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.
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.