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Ask most people, and they’ll tell you that runners only have to worry about their leg movement when they run. But remember this—your arms matter as well! In fact, you can show anyone how important the arms are with this demonstration: have them run 25 steps with their arms straight down by their side, and ask them how natural it felt. They’ll see it takes more effort and energy to run using only their pelvis and their legs.
If you want to make your running more effortless and energizing, pay attention to your arm swing. What purpose do your arms play? They help determine your stride so you’ll be able to run faster, longer, and/or with less perceived effort. If you move your arms quickly and with power, your legs will also move more quickly and powerfully. Here’s a chance to try it out: walk forward with your arms swinging slowly and easily, then start moving your arms faster and with more power. Do your legs follow suit?
Watch people run, whether they’re professional runners or recreational runners, and you’ll see many different styles of arm movement. Some keep their arms high and some keep their arms low. Some barely move their arms, while others swing their arms with vigor. You’ll see runners move their arms straight back and forth, across their bodies, or out and away from their bodies as if they were drying their back with a towel.
There are two easy ways to find out how you swing your arms: either have someone watch you run and evaluate what you do with your arms, or have someone videotape you running from both the front and from the side so you can self-evaluate. Then take that information and see where you can improve.
Tips for a proper arm swing
- Keep your arms at a 90-degree angle
To envision this, never let your hands drop below your waistline, or go above your shoulders. Think of your arms as a pendulum, moving smoothly back and forth, tucked closely to your body so the elbows aren’t opening out wide, or collapsing in. This will allow your hips to rotate fully so you are in fluid motion.
- Resist the urge to lift your shoulders
If your shoulders, neck, or upper back get sore when you run, it’s because your shoulders are moving up and down with every arm swing. To see what it feels like to run with no shoulder movement, stand up and put your right hand on your left shoulder. Swing your left arm back and forth, putting your mental focus on the point of your elbow. Switch sides. You may need to practice this a few times before the swing starts to feel natural, but you’ll remove the tightness and feel more relaxed as you run.
- Run with loose hands
Some runners clench their fists, which causes unnecessary muscle tension. Your fingers should be curled inward, as if you were running with an egg in each hand that you don’t want to crush. Keep your thumbs on top and don’t stick them down into your fingers. Your thumb position will also be a reminder to run with your palms facing each other, instead of with your palms facing down.
- Push your elbows back
Make the emphasis of your arm swing a backward push instead of a frontward pull. You’ll see that when you push your elbow back, your arm will naturally come forward on its own. The one exception is when you’re running up hills. Because of the increased effort, you’ll want to focus on moving your arms forward. It will take some of the work off your legs as you find your legs will lift up more easily.
As you can see, your arms are just as important as your legs when you run. There is a lot of information to remember about proper arm swing, so take it one step at a time. Soon you’ll notice a better flow in your running, and maybe even a new PR!