Guest blogger Victoria Junious is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and exercise enthusiast.
How much do you think about your arms when running? Should you? I mean, it is less likely that you are running on your hands. Are your arms really that important?
TLDR version: In my opinion, if you’ve got a bend in your elbow, your arms are comfortable at your side, and you’re not doing anything crazy like flapping them like a chicken when you run, then they probably make a small impact on your running efficiency (unless we’re talking about high level sprinting). If you want to know if your arms can tell you anything about the rest of your body, you want to read about my journey with my arms, or if you want to hear more about my controversial opinion, keep reading.
Before I get into this, I feel that a personal story is in order. When I was just a little baby athlete, running my first real track and field season, I was a…gangly mess. I was incredibly awkward, and learning how to exist as a fourteen year old in a body that is suddenly five-foot-nine is a recipe for disaster. Imagine the inflatable red guys that live outside of used car lots and you get the picture. I felt incredibly clumsy and that did not stop when I stepped on the track.
I remember walking up to my teammates after my first track meet had ended, thinking that they were going to congratulate me for placing in my first meet, only to walk into a relentless roast session at my expense. Somebody said that I looked like I was throwing up gang signs. Someone else said that they were surprised I did not hit myself in the face because my arms were so wild. I was mortified. Looking back on it now as an adult with a fully formed frontal lobe, I can see that they were just teasing, but needless to say, 14-year-old me saw no other option but changing her running form completely, as soon as possible.
Instead of letting my arms just do whatever it was that they were doing, I started making my arms and hands really really stiff. My thought process: “If I make my arms like little blades, they’ll cut through the air for me and I’ll go faster. Simple physics. Watch out Allyson Felix, I’m coming for you.” As a highschool freshman, I thought that I had cracked the code for real speed. No, I did not consult anyone, obviously. There were a few issues with my logic, but I had the spirit. Long story short, I ran with reckless abandon and spatulas for hands for a month. Exhibit A in all its cringiness is pictured below.
After a couple of meets, my brother had noticed that I was running like a weirdo and offered me some advice. “ Just relax. Take the imaginary skittles out of your pocket and eat them.” He demonstrated that all the movement was coming from his shoulder, and told me that his hands were not really that important. Simple enough. My brother was fast. I wanted to be fast, so I decided to listen to him. I should get him a little gift or something to thank him for that because Victoria Spatula Hands was not a good look in retrospect.
I did not really think about my arms for the next few years that I ran. I started performing better as I got older and more comfortable in my body, and no one really commented on them. That changed when I started doing summer track, and I was forced to run a 20 minute warm up every practice. *Gasp* The absolute horror. At this point in my career, I was very used to collapsing from exertion following anything over a 400 meter run. Although I had run cross country before, suddenly having to do it every day in the Texas summer heat, was a different animal. Long distance was super uncomfortable. I felt like I was using way too much energy, and every stride felt effortful.
Now, looking back on it, I was just out of shape. However, at the time, I was convinced that the long distance runners on my team knew something I didn’t, so I decided to poll them about the secret to their success. One of them commented on how much I moved my arms saying, “this is distance running, not sprinting. You don’t need to do so much with your arms. Make them like little pterodactyl arms.” He made running the warm up look effortless. I also wanted to run effortlessly, so I listened to him. Did his advice help? Maybe. However, running was still hard no matter how much I moved my arms, but the longer I did it, the easier it got.
I have heard so many things about arms and running throughout my athletic and professional career. They are moving too much, they aren’t moving enough. You shouldn’t let your shoulders move; you should swing them as hard as you can. Don’t let your arms cross midline. Keep your arms relaxed. If you want your form to be perfect, you need to do this. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. All of these mixed and opposing messages can get confusing, especially for a mid-distance runner caught in a love triangle between sprinting and distance running.
Instead of diving directly into hearsay, I want to start with some research. To my extreme surprise, I found that arm swing has even less impact on running efficiency than I thought. Pontzer et al. (2009) found that while there is shoulder muscle activation when running, the arms aren’t really driving movement. They found that the arms are more along for the ride, acting as “passive mass dampers powered by movement of the lower body, rather than being actively driven by the shoulder muscles.”
Although there is still more research to be done on the subject, I found a few other articles echoing the same thing. Hinrichs et al (1987) found that arm swing had little impact on forward propulsion in running. However, they did find that arm swing does have a meaningful impact on lift (vertical motion) when running, which becomes even more important at increased speeds (So it seems my summer track teammate might have been onto something with his pterodactyl arms after all).
Haile Gebrselassie (pictured below), long distance god, well known for being good at all things running (the man has 27 world records, and I suggest you Wikipedia his name, so that you can also sit in awe of him with your mouth open at his amazing accomplishments) is a testament to this. He has a “crooked” left arm, which does not swing like his right arm does when he runs.
He has been so successful, and yet, his running form is not “perfect.” His arm swing is not “normal,” yet his success speaks for itself. If his arms were the things driving his legs forward, wouldn’t they be driving him sideways? If arm swing was key to running efficiency, there is no way he would have seen the incredible success that he has.
In general, as I looked through the research on the subject, I found that arm swing has more impact at higher speeds, it has a little to do with maintaining balance, and it is reactionary to the leg movement, not the other way around. With keeping all of that in mind, my physical therapy brain extrapolates out that on occasion we might be able to figure out leg problems through identifying weird arm movements.
For example, let’s say that you have your arms too far abducted (out away from your side when you run (kind of like how a baby holds their arms when they are learning to walk)), this could indicate that you might be getting a little bit too much movement laterally. If you were my client, I would investigate how strong your glutes are. Although lateral balance is not a primary function of the arms (Arellano & Kram, 2012), the excessive arm movement could be due to excessive leg movement laterally, which would point me towards strengthening up the glutes.
However, it could just be how you run. Throughout all my years running, watching other people run, and studying running mechanics, it has become increasingly clear that while there are general rules that people should follow to run fast and far, running form also depends on the individual. This confusing gray area is what keeps coaches and physical therapists in business. (I do suggest that if you are having pain with running you come see one of us!)
I don’t think that runners should be as concerned with what their arms are doing as we have been taught to be. Yeah, they have some impact on speed, but wonky arms are not the end-all-be-all. No matter how efficiently you move your arms, if you want to be able to run longer than a 400 without collapsing, you need to increase your leg strength and cardiovascular endurance. If you want to run faster, you have to train to run faster, no matter how perfect your form is. All things considered, I think you should focus more on the extremities that are doing the running, your legs.
About the Author: Victoria Junious ran track and cross country at the University of North Texas where she got her Bachelor of Science in kinesiology. When she is not in the clinic, she spends her time eating doughnuts, lifting heavy things up and setting them down at the gym, and writing.
Arellano, C. J., & Kram, R. (2012). The energetic cost of maintaining lateral balance during human running. Journal of Applied Physiology, 112(3), 427-434. 10.1152/japplphysiol.00554.2011
Hinrichs, R. (1987). Upper extremity function in running. II. Angular momentum considerations. International Journal of Sport Biomechanics, 3, 242–263.
Pontzer, H., Holloway 4th, J. H., Raichlen, D. A., & Lieberman, D. E. (2009). Control and function of arm swing in human walking and running. Journal of Experimental Biology, 212(4), 523-534.