Armswing in running technique

If there is one thing that is certain about running there is always something new to learn.  You can guarantee that just when you think you’d heard it all, someone comes along with a new take on running technique that makes more than a little sense.  Speaking at a coaching forum with distance running coaches Jerry Schumacher and Nic Bideau at Melbourne’s Olympic Park ahead of the 2011 Melbourne IAAF Track Classic Coach Ron Warhurst explained that he’s somewhat of an arm-swing activist, always giving his athletes an ear-bashing about the carriage and swing of their arms during running – especially Olympic 1500m Silver Medalist Nick Willis.

I put the question to him afterwards about the specifics of how he thought the arms should be held and why this was important.  The explanation was thought provoking and I’m still getting my head around it as I write this piece.

The basic premise as I understood it is that Warhurst believes many athletes hold their arms too low or too high with tight shoulders.  The consequences being loss of speed, relaxation and rhythm – he prefers to see the arms held with elbows at 90 degrees and swinging to about the midline of the torso – somewhat similar to the way I’ve read Alberto Salazar describe an optimal nipple to nipple arm-swing.  The second part of the explanation really got me interested.

It’s easy to consider the swing of the arms in running to be very similar to the role of the legs in swimming where they provide balance and some forward impetus but most of the work is done by the arms i.e. in running the arms are just along for the ride.  However, Warhurst believes in running that the arm swing regulates the turnover of the legs and specifically that a quick movement of the arms helps generate stimulus to get the opposite leg back onto the ground and into the next stride.  In my method of describing running this would help stimulate and speed up the preparation phase. The moments just ahead of ground contact.  I’m always on the look-out for new ways to improve this phase as I believe it to be the most important in running.

Willis at the 2011 Melbourne Track Classic

As ever in discussions about running technique there is a contradictory view – probably the most strident naysayer of the role of the arms in running technique was legendary New Zealander Arthur Lydiard who said “when I train athletes I try to make their legs go faster, not their arms.”  I think there’s likely room for both views to be useful depending on the athlete.  If a runner is too tight and their arms are out of synch with their legs then Lydiard relaxation could help, but conversely if you’re low and slow with your arms and have a very slow stride rate then perhaps a bit of Warhurst arm action could be the stimulus needed to find some speed.

I have been giving Ron’s arm swing mantra a try as I’m a runner who has generally not done much with my arms, almost letting them hang passively.  In some recent video I took of myself my arms were such a non-event that I definitely need a bit of a Warhurst rev up to get them moving.

What I’ve found through experimenting with this is I think Warhurst is right, the more I think about pumping my arms with a bit more intent the quicker the stimulus for my leg and foot to get back on and off the ground.  Overall the change tends to deliver a bit more power as well.

Both Schumacher and Warhurst commented on the ability of Nick Willis to get his foot on and off the ground super quickly, no doubt one of the reasons he’s been so competitive in major championship racing where the ability to change pace off slow beginnings is critical to success.  Could it be that an earful about arm-swing is the secret of his success?

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2 Responses to Armswing in running technique

  1. Chris Southby May 10, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Hi Brian
    I have recently been to a running coach in Canberra to assess my technique. He concluded that my main problem was my left foot staying on the ground too long and this was caused by my left arm not swinging properly.
    The left arm was moving up and down instead of backwards and forwards. This action wasn’t triggering the left foot to lift at the correct time.
    Just changing the movement of the arm made an immediate change to my stride pattern, the left legs was lifting off much earlier. It was very noticeable especially when reverting back to the old arm swing.
    Hopefully this will go some way to help prevent further injuries.



    • Brian May 11, 2012 at 4:46 am #

      G’day Chris, thanks for the comment and great you’ve made some improvements. Adds to the argument of people who believe that the arms help regulate what’s happening with the feet and legs. Brian