Have you ever finished a long run with your legs and your lungs feeling great, but your shoulders are killing you?
Have your hands ever gone numb on a long run?
For me, the answer is yes to both.
I looked online to see what other people were doing to fight this problem. The only thing I found were some articles saying “stretch your neck and shoulder muscles more” (like this Runner’s World article). Although consistent stretching may help some, it won’t help when you’re 18 miles into your run. I learned a simple trick back in 2006 and I’ve used it ever since. Let’s look at how to relax your shoulders while running!
Why Your Shoulders Tense Up
Shoulders tense up for 2 simple reasons:
This can be poor posture while running. However, more commonly it’s a poor posture habit from countless hours of computer work, cell phone use, e-readers, etc. Modern society has us all looking down way too much. We carry our poor posture habits into our runs. Have no fear. Running is a great time to fix your poor posture habits.
The Stress Response
Long training runs, marathons, and triathlons are stressful for your body. Especially if you are hitting the wall. Stress activates a slew of hormonal and neurological responses. One of the automatic stress responses is to curl into the fetal position. Think about what you would do if someone was going to throw a rock at you from 10 feet away. You would duck into a quasi fetal position with your arms in front of your head and torso. Your instincts are to protect the most important parts of your body. Under stress, your body automatically turns on the muscles you would use to get into the fetal position. You’ll notice the stress response while running when your hands clench, your elbows bend to more than 90 degrees, and/or your shoulders are magnetically drawn up towards your ears.
Running tense can be painful, it can lead to injury, and it’s always a waste of energy. Estimates vary, but being relaxed while running can improve your performance by up to 10%.
Q: “How Do I Relax My Shoulders While Running?”
Just mentally telling your shoulders to relax helps a tiny bit. I tried to relax my shoulders this way during my 1st marathon in 2005 and it wasn’t enough. This trick is much more powerful.
A: PUSH YOUR HEAD UP TO THE SKY
I used to tell people to imagine that their neck was like E.T.’s. Unfortunately, I’ve had too many younger patients tell me that they’ve never seen the 1982 blockbuster movie.
The key to relaxing your shoulders while running is to push your head up to the sky. This activates the deep postural muscles in the neck (the ones that should be working to hold your head up). It also reflexively relaxes those tight shoulder and neck muscles. Best of all, if you do it while running it will actually improve your running form and efficiency.
5 Steps To Relax Your Shoulders While Running
- Take a normal breath
- As you exhale, try to push your head up to the sky
- Maintain that new, higher head position when you inhale
- Repeat as needed
- Say “Ahhhhhh…” as the tension leaves your neck and shoulders
This technique helps improve running posture. It also sends a signal to the brain that you aren’t under that much stress (yes, your body tells your brain what to do more often than you think). Try it now if you’re reading this and your shoulders are tight…. You’re welcome.
“Nice Try Doc, But Muscles Can’t Push”
That’s a great point. Muscles only pull. Luckily, the spine and it’s surrounding muscles act as a tensegrity structure (E Buckminster Fuller was the 1st to describe tensegrity and Tom Flemmons applied it to the spine – Science geeks like me find it fascinating). If your muscles pull correctly on your spine, you can push your head up to the sky!
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I know this trick will help you relax your tight shoulders while running. If this trick helped you on a long training run, marathon or triathlon please let others know in the comments below.
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