This post is the fifth in a series explaining The Balanced Runner Keys.
Distance running armswing tends to be an afterthought — you probably think of it after your footstrike, your core, your posture, your cadence, and so forth. That’s a mistake, since your running form is a whole-body cycle of events driven by your relationship to gravity. And in gravity, the higher up in your body the action is, the bigger an effect it has.
The movements of your arms have a powerful effect on on your footstrike, the action of your legs, and your ability to lean forward when you run, and if you’ve been struggling to do any of those you’ll get more benefit from changing your armswing than from anything you intentionally try to do with your feet or legs. Furthermore, I’m happy to tell you I’ve learned in my 10+ years of experience that you have much lower risk of injury in trying to change your armswing than in directly trying to change your footstrike!
The conventional advice on distance running armswing is to bend your elbows 90 degrees and swing your arms straight front-to-back. Unfortunately if you do that almost nothing else will go right in your running form and you’ll be very disappointed with your speed, performance, and how you feel. So let’s look at how your arms should move for distance running, how this affects your footstrike and lean, how it’s determined by your core action, and what happens if you swing your arms wrong.
Your hands should stay close to your body, with your elbows sticking out as much as necessary to make this easy. If you’re used to pulling your elbows in close to your sides this movement will feel exaggerated at first and it will take a lot of experimentation to get the hang of it. This means your elbows will be bent to a tighter angle than 90 degrees – it seems exact angle depends on your proportions.
Your hands should move on a basically diagonal pathway, from your breastbone to your sides; how far back they go depends on how hard you’re running. You may feel like your hands are tracing the line of one of your lower ribs. You may also find, if your core action is excellent, that your hands are actually moving in ovals or circles rather than just diagonally. You should make sure not to bring your hand intentionally across your breastbone to the other side of your body, though, since this will unbalance the counterrotation of your trunk and may cause problems with your legs. So the popular advice not to bring your arms across your body is right to this extent: bring them only just barely to the middle, not across to the other side.
These arm movements are caused by your core action, or the twisting and sidebending you do with your trunk. (If you haven’t read my post on Balanced Runner Key # 4: Get Your Core in Action, you should do that now and then read the rest of this post.) The turning of your upper body causes your hands to swing to your midline rather than straight forward and backward, and the lateral/sidebending movements of your spine that shift your weight from one foot to another turn the arc movement of your hands into a more circular movement.
When your core action is going well and you keep your hands close to your heart, your arms will simply move like I just described. This doesn’t mean you can’t swing them down and back and even open your elbows somewhat at that point (how much would depend on your speed and effort). But they always come back to heart height and always stay very close to your body.
You can see this form in practically every East African runner. Here’s a video Natural Running Center made for me to accompany a blog post a few years ago:
The triathletes in this video are also moving their arms beautifully. (The video can’t be embedded here but if you click on the image you’ll go to YouTube and the video will start playing cued to the right spot.)
Some of the Ethiopian runners move their hands even higher, including Tirunesh Dibaba and Tsegaye Kebede. It works well for them! Here’s a video of Dibaba with another Ethiopian and two Kenyan runners as well, all bringing their hands nearly to their collarbones. As a contrast, the woman in the lead is following the conventional advice:
The overall running form benefit from doing this is that it raises your center of gravity, making you more unstable. Yes, you read that right. Instability in the sense of being moved easily by the smallest action – being in fact easy to tip over – is a great asset to a runner. It means it’s really easy to get yourself moving and keep yourself moving, and your main task is to direct that movement properly, or to steer.
Your armswing also controls your footstrike since we nearly always put our foot down underneath the hand. If you’re trying to stop excessively overstriding, keeping your hands very close to your body keeps your feet landing close to your center of gravity as well. This is likely why sprinters and middle distance runners use a different kind of armswing, moving their hands out in front of them – to help them bring the foot far enough forward to accommodate the high speed of their center of gravity. (The Balanced Runner Keys are for distance running, and distances below 1500 meters require some important changes in running form such as this one.)
Your armswing affects your ability to lean by helping you concentrate your mass. In running you have to push yourself forward and upward from the ground, and that’s easiest to do if your body is not too spread out. When your hand is far from your chest, your torso and head move backwards to compensate and the push from your foot in late stance goes somewhere between them to move you forward. However, when your hand is close to your chest you lean forwards more and better position your whole upper body to be pushed forwards.
If instead of following these guidelines you try to force your arms to swing straight front-to-back, you’ll interfere with the ability of your core to move properly and your effort will be higher at any speed. You’ll have to pull your shoulders back, forcing your chest upwards and making it nearly impossible to lean forward (for more about leaning read Balanced Runner Key #1). You’ll suffer from tight shoulders in that case, even while thinking your doing the correct thing to prevent tight shoulders.
Here’s a video of American distance runner Ryan Hall, who pulls his shoulders back, keeps his elbows close to his sides, and swings his arms low and front-to-back. I include it with apologies for using him as an example of a runner doing something wrong. It’s done out of love – I would be overjoyed to see him improve his performance by making some changes here.
When I work one-to-one with runners, I find sometimes they just need to be told that forcing their arms to go front-to-back is wrong. Given permission to let their arms do what comes naturally they move well and immediately feel better and faster. Other times their arm movements are constrained by whole-body habits that excessively tense the muscles that flex or extend their spines and they can’t easily change what they’re doing. In that case their armswing is an indicator of a more general problem, and some Feldenkrais lessons to help them feel what to do with their whole bodies naturally sorts out their armswing.
You should definitely give this a try and see if you can work it out for yourself! Don’t just try to get it right or you’ll feel frustrated and won’t learn much. Try to get it wrong in every possible way: squeezing your elbows to your sides, running with your hands around your hips, swinging your arms straight front-to-back, swinging your hands way out in front of you, and any other variations you can think of. Then gradually make your variations smaller and more subtle and see if you can find for yourself the easiest groove for your arms. The more experimentation you do, the more likely you are to find that your running is easiest and fastest when your hands are close to your heart and swinging in arcs or circles.
Have fun, and leave a comment letting me know how it goes!
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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.