According to the New York Road Runners (NYRR), arm swing is critically important when it comes to running form. In fact, a simple way to improve your running efficiency is to build arm strength that benefits your arm swing.
“The best way to know [if you’re swinging your arms correctly] is to have your gait analyzed by a sports physical therapist or other sports-specific professional trained in assessing running gait and efficiency,” suggests Cary Morgan, founder of Cadence Run Coaching. “If this is not an option for you, you can record yourself running on a treadmill both from the front and side.”
Morgan explains that you — or a professional — should be looking for the angle of your elbows and whether or not your hands cross the midline; this can even be done when running by storefronts or large windows.
Though we tend to focus on our legs as a runner, here is why it is necessary to examine how we carry our arms, as well:
WHY ARM SWING IS IMPORTANT
Being an efficient runner means expending less energy — and it turns out arm swing is a major component. In fact, Morgan says being an efficient runner is the single most important aspect of the sport.
“If you question the importance of your arms during a run, try running with your arms relaxed at your side or try running with your arms over your head,” he continues. “In simplistic terms, our arms pretty much mirror what goes on with our legs during a gait cycle, only in an alternate and reciprocal manner.”
So what does this mean? Morgan explains it like this: If you overstride with your right leg, your left arm overcompensates. While our stride length and working on building leg endurance is important, proper arm swing becomes even more critical as our legs tire or we run on rolling terrain (especially uphill).
THE SECRET TO PROPER ARM SWING
We know there is a wrong way to swing your arms; the secret is there isn’t one right way. If you’re looking for a specific example, Morgan points toward American Ryan Hall and Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie as pros who don’t have a ‘textbook’ method.
“Hall has a very small elbow flexion angle and Haile Gebrselassie has a very asymmetrical arm swing with one of his arms swung in a circular pattern but not the other,” Morgan notes. “What might be efficient for one person, might not be so efficient for another.”
Though different methods work for different runners, Morgan notes there are a few things that are universal to an efficient arm swing. The first is the positioning of your elbows to your body; Morgan says you don’t want them too far from your side and they should be at an angle between 70–110 degrees. Additionally, your arm swing should be more front to back and symmetrical between both elbows. Morgan says if your arms are crossing your body’s midline and go more inward toward your center, you may have excessive trunk rotation or shoulder horizontal adduction.
While some runners carry their elbows at slightly different angles or swing their arms more rapidly than others, adapting your arm swing to include universal traits can drastically increase your running efficiency.
SUPPLEMENTAL EXERCISES TO TRY
Besides having an expert evaluate your arm swing or conducting your own review, there are a few supplemental exercises you can do when not running to benefit your arm swing. Morgan recommends adding these three exercises to your regular routine. They will help you visualize your swing and maintain good flexibility in your shoulders:
- To visualize proper arm swing: Stand in front of a mirror and practice swinging your arms without crossing the body’s midline.
- To stretch your lats: Hang from a pullup bar or, while sitting on your heels, use a foam roller to roll from your wrists to your upper arms while maintaining a prayer position and hold 20–30 seconds for 2–3 reps.
- To stretch your pecs and anterior shoulder capsule: Lie on top of a foam roller the length of your spine and with your shoulder and elbows at 90 degrees (such as a field-goal position), allow your elbows and hands to slowly drop toward the floor and hold 20–30 seconds for 2–3 reps.