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How your arms can help you run more efficently

Jan 30, 2023

When runners attempt to change their running technique with a view to making their body feel lighter and more comfortable, many tend to focus their attention on their feet and in particular their foot strike. Being so afraid of the dreaded “heel strike” I have seen lots of runners so intent on managing how their feet hit the ground that they forget that running technique and efficient movement involves a lot more of their body than just below the shins.

In fact, it’s a lot easier to move away from a heavy heel strike by taking the focus off the feet entirely and noticing how the rest of the body is moving. When I coach technique I intentionally avoid paying much attention to the feet and lower legs. Instead once the basics of posture and alignment are explained, I turn my focus to the upper body and ask the runners to notice how they currently use their arms when on the run. Most runners actually have never paid attention to what their arms are doing and have never considered arms either an asset or an issue for their running.

Thankfully, there is hidden strength, power and rhythm to be gained from firstly noticing what our arms do, and then recognising our areas for improvement. Take a holistic view of your running body and recognise that if you are stiff and tight in your upper body this growing tension will transfer right down and restrict your comfort and movement. Even becoming aware of when we are holding tension in our fists or shoulders is a great asset to any runner as we can then use very simple tips to release the tension and help our body move more freely.

The reason many of us have so much tension in the upper body when running cannot be blamed solely on our running technique. Consider your body position and level of tension and stress during the rest of your day. How much time do you spend bent over a car steering wheel, laptop or indeed carrying a child on one side. We are a product of our lifestyles and I certainly know that the last 20 years in front of a laptop is one of the main reasons that I will feel a run in my shoulders sooner than in my legs.

Over the years I have worked on my technique to recognise as I tense up and I set regular reminders such a beep in my phone and use every km marker in a race as a trigger to shake out my arms and relax my shoulders. Many of us, even with the best intentions, will end up raising our shoulders higher when we run as intensity and fatigue increase. It is up to us to recognise this happening and shake out the tension before it radiates right through the body. It takes practice but once you become aware the tension building, it can quickly be released.

Notice how something as simple as clenching your fists on a run can tighten and lift your shoulders. Try it now, clench both fists and notice how much your shoulders relax once you release the grip on your fists. That restriction not only tightens our arms and shoulders but it will also reduce our lung capacity, our free movement of our body and also our levels of relaxation on the run. If you run holding anything in your hands, you are only making the problem worse. If you must carry something, bear in mind that unless you move it between hands regularly, you will be running with one fist clenched and the other relaxed. That in itself is an easy imbalance we could all avoid by investing in a small running belt to carry phone, keys or whatever other essentials you feel you can’t leave at home.

Focus on the relaxation, the rhythm and indeed the occasional shake out of the arms to release any build-up of tension

Most runners are pleasantly surprised, if initially a little sceptical, to hear that the legs will fall in with the rhythm of our arms. When done correctly, a quick rhythm of our arms means that the feet follow and there is no time for a heel strike as the rhythm pulls us on to the next step and hence the feet hit the ground closer to the body than right out in front. Give it a try. Bend your arms to waist height, relax your fists and elbow directly back behind you. Each hit behind you is one count. When I run parkrun or any other short distance event I aim to count "back, two, three, four" consistently. My focus is on the backward movement of the elbow and the counting is pretty quick. My feet don't have time to take a big heel strike out in front as the arm rhythm means I need to be on to the next step and in turn the length of each step in front of me is reduced.

Running with your arms may sound like silly advice to follow, but don’t knock it until you give it a try. Focus on the relaxation, the rhythm and indeed the occasional shake out of the arms to release any build-up of tension. Give the legs a break now and then and allow the arms a chance to pull their weight. You might be pleasantly surprised and grateful to have two extra limbs to help carry the load.


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