How you swing your arms while running hopefully comes as second nature—which makes sense, since the arms are reacting to what the legs are doing. As Olympic running coach Bobby McGee explains, your arm swing serves a few purposes: Driving, initiating and balancing our stride.
Just like most elements of running form—i.e. stride rate, striking pattern—arm carriage is highly individual. Even the common notion of “you must keep your elbows bent around 90 degrees” isn’t necessarily a “must” because speed is a factor, McGee says. Sprinters pull through with their hands down; long striders like Mo Farah or Galen Rupp open up their arms then close them on the forward swing.
McGee says attempting to alter your arm swing for aesthetic or symmetrical purposes is futile, because it could amount to quicker stability fatigue, stressing the core or an overall loss in efficiency. However, some elements of a “good” arm carriage are universal. Keep these pointers in mind, especially late in a race when your limbs start flopping around under fatigue.
Good arm carriage:
- Shoulders are relaxed, neutral and under the ears. “Too far back posteriorly rotates the ribcage and anteriorly rotates the pelvis,” McGee explains. “It locks the low back and partially inhibits the reflex return action of extending hip flexors.” It also “severs” the connection between the chest and pelvis because it prevents the shoulder that needs to swing through from doing so, meaning you’ll have to work more to maintain momentum.
- Arms stay compact and close to the body. “The key here is shoulder width, so NOT held to the body (no tension), but not flared out with a higher center of mass,” McGee says. “Just hanging below the shoulder, but in control.”
- Wrists are firm and flat.
- Shoulders that are raised or too far back. “This can lock the upper arm and cause the forearm to take over their roll by swinging by opening and closing elbow,” McGee says. “This creates vertical oscillation. Shoulders should move fore and aft, but arms must not create a rotation.”
- Also: Palms facing down, floppy wrists, presenting the outside of elbow to front rather than bottom of elbow, arms that are disconnected from torso
When done properly, McGee says this drill is helpful for balance, coordinating the shoulders with the hips. Watch the demo at Triathlete.com/dogbonedrill.
Use two small weights (start with 1–2 pounds; work up to 5–10 pounds for a good core workout). Do the same arm motion in these three positions for 3 x 6–16 reps.
Position 1: Start with one foot forward in a running stance, with the weight on the front leg. Get the middle of the forearm in line with the middle of the chest at the side, keeping your chest squarely balanced on your pelvis. Eyes should look 3 feet ahead, with head square on shoulders. Vigorously move arm and shoulders forward and back, with the primary move as the back swing. You should feel balanced.
Position 2: Move back foot directly behind the front foot, decreasing stability to ensure dynamic balance.
Position 3: Pick up the back foot with knee bent. If your unsupported rear leg goes left and right, your shoulders are stuck too rigidly or square.