus Anterior. Row and reverse fly exercises are also good.
As for the Glute Max – here’s a little test for you. Lay on your front. Get someone (you trust!) to place one hand on your hamstrings (back of the thigh) and the other on the bum muscles of the same leg. Lift your whole leg just up off the floor – keeping the knee completely straight. Ask your helper to feel for when the hamstrings contract and when (or if!) the Glutes contract. They may need you to lift your legs a few times to be sure. Make sure you completely relax the leg inbetween!
In a perfect scenario, the hamstrings and glutes will fire at the same time to lift the leg. A less perfect result is the hamstrings firing and then the glutes. The worst case is that nothing happens in the glutes at all! If anything but the first scenario occurs, you know you need to be working on your glutes. Luckily, it’s not so much about their strength necessarily, but more that they are effectively switched off. Surprisingly, switching them back on is often easier than strengthening them! Here’s a couple of exercises to try:
Glute Squeeze & Lift
- Laying on the front, bend one knee to a right angle
- Squeeze the bum muscles
- Lift the knee just off the couch
- Rest and repeat 15-20 times
- Ensure the back doesn’t arch when lifting the leg – a small lift is fine.
- Laying on the front, turn one foot and knee outwards
- Lift the whole leg (knee straight) up and out on a diagonal
- Again it doesn’t have to be a huge movement
- Rest and repeat 15-20 times
Perform these every day, along with the hip flexor stretching and before long your glutes should be functioning better. I’ve had clients perform these exercises and within a week feel that their glutes were contracting when walking and running which they hadn’t before!
As with all injuries and other pain problems, if you try the home fix and it doesn’t improve – seek the assistance of a sports injury professional!