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Rick's Corner

“Arms! Arms!” (Running Form, Part 1)

Anyone who’s ever been at one of my Duniway track workouts has heard it. “Arms,” I’ll be calling to someone. “Arms!”

Part of learning to run quickly is curbing as many bad habits as possible — and poor arm swing is one of the most common. Fixing it takes time, concentration, and practice. But watch the runners in the front of a big race, and compare them to those further back. The front-runners seem to flow across the pavement with no wasted motion. Learning to run like this is the perfect form of speed work: increased speed with no extra training and reduced effort. What more could you ask?

Many mid-pack racers make one of two mistakes: either they hold their arms limply down near their hips or they hold them too high, elbows out. What you want is a loose, fairly vigorous swing — with the level of vigor depending on how hard you’re running. (You’ll know you’re doing it right if, charging hard, you can feel yourself transferring power from your shoulders into your legs.)

The easiest way to understand how this works is to do it exaggeratedly wrong. Try holding your hands immobile, down near your hips. You’ll be forced into tiny, choppy strides: inefficient, slow, and not very comfortable. Now test the opposite extreme, pumping your arms all the way to shoulder height. You’ll probably wind up lifting your knees into an exaggerated high step — also inefficient and energy wasting.

Try holding your arms high, elbows out. There are two mistakes you can make here, each with about the same effect. One is to keep your fists close together, close to your chest, as though bound together by rubber bands. Your hands will move sideways, with little or no vertical component, the distance between them barely varying. (This is very common; I see it all the time in joggers.) The other error is to keep your arms farther out from your chest, but still in an exaggerated sideways motion, as though trying to waltz with a bear.

Either will eventually make your shoulders tired. If your upper arms and shoulders cramp in long runs or marathons, this is probably why. But they’ll also make your legs waddle inefficiently from side to side. (Try it, just to see what it feels like.) If you’re female, the guy behind you may appreciate it, but it’s not sending you straight down the road, and that means it’s wasting energy. What you want is for your feet to move as straight ahead with each stride as possible, so each step carries you toward your goal.

In theory, you’d run your fastest if your arms drove forward and back in exactly the direction you’re moving. That, in fact, is exactly how the best sprinters run. But it’s tiring, and you can’t keep it up for long. As a distance runner, what you want is an arm swing with both vertical and horizontal components. For most people, this means your arms should swing inward as they come forward, with your hands coming approximately to your breastbone. If they swing substantially farther than midway across your body, you’ll find yourself moving down the road with an odd, energy-wasting hip twist as your body over-rotates with each stride. Slightly too little inward motion is less of a problem, but you’ll move more smoothly if you can get that arm swing to terminate naturally at your breastbone, at approximately nipple height.

Also watch your elbows. They shouldn’t stick out to the side like you’re fighting for space in a crowded pack. Nor should they be locked at one angle, swinging only from the shoulders. Relax those elbows, and let the swing come easily, from the whole arm.

At the lower end, your wrist should come well down, possibly all the way to the point of your hips. If you want a practice drill, stick out your thumb and poke yourself in the breastbone at the top of each arm swing. At the lower end, brush your wrist against your hip. This is exaggerated, but not by as much as you’d think. Pull up a video of the Olympics, and watch the pros. Their arms¬†move.

If you have access to a treadmill, set up a mirror and watch yourself; otherwise, recruit a friend to help. Even on your own, you ought to be able to tell within a couple of inches where your hands are at the peak of their trajectory. Then, it’s just a matter of practice.

Or come to Duniway Track, and let me shout at you.

“Arms! Arms!”

Copyright 2010 by Richard A. Lovett

All rights reserved

See this at http://running.richardalovett.com. If people want to come to my site, that’s great.

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