Running in the 'Meda: The swing of things

Running in the 'Meda: The swing of things

Marty Beene

What do you look like when you run?

When I see runners around town (and beyond), I usually take a few seconds to check out their form. Running with proper form can help you run more efficiently, which, in turn, can enable you to run faster, farther, or at least happier (i.e., it will take less effort to do the same workout).

A component of running form that is often overlooked but often easiest to improve is the arm swing. The most common mistake I see is when runners simply don't swing them at all, but carry them instead. Many of us treat our arms as if they would be better left at home. When a runner simply carries his arms, his torso rotates in order to balance his body while he runs. Every time his torso rotates to the left, muscle energy is required to drag it back to the right on the next step. The result is that he uses a ton of energy just for balance.

Another common mistake is holding one's arms too high, often with a related contraction of the shoulders - this is what I tend to do, and I am continually working to correct it. Similar to torso rotation, doing this requires energy that could instead be put into the actual running effort. Some runners do swing their arms, but either swing them on an arc that doesn't reach back far enough or that follows a crossing pattern in front of their body. Each of these issues can be remedied with a little practice.

It's easy to practice a proper arm swing - this is one of the first things I work on with my Be The Runner clients. Find a mirror, so you can see what you're doing, and work on one arm at a time at first. Make a 90 degree angle at your elbow and keep it at 90 degrees. Place your left hand on the front side of your right shoulder so you can tell if your torso is rotating. Now, imagine someone has played “pin the tail on the donkey” with your arm, pressing a thumbtack through your arm into your shoulder. Slowly rotate your arm around that imaginary thumbtack. Your hand on that swinging arm can come across the front of your body a little, but only within a couple of inches of your body's centerline.

When you swing that arm forward, do it so your hand comes up even with your nose. When you swing that arm back, it should swing far enough back so that your hand passes by your hip and as far back as it can comfortably swing.

This exaggerated arc is what a sprinter would do. When you're doing distance running, your arm should follow the same arc as that of a sprinter, but at a lesser amplitude. Practice the same motion with your left arm, then practice both together. Start with slow, deliberate motions, then speed them up to a normal speed.

Once you have mastered this basic motion, check your form periodically while you're running. You can do this by simply looking down slightly to see that your arms and hands are following the correct path. One trick I use is to work on my arm mechanics whenever the sun is directly at my back. When it is, I can just watch my shadow to get real-time feedback on whatever is going on.

Remember that everyone tends to go back to their poor form habits when they tire. When you run with poor form, it takes more energy to run the same distance or at the same pace, so then you get even more tired. As soon as you notice that you're getting fatigued, try to run with the best form you can - starting with your arms - and you will optimize whatever energy you have left.

What do you look like when you run now?

Marty Beene, a USA Track & Field certified coach, is owner of Be The Runner; he coaches adults from beginners to veterans individually and in groups. Marty can be reached at