One of the first things many people will notice in a runner is how their arms move. Do they look strong and powerful? Are they more labored and uncoordinated? There are many things that go into how someone moves the way they move ranging from their individual anatomy, past sports experiences, past injuries, and even the type of environment. Large differences in arm swing can be present between a runner running down hill in a 50k trail race or at the start of a 5k on the road.
Movement occurs in three different planes. Although important elements of running happen in the frontal and transverse plan, running is a sport largely oriented in the sagittal plane. In most races, or training sessions, we are moving forward towards a finish. While important contributions happen in the other two planes as well, we will be focusing on optimizing our motion in the sagittal plane.
There are many examples in sports of upper extremity dominant activities that rely on leg drive to achieve optimal performance. One of the easiest examples is a pitcher. Lower extremity strength and power, and adequate stiffness throughout the rest of the body, allows us to turn an activity like throwing into a whole body skill. The entire body must work together to achieve the athlete's goal.
During running, this same coordination happens. As we bring one leg forward through swing phase, the opposite arm is going to come forward as well. This pattern of movement occurs over and over again throughout our lives from crawling, walking, running, etc. Try running or skipping with the opposite motion. It feels and looks awkward. By coordinating the motions of our upper and lower extremities, our body is able to be more efficient while running.
One of the reasons we swing our arms is to minimize the amount of rotation happening through the trunk. It helps us reduce the energy cost of running and helps balance out the motion that is happening throughout our legs and pelvis. It also serves as a way of decreasing the metabolic cost of running and minimizes excessive rotation through our body. It provides a stable base for our legs to do their job.
"Normal" or "Ideal " are poor adjectives for describing any specific element of a runner's gait. That being said, I tend to see three different running gait patterns in relation to arm swing.
1. Limited Movement/Increased Shoulder Abduction
It has long been thought that this style of arm swing is associated with weakness in the frontal plane (trunk, hips, etc.). When we lose our balance, one of the body's strategies for keeping our face off the floor is using an arm strategy similar to a tight rope walker. One of the most common things I have found with this running style is the runner is looking for support.
This choice of movement isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is a great choice of running style for someone playing a contact sport. A lot of female, high school soccer players I've treated choose this style because they are constantly having to either create or absorb contact with their body. For myself, I choose this style of arm swing when I am descending hills in the ice and snow during the winter months. It's another option in our arsenal if needed.
2. Increased Rotation
We will define excessive, as a one hand crossing midline. This is the opposite of the first style. Here we have a lot of rotational motion. If we go back to running be a sagittal plane sport, this runner is doing a lot of work in the other planes of motion.
3. Asymmetrical Rotation
Different running styles load our body in different ways. This videos shows a a larger arm swing to the right compared to the left. There are plenty of runners who display asymmetries throughout their body when running. By itself, differences in side to side mechanics are nothing to be concerned about. When we are dealing with a load management issue, which is what most running injuries are, you have to ask the question "Is the asymmetry affecting a runner's ability to progress back to training?"
Does any of this even matter?
Everybody is going to have small differences in the way they run. We see this from elites to recreational runners. When dealing with a runner having pain, it gives us another variable we can manipulate in order to allow them to return to running pain-free. If a runner is looking to improve performance let's make them strong and powerful in the sagittal plane.
STRENGTH AND CAPACITY DRILLS
Training Glenohumeral Extension
A common characteristic you will see in elite level runners is a large amount of shoulder extension. Mo Farah, shown in the picture above, is a great example. While most of us shouldn't be looking to have the same mechanics as an elite athlete like Farah, it does provide us a window into the relationship between our arm swing, leg action, and overall coordination that is involved with running. Below, are exercises to make a runner's arm drive strong and powerful.
Bilateral Band Rows
Bent Over Rows
Seated Arm Swings
Everybody's arm swing is different. When dealing with a runner in pain, it provides us an easy variable to manipulate and see if we can get a desired change in their ability to run. It is another tool at our disposal to load tissue differently and allow a runner to continue to do the sport they love.
Nathan Carlson PT