Most runners concentrate what is going on from the hips down when they think of running form. But what is happening above the hips, especially in the arms is equally, or even in some cases more important.
Proper use of the arms can increase the pace anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds per mile. On the other hand poor running form generated by improper arm movement can be the root cause to many injuries. Even some advance runners may not be taking full advantage of how their arms can help them while they run.
The arms are the key to good running form.
To gain a better understanding of what good running form is, first let’s examine what is best to avoid. Poor running form is the root cause of many injuries. Many runners attribute their injuries to overuse, when in fact a good portion such as hip and knee injuries are caused by over-rotation. These are especially prevalent with runners that have strong upper bodies. They use this upper body power to help drive the body forward.
Many runners not only swing their arms back and forth, but they also swing them side to side. This common mistake can lead you to turn at the waist. This adds an extra rotation at the hip that is echoed all the way down through the knees and the foot strike.
Your body is designed to go forward in a smooth motion. When people use the side to side arm motion, they introduce a rotation in the hip. Yes, this can generate speed but at a cost. It is also less efficient. More energy is used to generate that speed. Over rotation of the hips can be a source for many hip and knee injuries.
The problem is this doesn’t happen overnight, so many runners never make the connection to their poor form and their injury.
To prevent this from happening, take a note of the center-line that runs down your body. The easiest way to stop the over rotation is to make sure your hands or arms to do not cross this center-line.
The Golden Rule is to make sure your hands or arms do not cross the center-line of your body.
The key to running efficiently is the ability to generate speed while staying relaxed. This starts with the arms. The more relaxed they are the less energy you consume.
It is like having extra fuel in the gas tank.
To use your arms correctly we must start with proper positioning of the hands. To illustrate this, As an experiment, in a standing position, clench your hands into a fist. Now closely examine the effect this has on your arms. Feel how the forearms tighten up. This tightening goes all the way up to your upper arms and shoulders. If you clench and relax your fist, you can even feel some tightness in your back.
So our goal is to do the opposite. Relax the hands as much as possible. One way to do this is to press your thumb slightly into your forefinger, while keep the rest of the hand loose and relaxed.
So this is one of the big keys to running successfully. It is pretty difficult to carry tension in your arms if your hands are completely relaxed.
Using arms to help generate speed.
Used properly, your arms can help you generate more speed when you run. This can get you to the top of the hill faster. On the downhills, they can help with the balance and increase the tempo. This will allow you to get to the bottom of the hill faster without expending extra energy.
The use of the arms can also help you change Tempo. By changing the rhythm of the arm swing you can change the Tempo or turnover of your legs. Try doing this consciously this on the next run.
To see how important the use of the arms can be, on your next run after you are fully warmed up, while running at a decent clip, just drop your arms by your side. Do not swing them at all. If you do this for a half mile or so you will feel that your legs are doing more work than normal. When you go back to swing your arms, you should be able to discern a slight lift of the knees on each stride. Using this knowledge, we can increase the motion of the legs even further by perfecting your form.
On the next run, while keeping the arms relaxed, ever so slightly push or lift you hands on the apex of the swing. This will cause the legs to drive forward ever so slightly which allows one to increase their stride length without over-striding.
On the downhills, we know that shifting the center of gravity forward can help increase speed. In this case we need the arms to help maintain the new tempo without adding to the consumption of energy. Bring the arms away from the body core. The distance is dictated by the steepness of the hill, The steeper the hill the further the distance the arms are away from the body. In many cases on steep downhills their isn’t much need for too much movement.
Running uphill can suck up a lot of energy. This is where it is better to be proactive with the use of your arms. The active use of the arms can help drive the legs up the hill. Yes it takes energy, but it also helps take the loads off the legs which can then help to be used on the downhills to generate a net gain in speed. Remember the arms can help change cadence, so in this case on strong uphills it is better to shorten ones stride.
Running tip for Advanced runners
Here is an advance trick from Olympian Ed Mendoza. Ed was slightly more active with his arms than other runners. Most elite runners keep their upper body fairly quiet. The arms usually swing in cadence with the legs. For some there is barely any movement.
ED would generate a little bit of extra leverage with more than average movement. Making sure the arms never got close to the center line he would unhinge his arms and let the arm swing down further toward his hip. This created a longer arc to the arms. The upward swing causes a slight knee lift. So if your horizontal movement is at say 6 min mile pace and you add this army swing you will create and additional millimeter or two knee lift, which results in the covering extra ground without using too much additional energy being spent. This does some work and getting used to.
There is an exercise that can help with this form. Take two 5 pound weight. The type which are flat and goes on barbells. While stand stationary, slowly move your arms in a running type cadence. You will find very quickly that it is better to make sure your arms straighter than how you normally carry them. Slowly start unhinging your elbow more and more. The goal is to be able to drop your arms down to your hips then bring them back up to your shoulders. This is an over exaggeration. You will want what feels comfortable in your natural gait.