Lance Smith explains why the arms are the rudder, accelerator, and gear lever of running.
Arms and how you use them can have a positive or negative effect on stride rate, stride length, ground forces, and energy consumption. And that indeed is the basis of effective running – stride rate – stride length, ground forces, energy use – it is these that determine how fast you run. While arm action is not the only technical aspect of running you need to work on, it is the one most ignored. Everything must be working correctly.
Arm movement is considered by many to be determined by legs – where legs go arms follow, but it is the other way around - arms control the legs. Arms are the rudders, accelerators, and gear levers of running and jumping. When you see a runner moving awkwardly, bad running mechanics, a weakness in technique, look at what the arms are doing – it could be an incorrect or inefficient use of arms is causing the problem.
Peter Coe, coach and father of Seb stated that good technique would not guarantee you will be a good runner, but lousy technique ensures you will not be.
Running action causes rotation around the vertical axis – the right foot pushes, the body turns to the left – like the action of rowing a boat.
Try and run with your arms held straight at your sides. Notice how your shoulders swing from side to side.
Flexing of elbows in arm drive reduces this rotation and transfers rotation movement to the rest of the body – instead of zig-zag movement, it is all forward, the way you want to go.
If you run with your arms bent at an acute angle, you will also have this rotation from the shoulders – there is no flexing at the elbow because at this angle there cannot be. This is the same as having arms straight – rotation from side to side.
It means you restrict forward motion by having zig zagging. What does this do? The body will try and achieve stability by using other muscles - the shoulders as we have seen, the core particularly, and limb muscles not used for moving forward at pace. This is energy wasted. Muscles and energy used for anything other than effective forward movement are wasted energy.
Note, while flexing arms at the elbows helps reduce rotation around the vertical axis, it must be in combination with a total arm swing from the shoulder – it is an opening up of arms and closing as they drive forward and back.
We do not want movement from the elbow with a lower arm in motion and upper arm still and we do not want to march - arms moving and no bending at the elbow.
While you run on your legs, you run with your arms - arms do not carry you down the track, but they do dictate what does. Julian Goater, in his book The Art of Running Faster, makes this statement: "Your arms will move as fast as they need to keep up with your feet, right? It works the other way around."
Goater tells when he was shown by a coach how to use his arms – something he never thought of before - the coach said he needs to feel as if he is pulling himself along, with the action behind the body, pulling downwards and backward.
Tom Tellez, coach of Carl Lewis, stressed the same thing another way when he said you must have a fast downward stroke of the arm. And I emphasise the "stroke" – hands sweep down, and behind the hips, they do not go forward and back like a piston.
When the arm is driven hard up (milking the cow) it lifts the opposite knee. And when driven fast down, drives the knee forward.
I have a maxim – run with your knees, not your feet. The downward drive of the arm promotes running with knees – knees driving forward. Upward drive gives the feeling of running on the spot. I maintain it is a mistake for coaches to yell "lift your knees". The correct call should be "drive your elbows". As with run with the knees, not the feet, arm drive is with elbows, not the hands – and vigorous arm drive will drive knees.
However, the upward drive observes Newton's law of opposite forces – the opposing force of the arm going up and forward and the support leg going down and back - pushing the runner forward, increasing stride length.
So downstroke increases leg turnover while upstroke increases stride length.
You cannot afford to be passive in either
Vigorous downward stroke brings the opposite arm up – but notice, when up is the dominant force the other arm is not driven so far back, so there is less action behind the body, less pulling yourself along.
High skip is a drill for arm use. Hard to skip without vigorous arm action and focusing on a downward sweep that influences skip speed.
If arm action is too much forward and not enough down and back imagine hammering a nail in a wall behind you– the hand is the hammer.
And think about driving the elbow down rather than hands.
Putting it all together
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About the Author
Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross-country, steeplechase, and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and takes part in track events and jumps.