If Your Shoulders Get Tight and Cramped When You Run, Here's How a Doctor Says to Loosen Up

Shoulder hurting on a run? Cramps? Pain that you can't shake off? It's annoying but normal and (thank goodness) definitely treatable. "The number one cause is usually tension," said Nirav Pandya, MD, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at UC San Francisco. As much as we think of running as a lower-body exercise, you're really moving and working your entire body, he told POPSUGAR. If you're getting shoulder cramps and pain regularly, it's time to focus on your upper body, breathing technique, and overall running form.

Causes of Shoulder Pain During a Run

At the beginning of a run, your body tends to be loose: swinging arms, upright posture. But as fatigue sets in, Dr. Pandya explained, "there's a tendency to kind of tighten up around your shoulder and neck." You lean forward and bring your arms closer to you. Pain and cramps in your shoulders can be the result.

Another potential culprit: your breathing. You may have experienced this before; as you get tired, you'll start breathing more in shorter, shallower gasps. That's not only less effective in terms of getting oxygen to your muscles, Dr. Pandya said, but also increases stress on your chest and shoulder muscles. Again, that tension can lead to uncomfortable cramping.

The last main possibility, Dr. Pandya told POPSUGAR, is overall weakness in your upper body. "As runners, we have a tendency to concentrate a lot on our lower bodies, and we don't do a lot of upper-body strengthening," he said. It's understandable but essentially a mistake. Your arms and upper body need strength to push you through any kind of run, whether long and slow or short and fast, and neglecting to train that area might lead to shoulder pain down the road.

Improper hydration could also be a cause, though Dr. Pandya said that's more likely to cause cramps in your lower body. If you address the other issues and are still having trouble, he recommended upping your electrolyte and water intake as well as double-checking that your diet has plenty of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.

How to Treat Shoulder Pain During a Run

The top thing is to focus on your form, Dr. Pandya said. In a previous interview, Equinox run coach Michael Olzinski, MSc, said proper upper-body running form involves "a nice, relaxed arm swing, where your arms are generally at your side near your ribcage or pushing behind you," making sure your hands aren't spending too much time in front of your body. Consciously loosen and relax your upper body. Shake out your shoulders, and let them shrug up and down to encourage them to move naturally. You can even warm up your arms with some jumping jacks before you head out.

To improve cramps caused by poor breathing, inhale and exhale longer and more deeply, Dr. Pandya said. Try timing your breaths between steps. "Say, 'Every five strides, I'm going to take a nice, deep breath,' as opposed to that short, shallow breath," he told POSUGAR. That's especially important when you're doing speed work, which can throw off your rhythm and leave you gasping for air.

If those quicker fixes still aren't helping, look to improve your hydration and upper-body strength. "Really concentrate as much on your upper part of your body as much as your lower part," Dr. Pandya said. If you're short on workout time throughout the week, go for a full-body workout that includes upper-body moves, aiming to complete it two to three times a week. You can also add more upper body-only resistance training to your schedule. This 20-minute weighted circuit is a good place to start. Either way, working those more-neglected muscles can give you the strength to push through your hard runs without pain in your shoulders.