Why your arm swing is so important to running and how to improve it

The hips may be the body’s fulcrum and its centre of balance, but things that happen above the waist can, and do, also affect balance and drive. The body is all connected and balanced on top of itself: head, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, feet. If you throw off that balance at the top, the supporting structures need to work harder to keep your body upright before they begin the task of pushing you forward.

And here, as with the hips, our lifestyles often compromise what our arms would naturally be doing if we lived as our ancestors did – using them for lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling and throwing – as well as for daily, extensive walking and running. You don’t run on your arms, but make no mistake, arms are important to running.

Coaches have long maintained the role played by the arms in enhancing the stride. Former elite runner Grant Robison finds it is easier for runners to focus on and change their arm movements than their leg movements. ‘Your arms are right by your face,’ says Robison. ‘They are easy to focus on. It is hard to think about where your foot is landing in relation to your hips. But your arms? You can make them go.’

No arm done

‘People think running is all about the lower body,’ says therapist Laura Bergmann of Evolution Performance and Rehabilitation Center in Virginia, US. ‘But because it is all connected, tightness up there affects down here. Tight lats and pectorals, as well as rounded shoulders, all inhibit your ability to have a tall spine when you run.’

‘Many problems attributed to hips are actually upper-body mechanical problems,’ says mobility expert and coach Brad Cox. Cox says most of us have some upper body problems that stem from excessive sitting and hunching.

(Related: How strong is your upper body?)

We hunch over computers – even more now that everyone uses a laptop. We hunch over phones and video games. ‘Sitting is just horrible,’ says biomechanist and marathon runner Rebecca Shultz. ‘Tech added on top is awful.’ And it isn’t just tech; we reach forward while driving, reading, writing and eating. Everything in our lives, it seems, prompts our upper body to be forward oriented.

What happens when you’ve spent hours, days and years in a hunched position is that you end up with inward-curved shoulders and arms that lack the ability 
to move backward comfortably. The result is that your arms stay in front, reaching forward or rotating and moving across the front of your body.

Cox names poor hip extension as the first of numerous problems created by rolled, hunched shoulders. When your upper body isn’t working right, it is hard to get good 
hip extension both because you can’t get your spine in neutral and because your balance is forward so you need to bring
 your leg forward to support you. Cox
adds that a collapsed chest reduces your breathing capacity
 and restricts the connection between the lat muscles on the back of your shoulder and the opposite glute, which keeps the glute from firing properly. ‘All three things affect balance,’ says Cox.

To sum up, tight, rotated shoulders can sabotage all the gains you might get from posture, hip-flexibility and strength work, throwing off your balance and drive.

(Related: 3 ways to fix your everyday posture)

Cut the drive

How do you know if your arms are swinging effectively? One simple cue is to pay attention to your hands. If, while looking forward at the road ahead, you can see your hands during the full stroke while you run, you’re probably carrying them too far forward. They should disappear below and behind your peripheral vision on each of your backswings. Hands left in front not only don’t cue a backward-driving leg action but they also tend to swing left and right, rotating the torso to maintain balance and diverting energy sideways that could be propelling you forward.

You can also assess whether or not you have an effective arm swing on the run by looking at yourself when you pass a reflective surface, such as a shop window. Or you could ask 
a running buddy to take a photo of you from the side as you run. Note whether you can see some air between your elbow and your back on the backswing of each arm. Olympic marathon silver medallist Meb Keflezighi says he looks at his shadow for the triangle of light between his torso and upper and lower arms.

Physiotherapist Abby Douek and Bob Glover, longtime coach for the New York Road Runners and author of The Runner’s Handbook, recommend a simple tactile cue: on every stride, your hand should brush your waistband as it passes by, backward and forward. Other coaches talk about grabbing something from your hip pocket or pulling a gun from a side holster. The key is that your hand comes back to your hip or further with each stride.

Another simple solution that provides a subtle tactile cue and reminder is to use a posture strap. This can help you stand taller and swing your arms better, as well
as opening your chest to improve your breathing. Cut a six-inch-wide tube out of the torso of an old T-shirt. First pull it on your torso, under your armpits, then pull the front up over your head to rest on the back of your neck, with the loops pulling your shoulders back. If the band is too loose, falling down the back and not pulling back on your shoulders, tie a knot on one end of the loop to reduce its length and increase its pull.

Open up

You may, however, need to do more than retrain your habits to get your arm to swing behind you. Many people are so hunched and rotated they can no longer get their arms in a position to allow a relaxed backward swing. In this case, forcing a backward arm drive is likely to simply cause tension and create excessive torso rotation. ‘Most people need foam rolling and a daily stretching routine for their shoulders and back, because we are so forward as people – our shoulders are forward, our heads are forward,’ says Douek. To correct this, stretch the muscles
in the front of your body – chest, sides, shoulders and arms – and strengthen the muscles in your back. Try the moves below.

Heads up

Our bodies keep our heads still no matter what posture we assume. However, an unbalanced posture will create tensions in the supporting structures below. As is the case with our arms and shoulders, we tip our heads forward and down during daily activities.

(Related: Running and posture)

Musculoskeletal specialist Phil Wharton suggests this to assess your alignment: put your heels against the wall, bend your knees a bit to unlock them, then push your bum, shoulders and the back of your head against the wall. Try to get as tall as possible, raising your shoulders, rotating your hips back to reduce the curve
of your spine. Then step forward and try to relax in this posture. If you quickly adjust by bringing your head forward, you’re not alone.

On the run, raise your sights to the horizon – or at least 30m down the road – instead of looking at the ground in front of your feet. And run tall. This can help pull your head back up over your shoulders, as well as keep your chest up, shoulders back, and hips rotated and aligned in neutral.


Shoulder and chest mobility test and stretch

Use this test from mobility expert and coach Brad Cox to see if you have the flexibility to move your shoulders and arms effectively.

Lie on your right side. Reach your right hand over your left knee and hold it (don’t let it rotate back). Raise your left arm and rotate it backward, reaching out as you drop your arm. Try to drop your left shoulder to the ground without rotating your hip backward. If you can’t reach the floor, you need to work on your upper-body mobility. One stretch is to continue to do the mobility evaluation, working on a greater range of motion. Cox recommends that you take a deep breath into your belly as you rotate your shoulder over, then release as you lower your shoulder toward the floor. Repeat five times on each side.

Arm swing exercises

Physios Jim and Phil Wharton recommend two arm swings to get the shoulders back and cue the muscles that keep them there.

First is a series of arm swings to stretch the muscles in the chest and shoulders by using the opposing muscles between your shoulder blades. Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. With your arms straight, bring your hands together in front of you at about waist height. Inhale. Contracting the muscles in the middle of your upper back so that they bring your shoulder blades together, swing your arms back as far as they can go. Exhale. Swing your arms forward and repeat, raising them slightly every time until you reach shoulder height. Start again at the beginning, by the waist, and work up the body a second time.

Second is an arm swing that stretches the front of your upper arms and shoulders while also working the muscles in the upper back. Stand tall, feet shoulder-width apart and hands comfortably by your sides. Swing your arms straight back, keeping your elbows locked and your palms facing each other. Keep your shoulders low and relaxed. After taking a few swings to open up, touch your fingertips together at the back of the stretch or gently interlace them. Keeping your elbows locked, gently raise your arms slightly while pulling back and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Hold for two seconds and release. Do 10 reps.

You can also hold this pose with your fingers locked and your shoulders pulled back and down, to stretch and lengthen your pecs.

Lat stretch with roller

Tight lats (the big muscles that wrap the middle of your back) pull the shoulders forward and limit shoulder and arm movement.

Kneel in front of a foam roller, toes facing back, and lower down so your bum is on your heels. Reach out in front of you and rest your arms on the foam roller, thumbs up and palms facing each other. Lower your body so your arms are in line with your torso, with your head between them. Hold for five mins, pushing down gently, feeling the stretch on the backs of your arms and the sides of your chest, relaxing with deep breaths, and trying to go lower with each exhale. Or gently roll forward and back, rocking from left to right to feel more of a stretch on each side.

Foam roller chest stretch

This stretch, recommended by phyisos Laura Bergmann and Jay Dicharry, works on opening up your chest using gravity and time.

Lie down with a long foam roller aligned with your spine, arms out to the side, palms up. Your head and tailbone should be on the roller, your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Check that your lower back isn’t overly arched; aim for one hand-width between back and roller. Tuck your chin down so your head and neck are aligned and straight. Hold for three minutes. Then slowly stand
up and do 10 rows as if pulling on two vertical chest-high handles, focusing on bringing the shoulder blades back and together. Do this twice a week and before each run, if you can.

Integrative wall push-off

Cox recommends a final integrative move that prompts glute activation and the connection between that and arm drive.

Stand facing away from
a wall. Raise your right foot and place it onto the wall behind you, adopting a running posture. Then, pushing against the wall,
re the glute on your right side while simultaneously driving your right arm forward and left arm back. Feel the power owing through your connected core from the
leg drive all the way to your open shoulders. Repeat the move with your left leg and do five times on each side.