Arm Swing: Maximize Your Upper Body
and Reduce Your Legwork
I remember back when I first started running, I laced up my shoes and headed out for a jog. I hadn’t run since middle school, so it was a relatively “new” experience considering I was 22 at the time. As I started I felt sort of spastic not knowing what in the world to do with my hands and arms. I felt like there was much more I should be doing with them besides just trying to move them around. They were definitely not contributing to my run. I eventually figured out how to swing my arms along with my stride in a comfortable efficient way, but I didn’t really realize the fuller aspects of armswing until I began teaching the first ChiRunning classes in 1999.
What a good arm swing can do for you:
An important aspect of arm swing is that the movement of your upper body helps to balance out the work done by your lower body. If you only used your pelvis and legs to run, and your upper body was motionless, you would experience a lot more effort and work. This is because the lack of movement “upstairs” creates inertia (a slowing-down movement) for the motion of the lower body.
Having a relaxed and efficient armswing can have a huge effect on the smoothness of your gait which translates into increasing your economy of motion which will reduce the workload of your legs. When I talk about efficiency, it means that you can either run faster, or farther, or require less recovery time…with a lower perceived effort level during your runs. And, you can feel all this with a more effective arm swing.
How to make the best use of your arms:
Here are some tips on how to make the best use of your arms and hands and what to watch out for.
1. Create Balance
ChiRunning is based on the movement principles in T’ai Chi which requires that all of your movement be balanced in six directions: front-to-back, side-to-side and top-to-bottom. In the ChiRunning technique, it is important to lean forward from your ankles in order to engage the assistance of gravity for your forward propulsion. But being able to comfortably maintain balance with your body falling forward requires you to create a counterbalance in the opposite direction so that you’re not “holding” yourself in a forward position with your muscles. That’s where your arms come into the picture. In ChiRunning we have you swinging your arms to the rear as you run … not forward. This creates the right amount of counterbalance to your forward fall.
Note of caution: Swinging your arms forward can cause you to over-stride which will create a heel strike, increase your impact and reduce your efficiency.
Begin each armswing with your elbows at your ribs and pull your hands back towards your ribs. Don’t let your elbows swing in front of your ribs as they come forward.
2. Relax your shoulders
Early on in my running career, I used to come home from my long runs with more soreness in my shoulders than in my legs. Sound familiar? If it does, here’s what you can do about it. Stand in front of a mirror with your feet hip width apart and staggered, with one foot in front of the other. Shift your weight more to your front leg and start swinging your arms. Now watch to see if you’re lifting your shoulders with each swing. If you are, you’re a candidate for sore shoulders like I was. With a little practice you can learn to swing your arms without moving your shoulders at all. Here’s how. Place one of your hands on your opposite shoulder and swing the arm of the shoulder that is being held down. This will help you feel what it’s like to swing your arm without moving your shoulder. Practice this on both sides for a few minutes. Relaxation doesn’t come naturally to some of us, so we have to train ourselves to relax. For those of you who work at a keyboard all day, you’ll learn to relieve all that stored up shoulder tension on your runs.
Try to always keep your shoulders low and just let your arms swing freely like pendulums. Don’t hold your arms away from your sides or you’ll be unnecessarily engaging some of your shoulder and neck muscles. I’ve found that it helps me to relax my shoulders if I place my attention on the tips of my elbows when I’m swinging them. This places my attention on the bottom of my pendulums instead of at the top and allows me to take all emphasis away from my shoulders.
3. Bend your arms
As I have already mentioned, your arms are two pendulums. And, the law of the pendulum says that if you want a pendulum to swing faster it needs to be shorter. If you run with your arms swinging too low at your sides, you’ll be slowing down your cadence which creates more work for your legs. So, for the most efficient armswing, keep your arms bent at 90º no matter what speed you’re running. Don’t pump your arms or you’ll be using more energy than you need to. A good check-in tool is to just be sure that your hands never fall below your waistline as you run.
4. Don’t cross your centerline
One of the basic rules of good energy-efficient running is not have any side-to-side motion in your body. If you swing your arms across your midline it can distract from your forward momentum and also possibly add more impact to your IT bands, hips and lower back.
To find the right angle of armswing, pretend you’re holding a volleyball in your hands and let your arms swing at that angle.
5. Relax your hands
I see many people clenching their fists when they run. This falls into the category of unnecessary muscle usage. Any tension held in your body will restrict your movement and block your chi from flowing easily through your arms. Hold your hands with your fingers curled in slightly, like you’ve just caught a butterfly and you don’t want to crush it. I’ve heard of coaches who had their runners run holding a potato chip edgewise between their thumb and their pointer finger. Hey, whatever works. Be sure to hold your hands with your thumbs on top, not with your palms facing down. Holding your hands facing down will engage the entire muscle chain running from your elbow to your ear. Again, it’s unnecessary muscle usage that doesn’t contribute to your performance.
6. Running uphill
There are exceptions to every rule and ChiRunning has its exceptions. Running uphill requires your legs to work harder and one way to increase your efficiency on the uphills is to swing your arms forward as you head up so that your arms can take some of that extra workload off the legs.
When running uphill, swing your arms with your hands held closer into your chest. This gives your armswing a more upward motion and will help you to lift your legs more easily. You can also use this same arm motion when sprinting.
Your upper body is just as important to your running as your lower body. And, as you can see, there’s a lot more to having a good armswing than you probably imagined. With a little practice and consistency you’ll find yourself running more smoothly and efficiently across the ground, and you’ll come back from your runs energized and relaxed.