I think I’m turning Japanese … I really think so

Like many distance running fans, I tuned into a number of events held at the recent IAAF world athletics championships in Daegu Korea.  Aside from the cracking performances of some star runners, one of the things that really stuck out as noticeable was the distinct low arm carriage that many of the Japanese runners employed.

While discussing arm carriage and arm-swing is flirting at the boundaries of a style versus substance debate when it comes to distance running technique, there is such a distinct pattern amongst the Japanese runners that it’s worth a short discussion.

In an earlier post I documented the arm-swing philosophy of Ron Warhurst, the coach of 2008 Olympic 1500m Silver Medalist Nick Willis.  Warhurst is definitely of the school of thought that focusing on getting the arms moving helps drive a more powerful and faster stride. In short, he thinks that arm-swing can help get the foot on and off the ground a bit faster – not a bad idea, especially for someone looking to run faster at shorter distances.

In this image above, which features Japanese 10,000m runner Kayo Sugihara, we can see quite a low arm carriage, as does the dude in the yellow singlet who has a similar low slung arm-swing.  It’s something I’ve been attempting to improve, but so far it could only be described as a work in progress.

So am I turning Japanese?

Probably not as my arm carriage evolved as a bit of a balancing act in response to my old unstable running technique. They used to be held a bit wider, but they’ve stayed low and passive, even though I’m more stable through the hips. Isn’t there always something to work on improving?

On the other hand I suspect Japanese runners are actively coached to adopt a low arm carriage and minimal arm-swing. Perhaps this is in response to the coaching of the legendary Arthur Lydiard who was sought out by Japanese runners and coaches over many years to help guide their remarkable success in the marathon and help design retro tee-shirts. I guess the question I have is this: does anyone know if low arm carriage and minimal arm-swing is a technical instruction engrained amongst the Japanese coaching fraternity?

Martin versus Sugihara

When I mentioned above that arm-swing is potentially a style versus substance debate I wasn’t kidding, it’s clearly possible to run really fast over longer distance without much input from the arms. In the case of Kayo Sugihara we’re talking about an athlete running 32 minutes for 10,000m while Martin is still languishing in 37 minute territory.  That’s being lapped a lot of times over 10k!  If I got my arms driving would I be threatening 32 minutes?  Highly unlikely, there’s a lot more than working on arm-swing that I need to improve to even get closer to a 35 minute performance.

Arthur Lydiard versus Ron Warhurst

So while I’m not sure I’d advocate working on the arms as the highest priority for a regular runners with a few other technical chinks to iron out, I don’t think the arms should be ignored.  Arthur Lydiard said “when I train athletes I try to make their legs go faster, not their arms” but what if, as Warhurst believes, the arms can help the legs go faster and as I’m beginning to appreciate, help you get a bit more power with each stride?  If this is true, and I believe it is, then you’d probably want to think about ways to stimulate arm-swing as part of a balanced distance running training program.

Training for arm-swing

Hill training

There’s no doubt that my arms can get moving in response to certain stimuli and there’s two forms of training that really give me the impetus to drive a bit more with the arms.  In this short video you can see me pushing up a short incline during a 16km cross country race earlier in the season.

While my arms are not going crazy, they are working a bit more than on the flat. That fact that I naturally want to drive a bit more with the arms (except for that damn right arm!) when pushing uphill, lines up well with Warhurst’s thinking.  I need more power to push up the hill, therefore driving with the arms helps me better activate and get more thrust from the glutes (buttocks).  So just like hills are great for building strength through the glutes and hamstrings they also help you get those arms driving.  It’s also a good way to practice getting good extension and drive from the hips.  I believe driving the arms helps with this muscle activation and movement pattern.

Speed work

Getting your arms moving a bit more on the flat can be the product of speed work.  Check out elite middle distance runners and you’ll see huge drive with the arms – World Champion 800m runner David Rudisha is a great example:

That’s a lot of power going on and his arms get really high as they drive forwards and up while he powerfully extends his hips (pushes the legs back behind the body).  So your running technique tip next time you hit the track is to think about driving with your arms a bit more and see if it helps you run faster. It might not make you David Rudisha, but it might help!

Written by

, , ,

6 Responses to I think I’m turning Japanese … I really think so

  1. Charles October 3, 2011 at 5:32 am #

    Another interesting article. I believe an efficient arm swing is important as it assists in driving you forward in sync with your legs. But what makes your article/debate so good is it reminders us runners that we do need to pay attention to the upper body, an area that often gets forgotten.

    Keep up the fabulous work with these discussion points.


    • Brian October 3, 2011 at 6:28 am #

      Thanks for the feedback Charles. I reckon you’re on the money, getting the coordination right is key.

      • Keith Bateman October 5, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

        I admit I am relatively new to running coaching but my thoughts are arms for balance and timing too.I would tend to favour the strong arms in the video as a balance for the long powerful stride. But who can say for sure – certainly I don’t think about me arms when I am racing – it just happens. I think if the arm is pulled back at exactly the right moment it might (with a strong core in between) produce more power from the leg in contact with the ground. I asked my physicist son if he agreed but he declined to answer so still a work-in-progress. 🙂 Really good to find other people discussing this, helping me to form a solid opinion.

        • Brian October 5, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

          Hi Keith, yep the arms are probably an area runners need to work on more if there is a problem that needs fixing. I don’t know the exact answer either but I tend to think if your arms are not doing much there’s a good chance you could lose power. In my own running it feels like my hip extension in more complete and powerful when my arms swing forward as the leg drives back. As someone who’s not a natural I definitely feel like the arms help things ticking over in a good rhythm, but I have to work at it. More discussion needed!

  2. Scott Brown October 1, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    Interesting article Brian

    I don’t know personally of any coaches teaching this technqiue but I’d be surprised if they didn’t! I do remember A. Lydiard, on one of his first trips to Japan, criticising the way the woman ran as not being efficient! The pros probably took notice and changed accordingly.

    • Brian October 1, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

      Thanks for the info Scott. Yep I agree there’s just too many Japanese runners using a relatively low arm-swing for it not to be something being actively coached. There’s such a great strong running culture in Japan, can’t wait to get over there and have a run one of these days.