Why is arm action important in running?
Arm swing is an important part of running form, as the arms provide a dampening mechanism for the rotation of the torso as we run. Running with a relaxed arm swing allows for improved balance and rhythm, which encourages proper running form.
Runners often ask me to explain the importance of arm swing in their running technique, and seem understandably concerned that any arm movement perceived unnecessary is simply a source of wasted energy and inefficiency.
As a result, I frequently see runners holding their arms tight to their torso, not making proper use of the swinging arm action that is integral to good running form.
I do completely understand the thought process when endurance athletes want to conserve energy by keeping arm motion to a minimum.
However, when it comes to looking at the body as a whole, understanding how the various different segments of the body need to interact, it’s clear that the arms have an important role to play.
Learning how to hold your arms when running can have a huge positive impact both on how relaxed or otherwise your running feels, and your performance.
Let me explain…
Use your arm swing to drive the rhythm of running
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:
- Move your arms quickly, your cadence increases
- Slow your arms down, your cadence decreases
- When we make short choppy arm motions, we make shorter steps
- Exaggerate your arm swing, you’ll march forwards with long strides
- When we’re presented with a hill we usually 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 (cadence) and stride length for our legs. The two main factors in determining running pace.
If you want to learn more about running cadence, and how it affects stride length, check out this post: How to Increase Your Running Cadence
Running Arms: Simple Coaching Points for Your Arm Swing
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:
1. Maintain a 90-degree angle at the elbow
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 running cadence.
I discuss this in more detail in the following video:
Keep your elbows held at just less than a 90-degree angle to help you maintain a fast cadence. A simple cue to help with this is to think about brushing your bottom ribs with your knuckles as your hand passes back and forth past the side of your body.
2. Drive your elbows backwards
The more powerful element of the running arm swing should be focussed on driving the elbow backwards, creating shoulder extension.
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 rotation, as described in this analysis of Shalane Flanagan’s running form.
3. Run with relaxed shoulders and hands
Any runner who feels 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 arm 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 will 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.
Running Arm Swing Exercises
Here’s a video from the guys at The Run Experience, with a selection of running arm swing exercises. Practice these drills regularly to perfect your upper body action as part of a more efficient running form.