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.