Running Arm Swing For Endurance Athletes

Jan 15, 2013   //   by James Dunne   //   Running Technique Advice  //  3 Comments

Distance runners often ask me to explain the importance of the arms in running technique for endurance. Many athletes seem understandably concerned that any arm movement perceived unnecessary is simply a source of wasted energy and inefficiency. As a result we frequently see runners passively holding their arms by their chest, not making full benefit of the potential performance gains available from perfecting an efficient arm swing.

I fully understand the thought process when endurance athletes want to conserve energy by keeping arm motion to a minimum. However, when it comes to looking the body as a whole, understanding how segments need to interact, it’s clear that the arms have an important role to play.

Running Is About Rhythm

Many of us have felt first-hand what I’m about to explain, and do the following intuitively with no conscious thought when they walk:

  • When we move our arms quickly – our stride rate increases
  • When we slow our arms down - our stride rate decreases
  • When we make short choppy arm motions – we make shorter steps
  • When we exaggerate our arm swing – we march forwards with long strides
  • When we’re presented with a hill – we use our arms more to drive our legs up the hill

The only problem is that while most people display these characteristics when they walk, somewhere along the way these simple facts get lost when training for distance running. We get lazy in an effort to create a false economy – not using our arms properly.

Every point mentioned in the list above is equally true for running as it is for walking. Put simply, the rhythm we set with our arms directly affects the stride frequency and stride length for our legs. The two main factors in determining running pace.

Simple Coaching Points For Running Arms

When working on running technique with endurance athletes, I spend significant time working on getting the runner to keep the arms “active” as I like to term it, across a full range of paces.

While the size of arm movements varies as running pace increases and decreases (in the same way that stride length varies), the key I find is to never let the arms go “passive“. Even at slow paces, keep the arms active as a part of the overall movement of running rather than letting them go passive – even if they are only just active!

The following cues are will help you perfect your running arm swing:

MAINTAIN AN 80-100o ANGLE AT THE ELBOW

Why? Think of your arm as a pendulum, swinging from top-down. The longer the pendulum, the slower it will swing. So if you were to run with arms lengthened (excessive elbow extension) past a certain point, this will affect the timing of your swing, and thus your stride frequency (running cadence).

Keeping your elbow held close to a right angle will help you avoid this issue. A simple cue to help with this is to think about taking your hand brushing your bottom ribs as it passes back and forth past the side of your body.

MOVE YOUR HANDS ON ONE PLANE OF MOTION

We see runners all the time who create loads of unwanted rotation though the torso by driving their hands across towards (or over) the midline of their body as they run. This excessive rotational momentum which is created will need to be controlled by the core (at an energy cost) and will most likely create a degree of counter-rotation around the pelvis and lower body to balance out overall movements in the transverse plane.

To avoid this, aim to keep your hands coming back and forth on one plane of motion, in the direction of travel. A key point is that it’s the hands that need to abide by this rule – not the arm itself. It won’t be comfortable for all runners to try and force the upper arm to rest tucked in to the body. Find a point that feels relaxed to you in terms of arm position by your side and keep the focus on your controlling the direction of your hand movement.

DRIVE BACK FROM THE ELBOW

While it’s important to keep the hands moving on the right plane of motion, the actual power element of the arm swing should be focussed on driving the elbow backwards. Many people mistakenly focus on driving the hands forwards, when much of the momentum for running is created by the action of the elbow driving backwards, loading the torso and core into extension and good rotation (rather than the negative rotation described above).

RELAX YOUR HANDS AND SHOULDERS

Any runner that gets feelings of pain and tightness in their shoulders, upper back or neck, may be subconsciously elevating their shoulders when running – storing tension. To avoid this, focus on driving the elbow “back and down” with each swing, while feeling for a lengthening sensation in the neck. This should help you to avoid shrugging your shoulders as you run.

Equally, many runners make tight fists as they run, or hold their hands stiff. Either of these options create unwanted tension in the arm. To encourage a relaxed, efficient arm swing, try to hold the hand gently closed with the thumb and side of the bent forefinger pressed lightly together.

If you found this info useful, you may also want to watch this video about Efficient Running Arm Swing Techniques.

About The Author

James has an academic background in Sport Rehabilitation and a special interest in Applied Biomechanics. He currently coaches a large number of Runners and Triathletes across all levels of ability and performance. He's grown a strong reputation for enabling athletes to improve their running performance and overcome running injuries through improving their Running Technique and developing Running Specific Strength.

 

3 Comments

  • Excellent advice. Early on in my running career I would notice that during 5k races my arms/shoulders would be the first body part to tire! I did not understand it at first. However after looking at photos I realized my arms where being held very low. I than made an effort to bring my hands up closer to my arm pits, and it’s helped quite a bit!

    The analogy of a baseball bat really makes sense to me. If you put a bat weight on it and move it to the end of the bat, it makes the swing very difficult. However, move that weight in closer to your hands and it nearly disappears! The same effect takes place when your arms hang down compared to when they are brought up to a proper angle :)

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