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RUNNING FORM: DOES ARM SWING MATTER?

Arm Swing

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.

Running Form: Does Arm Swing Matter?

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.

Running Form: Does Arm Swing Matter?

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.

References

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.

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JackRabbit Journal Training

8 REASONS YOU SHOULD HIRE A RUNNING COACH

8 Reasons to Hire a Running Coach - JackRabbit

Welcome to the JackRabbit Journal, a digital (for now!) publication where we’ll be taking some deeper dives into what it means to be a runner, how to support your running lifestyle and exclusive interviews with runners from all walks of life.

This week, let’s talk running coaches with our resident journalist, Brian Metzler.

RUNNING COACHING FOR THE EVERYDAY ATHLETE

Do you have a running coach?

You’re a runner, which means you’re an athlete. And it’s well-known that athletes in all sports benefit from having coaches guide them to better performance. So yes, if you’re a recreational runner of any ability level, you should consider hiring a running coach to assist you on your journey.

No matter how long you’ve been running or how fast you want to run at your next race, hiring a running coach can be a huge benefit on the way to achieving your 2021 goals. You might be a first-time marathoner or an experienced trail runner or someone who wants to improve your personal best in the half marathon.

In any of those cases, a running coach can provide you with assistance in ways you might not expect — for example, assigning proper workouts, avoiding injuries, reducing stress, providing day-to-day support and assuring your body is optimally recovering. 

We checked in with Kristen Mohror of Microcosm Coaching, Jason Fitzgerald of StrengthRunning.com and Yassine Diboun of Wy’east Wolfpack for their input about some of the reasons you should consider hiring a running coach.

1. BEGINNERS AND LIFELONG RUNNERS ALIKE

You might be a new runner or a novice runner and are wondering if any of this applies to you. Should you get a coach if you’re just starting out? You can certainly benefit immensely if you do and avoid first-timer mistakes and challenges. If you were new to golf or tennis or skiing, you’d very likely considering taking lessons to get started, right?

Think of a running coach in the same way and you’ll be able to get through some of the unforeseen challenges that no one talks about when you buy a pair of running shoes or sign up for a race. At the other end of the spectrum, if you’ve been running for years and have reached a plateau in your training or just haven’t reached the goals you have hoped to, then you should definitely connect with a coach for your upcoming running objectives.

Sometimes as runners we tend to get complacent or are adverse to making changes or are afraid to try new things. “And those are the things that might be able to make a difference in your training,” Diboun says.

2. WEEKLY GUIDANCE

Why hire a running coach? “Because a running coach can help you reach your goals better than you’re able to on your own,” Mohror says. “They can assist you and guide you with workouts, advice and things can come up.” Unless you’re a veteran runner who’s been training for years — and heck, even if you are — a running coach can help you smartly build your fitness, inspire you to train to your fullest, keep you motivated during difficult lulls and help you avoid overtraining. Y

ou might think training for a marathon is a tall order — and it is! — but having a coach guide you can take some of the pressure off, especially on a long-term basis. The guidance and training plan you get from a coach can help turn your long-term goal into short-term tasks that can be approached day by day, piece by piece.

3. RUNNING SMARTS

Hiring an experienced running coach will allow you to benefit from his or her experience. Those coaches have been through all sorts of scenarios in their own training, but also with the many runners they have already coached. That coach understands they type of workouts and mileage you should be running in your fitness build-up and can adjust for your own personal needs as injuries, fatigue or work stress impedes your training.

Without a coach, you’ll likely do your own types of runs and workouts based on whatever you feel like doing or based on what your friends are doing or, gulp!, based on workouts you read about on your social media feed. “An experienced coach knows what works and how to adapt workouts to your personal fitness and abilities,” Fitzgerald says. “That’s so much more effective than a trial-and-error approach on your own.”

4. INDIVIDUALIZED TRAINING

How much you spend per month and what you get out of the coach you hire depends on the level of service you want or need. Generally speaking you might pay as little as $20 and as much as $250 per month for a coach. (Or you can pay even more for truly personalized training if you have the budget for that.)

At the more affordable end of that spectrum, you’ll get training plans and coaching input that’s generally geared toward a group or a specific goal race (for example, the Chicago Marathon) in somewhat of a one-size-fits-all approach with a limited ability to reach out to that coach with questions. 

But if you’re paying slightly more every month, you should be able to get more individualized coaching that includes weekly adjustments and adaptations based on your fitness or fatigue levels and the ability to have direct interaction with that coach (even if it is by email). The best way to ensure you’ll get personalized coaching and some sort of individualized attention is to hire a coach in your region that has a training group you can run with on a semi-regular basis.

Having a coach watch you go through workouts and the ability to engage face-to-face can provide numerous benefits. Going with a local coach instead of an online coach shouldn’t necessarily increase the fees you’re paying.

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5. ACCOUNTABILITY

When you’re training for a big goal like a marathon, you sometimes need an extra bit of accountability to keep you focused and motivated. When you’re training on your own or even with friends, it can be relatively easy to inadvertently reduce hard workouts or shorten a long run without any recourse.

But when you hire a coach, you give yourself an extra layer of accountability. Sometimes it’s necessary to adapt workouts (and a coach can help you do that), but hiring a coach can create a certain pride and accountability tied to following a training plan.

It’s natural that sometimes you might wake up feeling unmotivated or perhaps you’re having a hard work day or traveling. “Having a coach to report to and a training plan to follow can help you get through those challenges,” Mohror says. “I tell all of my athletes, ‘I’m here to help, support and keep you going!’”

6. IMPROVING PERFORMANCE

If your goal is to break 3 hours in the marathon or run a sub-40 minute 10K or qualify for the Boston Marathon, a running coach can help immensely, Mohror says. Not only can the coach provide a good training plan that provides both long-term and short-term development markers, but he or she should be able to guide you to a proper training vs recovery balance, she says.

Having a coach will keep you in check from working out too hard too often and overtraining with too much volume. But a running coach will also make sure you rest and recover so the proper training effect can take place. Your muscular, cardiovascular and neurological system adapt to training during rest when your body is recovering, Diboun says.

The continued stress of training without proper rest breaks will lead to overtraining, fatigue, illness and injury, he adds. “There’s a basic equation for growth, whether you’re an athlete, artist, or businessperson, etc., and that’s Stress + Rest = Growth,” he says. “I like to take on challenges and make myself uncomfortable (stress), and then follow those challenges with recovery & reflection (rest). Then rinse & repeat, with a slightly greater or different challenge or goal.”

7. REDUCING INJURY RISK

As runners, we often keep on running despite small bouts of soreness or pain. While sometimes that’s OK, sometimes it’s not, Fitzgerald says. And when it’s not, it can lead to serious, long-term injury.

Having a coach to talk to about those bits of soreness or pain can be helpful to understand how to proceed. Should you keep running? Should you see a physical therapist? Are there additional things you can do — for example, icing, stretching, cross-training — to help keep a serious injury at bay? How do you know when and what to do? Those are all things your coach can advise you about to keep you as healthy as possible. 

Overuse injuries are common for runners but often they can be avoided or reduced in scope and intensity. A coach isn’t meant to be a doctor or medical professional, but their experience and understanding of running injuries can be a valuable resource, Mohror says. Sometimes it might just come down to taking more rest and seeing how your body reacts in a few days.

A good coach will sometimes have a better long-term perspective than an athlete because it’s not vexed by the eagerness to reach goals, she says. Avoiding those injuries and staying healthy is a key factor in the ability to make it through your training plan to the starting line of your goal race. “The ability to understand what a runner is going through during any given week is one of the key benefits of having a coach,” Fitzgerald says. 

8. RACE-DAY PREPARATIONS

Are you already nervous about the race that you just signed up for, even though it’s still months away? That’s normal, no matter if it’s a 10K, marathon or an ultramarathon like a 50-mile trail race, Diboun says. The ability to manage that stress and excitement is important as you start to train toward that goal, he says.

If you hire a coach who has a lot of races under his or her belt, you’ll be able to benefit from their personal experiences and reduce the stresses of race weekend. Getting tips and insights about tapering, rest, travel, nutrition and preparation will go a long way to achieving your racing success, Diboun says.

Even if you’ve been through the motions before and have run several half marathons or marathons, having a coach serve up those reminders can be a huge benefit. (The nerves and excitement of race weekend often cloud our thinking!) Most of all, having your coach help you develop a smart race strategy appropriate to your level of fitness and expected race-day conditions will be enormously helpful.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Metzler has run races at every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles. He has wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of shoes, is a three-time Ironman finisher. He occasionally participates in the quirky sport of pack burro racing in Colorado.

He’s the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine, is a former senior editor at Running Times. He was and editor in chief at Competitor Magazine.

As an author, he has penned “Kicksology“, “Running Colorado’s Front Range” and the co-author of “Natural Running: The Simple Path to Stronger Healthier Running” and “Run Like a Champion: An Olympian’s Approach for Every Runner.”

Brian Metzler - Les Alpes
Brian Metzler - Trail racing
Brian Metzler - trail running