Proper Running Form: 4 Ways Your Running Arms Are Making You Slow
Updated: Mar 4
Most people think that running is all about the lower body.
Your feet and legs do seem to do most of the work after all, don't they?
They definitely protest a lot. (Anyone else have a foot that cramps randomly as if causing a fuss about doing all the work??)
Now, I'm always going to give credit where credit is due.
Of course, your legs and feet play a major role in the whole running thing, and when it comes to proper running form, they have to be on their best behavior.
But, proper running form includes what your arms are doing, too. You simply cannot forget about your running arms!
I'm not a licensed Physical Therapist nor a student of Sport's Movement, (see disclaimer), but if there are two things I've learned in my over-a-decade-long running journey, it's these tidbits:
Your body is entirely connected in surprising ways. If your right knee hurts while running and eventually gets injured, the area of concern isn't actually your knee. But it might be your left shoulder. (Seriously, I'm not being dramatic. It's that connected.)
What your arms and hands are doing while you're running plays a major role in your speed. I've been yelled at by coaches more times than I can count about whatever my running arms are doing that day.
Is it a coincidence that the two major takeaways I have from my time as a D1 and professional runner both have something to do with using your arms to make your legs (a faraway body part) run faster?
If you're not clear on the theme of this post yet, I'll get right to the point: your arms can make or break you running; your arms play a role in proper running form.
So let's take a super quick look at 4 things you shouldn't do with your arms when you run...and how to fix them.
1) How To Pump Arms While Running: Your Arm Swing
x SWING AT YOUR ELBOWS
✓SWING AT YOUR SHOULDERS
This is a really common error that people make when running. Something about bending at the elbow just comes naturally to a lot of people.
In this arm movement, the shoulders are staying still and the "swing" movement comes from bending at the elbow in what kind of looks like a hammering motion.
This can give the illusion that you're swinging your arms when you're really not.
The reason we swing our arms when we run is to give the body momentum! If you're not actually using momentum to drive your arms, in turn helping your legs move quicker and propelling your body forward, you're just wasting energy.
The next time you're running, make a conscious effort to check whether you're actually swinging your full arm from the shoulder.
You want your elbow to be bent at 90 degrees, but that angle should never change. Keep the elbow bent at roughly 90 and move only from the shoulder.
For this fix, you'll feel faster almost immediately!
2) Running Arms: Your Running Swing Height
x EXTREMELY LOW, NO SWING (OR TOO HIGH!)
✓A RANGE OF MOTION WHERE YOU CAN SEE IN THE FRONT AT THE TOP OF THE SWING, BUT JUST OUTSIDE PERIPHERALS AT THE BACK OF THE SWING
When it comes to running efficiently, you have to give a little to get a little.
You don't want to give too much unnecessary energy, but you don't want to give too little either. With proper running arms, you must have a good balance.
If you can't see your arms or hands at all while running (when looking straight ahead), you're probably not using them efficiently.
You're not using them at all if they're just shuffling low and not giving you any momentum.
If you can see your arms the whole time in front of your face, you're using too much energy in the wrong way.
If they're just going up and down in front of you, they're not giving up any momentum and potentially causing your force to go the wrong way (up and down, not forward).
So what do you do with your arms when running? Find a sweet balance!
You want to see your hands on the upswing, no higher than your chin for sprints. (Sprinting usually has bigger swings, with longer, slower running you want to see your hands but maybe more like chest height).
And on the back-swing, you shouldn't be able to see them. I typically try to say that your hands should be right by your hips. Much further than that and you're using energy to stretch your body unnaturally far anyways!
3) Putting Force/Effort In The Wrong Direction
x PUTTING YOUR EFFORT TO PUSH FORWARD/TO DRIVE ARM ON FORWARD SWING
✓FOCUS ON PUTTING YOUR EFFORT BACKWARDS, DRIVING YOUR ARM BACKWARD ON THE BACK-SWING
In the laws of Physics and/or motion, (lol like I said, not a science professional here), for every action, there is an opposite reaction.
And that's basically what's happening when you swing your arms.
Honestly, physics is at work with every aspect of running. And you can't fight against physics, because you will lose! Sorry, I don't make the rules.
The pro of this though? Working with physics will only make running easier for you! And it's not that hard to start practicing.
The force you put into the ground through your running stride helps determine how you are propelled forward.
The same goes for your arms! Focus on driving your arm backward, and that force will naturally go forward.
And of course, you want to be propelled forward as much as possible to run faster.
This is a common running form mistake because, at first thought, you would think that you need to put as much effort forward as possible.
With what we just learned about motion though, it would follow that momentum is pushed backward and ultimately that energy you spent to drive your arms forward is wasted.
4) Twisting Upper Body When Running
x CROSSING ARMS OVER TORSO AND/OR TWISTING UPPER BODY
✓FOCUS ON DRIVING YOUR ARMS BACK AND FORTH- NEVER ACROSS
We all have different running forms...just naturally. Unfortunately for some of us, that means our arms like to cross across our bodies while running, our torsos twist side to side, or a deadly combo of both.
Personally, my right arm loves to perfectly swing back and forth like the dominant-side angel she is... while my left arm naturally turns in and crosses my torso 99% of the time.
She's the stubborn one.