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Gait Retraining 101: Arm Swing

In the last gait retraining post, we discussed how manipulating your cadence could improve your landing position, decrease stress through the lower extremities and even change the way your muscles are firing.

Now, let's talk about your arm swing. Most runners don’t think twice about their arms because, for most of us, they just come along for the ride. However, your arm swing helps your balance and helps to stabilize your body during running to propel you forward in a straight line. The position of your head, neck and shoulders also affects your running posture and, ultimately, how your arms swing. Improving your posture and creating a more efficient arm swing can improve your overall running form and efficiency.

Many researchers report that arm swing in running is driven passively by the thorax and that arm motion in running creates a counterbalance to the rotational and angular motion of the legs during swing. The thorax motion occurs both actively, from the use of external obliques in the abdomen, and passively, via pelvic and lower extremity loading, creating a linkage system. Because of the linkage system between the thorax and the lower body, modifying the arm swing is one means of manipulating gait to improve overall mechanics and form.

How can I tell if I need to modify my arm swing?

Look down. Are your arms moving at all, or are you mostly rotating from your thorax? Are one or both of your arms sticking out to the side? Do you look like Phoebe from Friends, running with your arms flying in the air?

Watch your reflection as you run by a car or store window: are your arms moving forward and backward, across your body or staying relatively still?

Have someone take a picture or video of you running. Watch what happens during each part of gait.

How should my arms swing?

Your arms should move forward and backward just like your legs. One cue I often give my clients is to move your hand form “heart to pocket” as you run. Another great cue is to make sure your elbow gently grazes your side as your arm moves backward. Either way, you want to feel the motion in your arms and shoulders as they move.

What issues might I have if my arm swing is inefficient?

Issue 1:

Limited hip extension may be caused by poor upper body posture driven by tight and rounded shoulders

If your arms stay close to the body or your posture is too rounded, you may be leaning more from the hips, not properly using your deep core, breathing inefficiently or having increased tightness in the hip flexors.

Issue 2:

Increased rotational forces at the TL junction (lower back) causing increased tightness in the mid-lower back

Issue 3:

Relative hip adduction and internal rotation at the knee

If you are over rotating through the thorax, the stance leg will be put in a relative position of internal rotation and adduction. Increased adduction and internal rotation at the knee is the cause of many knee and lower limb injuries.

Issue 4:

Decreased efficiency

If you are over rotating, losing balance or your arms are all over the place, you are losing forward momentum and precious energy.

What can I do to improve my arm swing?

1. Improve thoracic spine mobility. Below are links to two of my favorites.

2. Stretch your latissimus dorsi muscles and pectoral muscles.

This can easily be done on a foam roller.

Stretching your pectoral mm. on the foam roller

Rolling out your lats on the foam roller

3. Think about your posture while running. Stand tall with your rib cage stacked over your pelvis and breathe.

4. Perform an arm swing drill so can feel what your arms should feel like while running. This drill is a little silly, but I have found it to be very effective.

Remember, it is important to only make small changes to your gait at a time. I typically tell my clients to make one change that works well for them and stick with it for three to four weeks before trying to make another change. Your body will have to get used to the change, and you will likely feel more tired than usual, even if you are feeling more efficient and having less pain.

If you have any questions about modifying your arm swing or any difficulty, please reach out and ask us for help!

Dr. Kate Mihevc Edwards is a board certified orthopedic specialist, a specialist is running and endurance medicine and the owner/CEO of Precision Performance & Physical Therapy.


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