Arm Swing: The Canary in the Coal Mine

Stay the CourseEver heard of someone injure an arm from running too much? Maybe tumbling down a canyon, or slipping on ice. But in my years of sports-medicine work, I’ve never heard of an overuse running injury to the upper body. As such, the upper body gets scant attention by most runners and sports med folks.

Yet, the arm swing can tell us a lot about what is happening below. Moreover, the key to fixing lower body aches, pains, and inefficiencies very well may lie in addressing the arms.

The Role of Arm Swing in the Distance Run Stride

Left elbow downward drive

The author demonstrates the left elbow downward drive, enhancing left leg upward drive, and right leg downward drive.

As mentioned previously in the Synergistic Model of stride mechanics, our legs move in synergistic, oppositional, and reciprocal patterns: one leg flexes up and forward, the other extends down and back; one gets long, the other short. The same is true for the arms: an arm drives back, the other forward. To add further depth to the picture: the arms and legs work reciprocally:

  • a rearward arm drive on one side corresponds to – and enhances – same sided leg upward/forward drive!
  • a rearward arm drive on one side corresponds to – and enhances – the opposite leg push off

Complicated as it may seem with words, it is beautifully simplistic: long and short, short and long. It is a remarkably efficient system.

Until something throws it off.

Arm Swing as a Symptom of Leg Pain

Weakness, stiffness, fatigue, or pain can cause inefficiencies in The Pattern. Those inefficiencies can then create even more weakness, stiffness, fatigue and pain; and on and on it goes until something gives (the Third Law of Running Injuries).

Because of the reciprocal arm-leg connection, a faulty arm swing will often appear as a result of a leg issue – and may appear even before leg pain or injury occurs!

 The good news is that an arm swing issue is typically easier to identify and correct. And it stands to reason, then, that fixing the arm will help fix the leg.

Faulty Arm Swing Patterns

Below are a couple common arm-swing faults, and some possible corresponding leg issues:

1. Arm Pattern: “The Crossover.” This is where the arm swings forward and wide across the body.

Lower leg mechanics: A crossover arm swing is typical with inadequate hip push-off, and very often a narrow stride width. Deficiency in hip extension will present in a deficiency in downward elbow drive with the opposite arm. Without a strong downward elbow, therefore, it is prone to “float” forward, and cross midline of the chest.

2. Arm pattern: “Wide elbows.” This is where one or both elbows “float” and swing wide; very often this is accompanied by a “swivel-like” motion of the upper trunk on the pelvis

Lower leg mechanics: A wide, floating elbow swing is typical of inadequate (same sided) hip forward and upward drive. A wide-swinging elbow usually provides some hip push-off, but the elbow must drive down, in order to help the same-sided hip go up (and forward). “Wide elbow” runners typically have deficient hip flexion, and a “braking stride” – where the foot lands in front of the trunk.

Abnormal Arm Swing and Pain

The following pain issues often present with abnormal arms swings:

A faulty left arm swing may result in:

  • Left heel, plantar or lateral foot pain
  • Left lateral knee (ITB), or patellar pain
  • Left hamstring tightness
  • Left hip-flexor pain
  • Left lumbopelvic pain

Why: A poor, same-sided arm swing results in a sloppier forward drive. A sloppy forward drive results in braking forces (greater impact stress of the foot, knee, hip and back), and makes the “drive” muscles (hip flexor and hamstring) work harder.

A faulty left arm swing may result from:

  • Right chronic foot/ankle pain
  • Right chronic knee pain
  • Right lateral hip pain/tightness

Why: when the push-off of one leg is compromised (usually from acute or chronic pain), the opposite arm won’t drive as strongly.

Tackling an Arm Issue – Why It’s Important

Correcting an arm-swing issue might seem trivial, but it looms large for injury treatment/prevention and performance for two reasons:

  • Addressing the legs alone ignores the “bad habits” developed on the upper-body half of the run pattern. Leg issues – inefficiencies and pain – are more likely to recur unless the arm swing is also addressed.
  • A faulty arm-swing pattern is, in my opinion, both easier to identify and address. Perhaps because the arm is smaller and not engaged with the ground, faults are easier to see with the naked eye. For the same reason, they’re frequently easier to correct: correcting an arm driving takes less energy (as it swings continuously through the air) than a leg (which pushes off the ground and acts against gravity).

Treatment Approaches for Arm Swing Correction

The leg pattern for running is a straight-up-and-down flexion and extension. When we start running, that forward momentum results in the circular, elliptical pattern seen in motion. Likewise for the arm, it is an upward and downward force that results in the forward-and-back arc seen in the run stride.

For distance runners, developing a strong arm swing is simple: Drive the elbow downward!

But more specifically, the elbow, bent at approximately 90-130 degrees, and shoulder blade should drive downward, as if it is headed into one’s back pocket.

The following are a few exercises to strengthen the arm drive.

Standing Band Pull

Put a stretch band – knotted in the middle with two ends hanging – high in a door. Pull down on the band, maintaining a bent elbow. Visualize both the elbow and shoulder blade sliding straight downward toward the back pocket. The motion is quite small and down, only – not swinging back. Hold three seconds. Perform ten to twenty reps per side.

Standing band pull

Alternating Leg Extension + Elbow Drive

Begin on all fours on the floor. First extend the leg – straight beneath, in line with the trunk and pelvis. The opposite arm – with bent elbow – should drive straight downward, again with emphasis on “into the back pocket.” Hold three seconds, keeping trunk and pelvis level across. To rest, allow both leg and arm to float forward. Repeat the same side, ten to twenty repetitions.

Leg extensions

Marching and Skipping

Perform the marching and skipping drill mentioned previously in these columns, with heavy emphasis on a strong, downward and inward elbow drive. Note how that affects your upward-knee drive and opposite-leg push-off!

The Importance of a Strong Arm Swing in Ultrarunning

Injury or no, a strong arm swing is vitally important in all running, but ultrarunning in particular:

A strong arm swing will:

  • Propel you uphill! The key to an efficienct ascent is a strong push off and equally strong hip and knee drive. A strong, efficient arm swing will enhance both hip actions for greater ease and speed uphill.
  • Cushion your downhill! While it may be tempting to let your arms flop on a steep down (indeed, a wide arm carriage may enhance balance), a downward elbow drive – even on a steep downhill – will enhance the opposite hip’s ability to act as a cushion and stabilizer – thus saving your precious quads!
  • Keep your stride compact and efficient! A strong downward arm drive results in a more compact up and down stride. You’ll be less likely to overstride or brake, saving precious energy – and leg stress – on the long run!
  • Keep your momentum forward! A strong arm drive – downward and rearward – keeps the trunk momentum forward. While running, visualize the elbows “grabbing the ground and pushing it behind you.” This keeps all your momentum – and you – going forward!

So, whether you’re injured or not, don’t forget those arms! They will enhance the legs and enhance your running!

Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 35 comments

  1. Sean

    Interesting article! One question, how does carrying a handheld impact the lower body? Can carrying a handheld cause lower body injuries?

    1. Luke Garten

      I have wondered the same thing. I do switch the bottle from one hand to the other every so often but still wonder what it does to the leg stride.

      1. Ultrawolf

        I was just about to send the same question !

        While I like running with handhelds I feel they cost some extra energy. Seems to me the same difference as wearing a light or heavy shoe since it´s all about the rotating mass ?

        I used to run with Simply Hydration bottles recently, for me they are the perfect solution and stick rocket solid to the center of my body without putting the pressure of a waist pack on the stomach.

        So my guess is handhelds might impact the stride ( Joe ? Great article as usual by the way !!!) but definitely cost some extra energy.

    2. OOJ

      Sean, et al:

      Thanks for the comments!

      I think the use of handhelds invariably affects arm swing, though I think that with some focus, those detrimental effects could be overcome.

      I feel like the greatest effect would have an overall inhibition of arm swing, which then robs the legs of power, the trunk of forward momentum, and the stride of "compactness", leading to greater inefficiency…

      Perhaps an interesting future column might address the biomechanical impacts of various hydration systems: bottles vs hydration packs vs bottle packs?

      1. StumpWater

        "Perhaps an interesting future column might address the biomechanical impacts of various hydration systems: bottles vs hydration packs vs bottle packs?"

        YES!

        I've always heard that the worst place to carry extra weight, from a mechanical/efficiency perspective, is in/on either the hands or the feet. So I'd expect that the hydration pack would "win" that contest. With the weight nearer a runner's center of gravity … well, a hydration pack seems better from that balance perspective as well. Maybe with the new "bladder on the back, bottles on the front" packs being best of all? (no pulling you net back-lean or forward-lean) Of course … you do basically lose some surface area for cooling for cooling.

        Bah! I'm rambling. Mr. Expert Guy … write that article so that we know!

        1. KenZ

          Already been done! See:

          http://www.runnersworld.com/trail-running-trainin

          And the answer is, as expected, don't carry a water bottle. Personal preference obviously has many trump this, as it appears to me that most "elites" carry a handheld. Having done much musing about this, there are a few advantages to the handheld in a race-time perspective:

          A. Faster to get filled at aid stations, at least compared to a pack. This should not be overlooked.

          B. Hydration packs are both a body heat blocker, and, for me at least, mean I can't take my shirt off as it rubs me raw.

          So I've personally done a bit of testing and am now tucking an Amphipod 20oz (contoured) bottle in the back of my shorts with the drawstring drawn tight for short races, and using the Ultraspire two bottle waist pack (like Meltzer has) for longer stuff. I know people hate the bounce of packs and waist bottles, but I hate the slosh and inefficiency of the handheld. You can't argue with physics! Or, you can, but… seriously?

          1. Bryon Powell

            This "study" has bothered me for a while. If I recall correctly, there were five participants in the study and, presumably, it was done in cool conditions, with no sun, in a lab. While it may give an accurate picture of the different systems' effect on these runners (however, what these runners previously trained with could greatly affect the outcome), the duration and setting do little to account for your factor B, heat accumulation, which is a HUGE factor in many ultramarathons. It's even a quite significant factor at the marathon distance on roads. For this reason alone, I'd never consider a hydration pack at even a moderately warm race unless race rules (specifying a pack or a lot of gear) required me to do so. Just my two cents.

            Ps. I'll note that I will train with a hydration pack. I find it much more convenient in cooler weather and non-race conditions. I wore one pack or another on a ton of training runs in January through March. Now, I've switched to a handheld, but only because that's what I expect to use during Western States.

            1. KenZ

              Don't disagree with your heat comments; this is why I switched from a hydration pack to a waist pack or bottle-in-shorts. But regardless of the issues with their study, it really is a physical truism that carrying weight in your hands (or on your feet) is like moving weight from your bike frame to your rims… on a bike that is constantly starting and stopping. Fighting initial mass does not bode well for energy efficiency.

            2. KenZ

              PS- I thought a few years ago you'd said you were going to run with that ultra-light cuben-fiber water bottle carrier-thing. Didn't like it? I really liked mine, sort of, but the strap was just too thin and cut into me. I found (as noted above) much better securing, much less bounce, and much less discomfort (!!!) by tightening the shorts' drawstring and tucking an Amphipod into the back of the shorts. Bottle carrier with zero weight. Works better than you'd think, but it's a bit too uncomfortable in the drawstring (for me) for anything longer than 50 miles.

            3. Bryon Powell

              Ken,
              I will wear a waist pack at Western States, in addition to one handheld. Mostly likely that 1-ounce Terra Nova pack, at least for most of the race. It gets old about 60 miles in. I don't worry a bit about the heat buildup from such a small waist pack.

            4. Gump

              I like a hydration pack on technical terrain to keep my hands free. If it is 90 degrees and humid (East Coast summer), I'm not sure it would make much difference with a hand-held or not…you are gonna be HOT no matter what.

  2. Charlie M.

    I see your hands are completely "open" in the exercises. Should we reserve the closed fist running for the final sprint? :)

  3. astroyam

    Interesting article Joe.

    Do you think that a good arm swing likely causes good hip swiveling?

    As an aside, the book 'Running With the Whole Body' covers arm/shoulder/upper body motion in an interesting way, and provides exercises for integrating natural upper body patterns back into running too.

    1. OOJ

      No, "good arm swing" should not cause hip/trunk swiveling.

      A proper arm drive is a *downward force* of the scapula and elbow: a vector that is mostly directed toward the feet, and only partially rearward.

      It is when the arm "drive" is no longer downwardly directed that the trunk – with excess energy – begins to rotate….

      Per "Running with the Whole Body" – I have a copy of that book, but have yet to read it in its entirety. However, it is based on "Feldenkrais" concepts, which are very similar to the "Neuromuscular Model" that I speak of. A worthwhile resource for people to examine.

  4. OOJ

    I should add this nugget to the discussion:

    When correcting arm swing, it is *inadequate* (if not mis-directed) to correct arm swing simply by "holding them in". The upper limb (scapula to hand) is a *force-producing limb*: that said, any cue that restricts force or movement is neither desired or sustainable.

    The best way to correct a force-producing element is to redirect force in the correct direction! That said, a *downward [and slight rearward] drive* of the shoulder blade/elbow will correct a "floating" or wide arm swing, while offering maximum contribution to the run stride!

  5. Rod

    An interesting way to look at the arm swing is to remebe where we came from, the ocean and being a quadraped. An interesting drill is to run on all fours and then move to an upright position and imagine still using your arms to move thru space.Keep going back and forth. It's interesting.

  6. Anonymous

    As ever great stuff Joe, I will be addressing some of these issues with some clients this week … including myself. I know this isn't cool in the ultra world but I just can't do hand helds, just seems to throw my balance off. … I'm a 'bottles in waist pack kind of guy'

  7. DJ

    Speaking of "bottles that when empty can go soft & limp and fit in a waist pack"…… Well let's just keep this PG and say there were a few of us Sunday after TVU quite amused by Salomon's new "softy" ;)

  8. Jeremy

    I have handbottled for every race and have written off every other option many times. It is the matter of arm swing mechanics that has gotten me to revisit the pack option again. With handbottle(s) my arms seem to be dead weight and my elbows flare widely as OOJ mentions above. Without bottles, my arms more naturally take on a Ryan Hall swing like a locomotive. I have done some hill tempo PR's recently that I attribute solely to this effect. I am trying out the Ultimate Direction AK pack as a Western States option for several cures that this pack has over others I have tried.

    1. Bottles up front. I put 8, 12 or 16 oz Amphipod flat bottles in these pockets and they ride nicely. Any heavier or rounder bottles and I can't tolerate the bounce. Having 2 smaller bottles allows splitting your drinks up to avoid monotony. The pack feels lousy with a bladder in back.

    2. The entire pack is very breathable and seems to not accumulate any extra heat.

    3. An empty back pouch holds ice/snow/sponge/wet hanky for cooling- try it!

    4. At 6 oz, lighter than other packs.

    5. The fiber has given me no chafing while shirtless. Other packs have destroyed me.

    6. More food options are handy on the pack- combined with my shorts pockets, I can carry lots of calories.

    All this said, don't be surprised if I go with the handbottle on the WS100 start line.

    1. Brandon

      Question: How is nipple chafing with the AK pack shirtless? The material at the water bottles seems like it would tear them up. Anybody have any feedback on that issue as I would like to wear it shirtless this summer.

      1. KenZ

        I'll leave the pack-chafing answer to Jeremy, but will note that 3M's Transpore tape is a great nipple guard, and being clear(ish) and breathable, you forget it's there. Amazon.com has it for super cheap in a 12 pack I recall which will last you forever. Use the IRF amazon link…

        I bleed with a shirt on for any run over 40-ish miles. Transpore tape has stayed on me without fail for my last two 100s no problem. Thus, two small strips of Transpore will likely do the trick anyway with the pack on. Note: NipEaze is literally Transpore cut into small circles, and raised in price x100.

      2. Jeremy

        I started with the same fear- so I taped up. Then, I forgot to tape on a long run (26mi) and found no issue. I think this would be individual based on how you wear the pack- tensioning, do the bottles bounce up front, etc. I like to keep the chest straps more open and tension the rib straps so the bottles ride lower and to the outside. The material still goes over the nipples and it has not been an issue. Still not sure it would fly for 100 miles or if it got chilly. 100's have a way of finding a problem with almost every piece of gear. I will definitely use the clear med tape- like Ken mentions- as a precaution.

  9. Matt

    Herr Doktor OOJ,

    Another brilliant nugget on mechanics. I'm curious to know about the opposite, or up-swinging arm. Should there also be a focus in driving the shoulder up and forward with the arm, almost as a sort of guide for the elbow pulling up and through? It seems to me that it would better compliment opposite hip drive/trunk rotation so that it doesn't become a twist, but rather shoulder and opposite hip driving forward in unison. Correct me if I'm wrong, because I've been using my shoulders in such a fashion.

    1. OOJ

      Herr Matt-

      That forward (upward) drive of the arm is relevant; however, in slow endurance running, it is (in my professional opinion) less relevant for force generation, as compared to sprinting. This is the same as the forward knee drive: yes, it's important, but secondary to the push-off (pelvic depression/hip extension) in distance running.

      Different practitioners – e.g. those schooled in Chi Running or Pose Method schools of run mechanics – will differ in their opinions on this subject, but I feel that running is a gravity-dependent exercise and ground-interaction is "51%" of the priority: thus, the emphasis on downward of the elbow/scapula and pelvis/hip…

  10. BGD

    In high school my grandparents bought me the "E 3 Hand Grips" which helped "coach/train" my arms to not cross (and not SWIVS!)…Just a suggestion, they work well.

    Joe, no mention of mi7 of the Napa Valley Mararhon? NO SWIVS! :)

    As always, great stuff.

  11. worm

    Joe, tried this on the run yesterday (10miles) and it was great, especially on the downhills. The effect on my stride was noticeable and on a long 2 mile downhill the focus on arm swing really did seem to affect my ability to efficiently stabilize my body. Thanks.

  12. Messi

    Great Article! I agree that proper swing one of the big keys to running successfully. I have noticed that most people do not give much thought on the motion of their arms during a run. Proper use of the arms can increase one’s pace anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds per mile.

  13. Greta

    Thank you for this article, it was so helpful! I upped my mileage to 60 mile weeks this summer but suddenly at one point I started to develop a weird arm swing (did I think I was flying?! – also, there were a few days when I swear I must have looked like I was doing the Snoopy happy dance). I am not sure why this happened. But I did the resistance band door exercise, and saw improvements almost immediately though I think that what really helped was reminding myself, thanks to this article, to bring my arms “down” as I run (it was a revolutionary word when I read it).

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