What I saw in the 2015 Boston Marathon this week is what I learn over and over again in my practice and my own running: the farther up from the ground a part of your body is, the greater its effect on your running. So mostly this blog post will be about arms, chests and upper backs, shoulders, necks, and heads, because in a field of comparable runners this is a key area where races are won and lost.
From many angles these women run so identically they could be sisters, and the matching Ethiopia singlets strengthen the impression. However the main difference between them has a significant effect on performance: Deba pulls her head back and Dibaba doesn’t. I’ve seen the same thing every time I’ve seen Deba run, it’s a longterm habit of hers and it slows her down though overall her form is incredibly gliding and graceful.
The forward lean is a critical element of fast, easy distance running, with force travelling all the way through from the foot to the head in late stance, and when your head is behind this line of force as Deba’s is it takes more energy to move forward. Over the years I’ve so often seen Deba podium but not win major marathons, and if only she were able to change this one thing it could make that crucial difference to her. It definitely worked to her disadvantage in this race, as she came in third.
The photos above are screenshots from 2:17-2:22 in the race video, with Deba behind Dibaba in the side views. Watch that section of the video to get a much clearer impression than these blurry screenshots can convey.
Caroline Rotich and Mare Dibaba use their upper bodies quite differently, conforming generally to their respective national styles. Ethiopian Dibaba’s elbows are bent more than Kenyan Rotich’s, with the former’s hands swinging up to her collarbones and sometimes even her throat while the latter’s come only to her heart height. But beyond that, Rotich appears to have less differentiation in her upper body then Kenyans often do, with her shoulder girdles operating less independently from her thorax than her countrywomen in the race and much much less than Dibaba’s.
One of the virtues of the very high Ethiopian-style arm carriage is that it differentiates the upper body, allowing movement at each joint and making it very easy to shift your weight from leg to leg and lengthen your body forward. It also raises your center of gravity, making you more unstable in the general sense of easy to tip and move, and that makes running much easier. Rotich’s style, on the other hand, is more based on power, with the force of her whole upper body in each swing. Rotich outkicked Dibaba at the finish, as apparently she still had enough energy to employ her powerful upper body to full effect. Had she not had enough energy left to do that – a definite risk of this type of movement – then Dibaba’s more supple, efficient armswing and its ability to lengthen her stride by articulating her spine more fully might have carried the day.
Watch the finish of the women’s race from 2:25 in the video to see this unfold.
Desiree Linden swings her arms much lower than the East Africans — thus missing the benefit of a higher center of gravity — and in more undifferentiated style, meaning like Rotich, her arms don’t move independently of her thorax as they might. However her forward lean is superb and her form bears some similiarities to Meb Keflizhigi with a very mobile pelvis and waist and a quick, gliding turnover.
Shalane Flanagan’s form is also in many ways beautiful, with a good lean and core action, but unlike Desi, what she does with her arms entirely undermines this, making her look heavy as she often does. She alone in the women’s field appears to make an effort to direct her arms forward and backwards, with her wrists slightly bent to pull her knuckles towards the tops of her forearms and her hands swinging quite far in front of her torso. Her stride rate is slower than Desi’s and the field in general, I made many attempts to count it but never had her in the frame quite long enough.
Both of these women could benefit from the technique of the East Africans. If Desi bent her elbows more and moved her upper body in a more supple way it would be wonderful for her performance. For Shalane I have a general impression part of the problem is that she never really transitioned her form from track to the marathon; she’s so powerful but she uses it to work hard instead of run as fast as she could. Moshe Feldenkrais said that where you require great strength is where you lack skill, and nothing frustrates me more than the substitution of strength for skill by a gifted athlete.
There’s a widespread belief that the arms should not swing across the body. However the majority of elite athletes in a major marathon do exactly that – probably as many as forefoot strike. Shalane would perform much better if she relaxed her upper body, kept her hands close to her, and let them cross her chest and circle around as much as felt natural. That would mark a major change in her fortunes.
These screenshots are from around 53:30 in the video, though you can get a good long look at both of them around 1:02:23 and a great view of Shalane at 1:31:02.
Across the men’s field was a range of approaches to hands and elbows. Above are screenshots of Lelisa Desisa, Tadese Tola, Yemane Adhane Tsegaye, Gebre Gebremariam, Wesley Korir, and Meb Keflizighi, arranged in order from armswing that least distorts the balance between the trunk extensors and flexors to the most (though actually I should have put Meb before Korir, not after).
Desisa and Tola swing their hands to the midline — Desisa brings his right almost across to the left side, in fact — allowing a natural rotation of the torso and avoiding any contraction between the shoulder blades that would slightly hyperextend the spine, pull the head back, reduce the supple movement of all the vertebrae, and interfere with an optimal lean.
Notice how Tsegaye’s hand doesn’t quite come to his sternum, and Gebre’s even less. They accomplish this by pulling their shoulder blades together, pushing their chests forward. It costs Tsegaye a little, keeping him from rotating his upper body as much as he should, and it makes Gebre push not only his chest, but also his hips forward so he almost gives the impression of leading with his belly (until you see him from the side and realize the word “belly” could never apply to him). This general activation of his trunk extensors also makes him run with a more pronounced forefoot strike than the men around him.
As for Meb, I’ve been keeping track of his elbows for quite a few years and wrote about his armswing in last year’s race. This year, happily, he’s not pulling his elbows back quite so much (not the same thing as pulling the shoulder blades back but it does still result in pushing the chest forward and interfering with upper body rotation). By the end of the race he had relaxed his arms even more and looked pretty good, probably because apparently the last part of the race he didn’t feel very well, and thus didn’t have the extra energy needed to sustain unnecessary effort. It always bears repeating: good running technique is easier, not harder, than bad running technique!
As for Korir, he squeezes his arms in close to his sides, which stiffens his torso, pulls him upright, and costs him a lot of energy. I always look forward to the midpoint of the race, when the announcers typically begin commenting on the runners’ form, and Larry Rawson didn’t disappoint, picking out Korir’s trunk movement as “efficient” because he was rocking less than the others. That’s backwards. The reduced rocking makes him less efficient, keeping him from organizing his weight over each leg in turn. Desisa’s easy side-to-side head rocking movement towards the end of the race is particularly beautiful to watch for this reason.
To be honest, I’m only comparing Ritz to Tsegaye because I happend to catch this screenshot of the two of them together in the same part of their gait cycle. I could have compared Ritz to anyone else in the men’s lead pack because he does something different, making roughly the same arm movements as runners such as Desisa and Tola but much farther away from his body. Unfortunately that’s more work. (Here’s where I admit that, as an American, I instinctively root for the American runners even though it gives me joy to watch runners from anywhere in the world run beautifully and up to their potential. Sorry for the bias.)
I wrote about Ritz’s armswing when I had the pleasure of seeing him live at the Great Edinburgh Cross Country this January. The problem back then, which I described as “flailing” (with apologies) came from a somewhat flexed trunk, and I’m happy to see it’s improved since then. But his arms are still just too far away from his body — you can feel for yourself how much more work this is right where you’re sitting by swinging your arms far away from your body and then folded in closer (but still relaxed). Longer pendulums swing slower or require more force to swing fast.
One last observation that isn’t about armswing, but about asymmetry. I seldom discuss athletes’ asymmetrical movement patterns when doing these running form analysis of the World Marathon Majors because my main goal is to clarify things about running form that you can apply no matter your level — general principles. Every athlete has asymmetries, you can’t find a single one in the elite field here who doesn’t. Yet it was an interesting coincidence that the men’s winner, Lelisa Desisa, and the women’s second place finisher, Mare Dibaba, both had a similar way of using their left legs. You can see in the photos above that both turn their left foot inwards, creating a braking force and making it difficult to move all the way onto the leg in stance. Dibaba has more trouble with it, and though she appeared to run very symmetrically in her upper body throughout the race, as she battled with Rotich just before the finish line you can see her grimace and her jaw slide to the left, revealing the struggle she has to get her weight on her left leg, and the increased tension on that side of her body. This is a clear example of an asymmetry demanding extra effort and perhaps costing a runner the win.
Desisa doesn’t have quite the same degree of struggle, but the difference in impact and support between his two legs is very visible as he approaches the finish line. Oddly, runners often have some degree of this basic pattern, with the left leg turned so the foot points straight forward or even slightly inwards while the right foot points outwards, and it is very rare indeed to find a runner who has the mirror image of this pattern. I have come across some indications this might have something to do with the liver, but it doesn’t have anything to do with what else a person does in their life. It is often connected with some sort of discomfort or injury, and as we see here it can have a performance effect. People often think the right foot is the problem, but a strictly parallel or even internally rotated leg creates a much greater braking force, as you can clearly see in the video of the men’s and women’s finishes at 2:39 and 2:27, respectively.
Okay, so that’s Boston for this year. Next week I’ll discuss what I saw in London. Till then, I encourage you to experiment with your armswing and see what effect it has for you! And if my basis for any of this analysis seems perplexing to you, you’ll find the full explanation by reading over The Balanced Runner Keys.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter filled with analysis, information, insights, and tips you can apply to your own running!
Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.