Are you an avid runner who experiences upper back pain? If so, you are not alone. Many runners suffer from this discomfort due to underlying issues, such as posture or faulty technique. It’s not an issue that first comes t mind when thinking of running injuries but it can be very frustrating for runners of all levels.
If upper back pain while running affects your ability to train, you’re in the right place. Understanding what could be causing your back pain, managing it when it occurs, and preventing it from flaring up will help you stay on track with your running goals pain-free.
What Causes Upper Back Pain While Running?
There are a lot of potential causes of pain in the upper back, also referred to as the thoracic spine or even midback. Typically, more than one factor is contributing. Let’s review:
Daily postural strain
How often do most of us slouch on a daily basis? While the spine is made to flex and move in every direction, spending too much time in any one specific position can be hard on the back and lead to imbalances.
From sitting at the computer and driving to texting and sitting on the couch watching TV, we spend much time flexing our spine. Spending time standing, walking, and running are great ways to balance out these potential postural strains.
There is no such thing as a perfect posture. However, signs of a faulty posture that might benefit from gradual changes include the following:
- Rounded shoulders
- Forward jutting of the head (the chin is forward from the rest of the body)
- Exageraggted rounding of the middle spine
- A protruding abdomen (due to compensatory overextension of the low back)
- Tension in the neck, often leading to headaches and other upper body muscle aches with activity
Faulty running form
Sometimes, it’s not just your daily postural strain causing pain. Your biomechanics in motion can also contribute to upper back pain while running.
Common faulty movement patterns that should be addressed are:
- Arms or legs crossing the midline of the body with running
- Shoulders that creep up towards the ear or forward (this often happens when people get tired)
- Running on hard surfaces, in poor shoewear, or without optimal muscle control causes excessive pounding and high impact that can reverberate into the spine
Other causes of upper back pain
While running form and posture are the primary contributing factors, the following can exacerbate these issues or be an initial contributor.
- Heavy breathing: Running at a high intensity (or other highly aerobic activities), requiring accessory breathing muscles in the neck, can lead to upper back and neck sensitivity.
- Muscle weakness: Weak and inhibited muscles of the midback and core (abdomen) can also contribute to pain. Overstretched muscles in the thoracic spine from a slouched posture are the most common cause.
- Muscle imbalances: In addition to weakness, often tight or stiff muscles in the chest, low back, and anterior shoulders can lead to compensation and overstretching in the upper back.
- Stress: Overuse of the muscles and emotional stress can also increase tension.
- Injury: Issues such as compression fractures from osteoporosis or disc herniation (degeneration) can be the source of upper back pain.
- Preexisting medical conditions: Conditions such as Scheuermann’s Disease or Ankylosing Spondylitis can lead to chronic thoracic spine issues. Talk to your doctor if you have worsening pain or concerns.
- Other less common causes: Rarely, tumors, infections, or other tissue concerns can be the source of upper back pain.
How to Manage Upper Back Pain While Running
If you know something is wrong, it’s best not to ignore it, especially when pain persists. Instead, here are a few ways to manage upper back pain while running and beyond:
Change your biomechanics
The most important step is addressing any faulty biomechanics leading to your pain. This could mean working with a physical therapist, chiropractor, or running coach (if they know how to address this) to take a look at your form and address any issues.
Issues they may work with you on include:
- Running “lighter” to lower compression forces
- Posture training to promote better alignment with daily activities and running
- Strengthening of weak muscles in the abdomen and midback
- Mobility exercises to enhance joint range of motion, particularly in the spine
- Neuromuscular control exercises to promote better movement patterns
Improve your daily posture
Addressing daily postural strain is one of the most important aspects of managing upper back pain. This does not necessarily mean you must have perfect posture all the time. Instead, it means gradually introducing a more upright or neutral posture while increasing your awareness of how you’re holding your posture each day.
There are several ways to do this:
- Having an ergonomic workstation and chair, asking for a professional to help you set it up if needed
- Taking breaks from sitting with low-impact exercise such as walking or stretching
- Doing daily postural awareness exercises (see below)
- Utilizing a standing desk when possible
- Go through your day more aware of your sitting, standing, and sleeping. Tools such as posture monitors, Kinesio tape, and mirror biofeedback can enhance your awareness.
Regular exercise for posture and muscle balance
A consistent exercise routine that targets common problem areas for runners is a great way to manage and prevent pain in the upper back (and many other injuries). You can try one or more of the exercises below. Talk to a physical therapist if you’re unsure where to start or want a more personalized program.
- Strengthening the mid-back: Exercises like rows, flys, and shoulder blade squeezes are great for strengthening the muscles of your midback when done correctly. These exercises are also a great opportunity to learn to “downtrain” muscle groups that tend to overcompensate, like the upper traps in the neck and the top of the shoulders. They should be relaxed while strengthening the middle back and scapular musculature.
- Strengthening the core: Good core strength is important for preventing injuries and for a strong running posture. Exercises should focus on training core activation and control with daily movements, such as pelvic floor activation, breathing drills, planks, balance work (both static and dynamic), and hip strengthening.
- Stretching the chest and midback: Stretching stiff and sore muscles typically feels good, particularly in the chest. This can include chest stretches (standing in a doorway or lying on the floor with the arms outstretched) or yoga poses like cat-cow or child’s pose.
- Thoracic and shoulder mobility: Enhancing the range of motion in your thoracic spine and shoulders can also be beneficial. This could include foam rolling, soft tissue massage (if done properly), or exercises like wall slides or shoulder circles.
- Breathing exercises: The thoracic spine muscles are also used in breathing, so proper breathing techniques can help reduce pain. Adding diaphragmatic (belly) breathing exercises to your daily routine can also help improve posture and stability during running.
These tips are a great place to start managing upper back pain from running. With consistency and attention to your symptoms, you should notice a gradual decrease. Then, follow the prevention tips below to avoid unnecessary aggravations in the future and enhance your ability to keep running the way you’d like to.
Tips to Prevent Upper Back Pain in Runners
Preventing upper back pain from running involves a multi-faceted approach to address the underlying causes of pain. Much of what was reviewed above for management still rings true here for prevention. Thus, we’ll quickly review.
- Build awareness for your posture and make daily consistent changes
- Set up the spaces you frequent (home, desk, car, etc.) to be as ergonomically supported as possible
- Experiment with and tweak your running form as needed, finding what feels best for your unique body and running technique
- Participate in a well-designed strength and stretching routine frequently (at minimum, two times per week)
- Take breaks from aggravating activities as needed, rather than pushing through, to allow the body to heal
- Schedule a preventative screen with a trusted ergonomic and/or running professional (running coach, physical therapist, etc.)
Don’t forget to take care of your body
Most importantly, ensure you’re holistically caring for your body outside of running. This allows the body to recover better between workouts and reduces the risk of injury at a molecular level. Strategies include:
- Maintaining a healthy diet: Get enough nutrient-dense foods in your system each day to support optimal recovery.
- Getting adequate sleep: Aim for 7-9 hours of quality rest each night.
- Managing stress: Find activities that help you relax and de-stress, such as social interactions, meditation, or yoga.
- Hydrating properly: Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated, especially before your runs.
By addressing any biomechanical issues, improving daily posture habits, doing targeted exercises to improve muscle balance, and taking good care of your body overall, you can prevent the onset or aggravation of upper back pain from running. This will help keep your runs enjoyable and safe for years to come.
Upper Back Pain from Running FAQ
Now that you know how to manage and prevent back pain as a runner, you might still have a few additional questions to be answered. Let’s review the most commonly asked questions.
How do I fix my upper back pain when running?
The best way to fix your upper back pain when running is to use a combination of self-management strategies. This includes building awareness for your posture, setting up ergonomic workspaces, experimenting with running form tweaks and strength training exercises, taking breaks from activities as needed, and scheduling a preventative screen with an ergonomic or running professional.
What is the most common cause of upper back pain from running?
The most common cause of upper back pain from running is due to a combination of poor posture, muscle imbalances, and biomechanical issues. However, you can take steps to manage and prevent these types of injuries by consistently practicing good habits.
Is it normal to have upper back pain after running?
It is not normal to always have upper back pain after running. However, it can be common if you do not properly manage the underlying causes of your injury. With good posture habits, targeted exercises, and a holistic approach to taking care of your body, you can help prevent any further aggravations.
What should I do if my upper back pain persists?
If your upper back pain persists, it is best to seek medical advice from an expert, such as a physical therapist or running coach. These professionals can assess the underlying cause of your back pain and create a specific plan that includes techniques to help reduce discomfort and prevent further aggravations.
Is it OK to run with upper back pain?
Maybe. It depends on how long your pain has been going on, the severity of the pain, and what activities are causing it. If the pain is mild and not preventing you from doing daily activities, running may be OK, but it’s important to take precautions, rest, and talk to your doctor.
Is running hard on your upper back?
Running can be hard on the upper back if running form and posture aren’t optimized. To prevent any aggravations, always make sure you’re warming up correctly for runs and using good technique as you run. Regularly practice exercises that improve strength and mobility around your thoracic spine.
Why does my upper trap hurt when I run?
Your upper trapezius muscle (upper trap) may be hurting when you run due to a number of reasons, such as poor posture, biomechanical issues, muscle imbalances, or lack of adequate stretching and strength training. Regularly practice targeted exercises for the upper back and thoracic spine muscles to prevent further aggravation.
Conclusion: Upper Back Pain While Running
Upper back pain from running can be managed and prevented by properly addressing the underlying causes through a multi-faceted approach. This includes creating awareness around posture, participating in an appropriate exercise program, taking breaks from aggravating activities, and taking care of your body. With these steps, you can protect yourself from pain now and in the future.
Remember that it is also important to listen to your body. If something doesn’t feel right, step back and re-evaluate the situation. There is no one size fits all to manage any pain.