Do Arm Swing And Form Really Matter?

Jannine Myers

Looking through some half marathon photos from a race I ran recently, I couldn’t help notice that I still run with a “cross-body” arm swing.

Back in Japan, in the neighborhood that I lived in, there was a little hotel near my house that accommodated traveling sports teams. During the winter months I often saw high-school aged athletes, dressed in their team warm-ups, head out on group runs. On many occasions I also saw them run with baton-like sticks in their hands, presumably to help improve balance and running form.

There are differing opinions on running form, and whether it matters or not. Some coaches insist on putting their runners through various types of form drills, while others would rather ignore form flaws if training time is compromised. Paula Radcliffe, for example, has a hard time keeping her head stable once fatigue sets in, yet she prefers to focus on consistent and quality training versus form correction. And other world class athletes, such as Dathan Ritzenheimer and Paige Higgins, have managed to run outstanding marathon times despite major form faults.

Still, the question begs to differ, that if correcting form faults can make a difference, is it worth trying to do so?

I think the best answer for any runner questioning their running form, is to consider changing it if there is a history of chronic injuries and a possible correlating relationship. In my case, long-term recurring injuries have resulted in a significantly reduced capacity to run, and while it may seem that a cross-body arm swing is fairly harmless, perhaps it is not?

One thing runners tend to ignore is the fact that a balanced foot strike must ultimately come from a smooth chain of movement that starts at the top of the body. If balance is thrown off by an uneven arm swing for example, the supporting muscles (think core region) will have to work much harder. Additional strain on the supporting muscles may cause a breakdown in muscular strength, and subsequently an increased risk of injury.

On that note, if you’re a runner with an irregular arm-swing and frequently injured, here’s a few comments and tips from run coach Jonathan Beverly:

  • I laugh as I type this, because the first thing Jonathan mentions is rolled and hunched shoulders that come from a “forward-oriented” lifestyle; sitting in front of laptops and computers, for one! Beverly says that poor posture from endless hours spent in a day-in and day-out hunched position, pushes the shoulders forward and limits the range of backwards arm motion. Consequently, the arms spend a lot of time moving forwards and across the body, and the shoulders start to curve inwards. Eventually, the spine is no longer in an ideal neutral position, and that in turn results in poor hip extension.
  • Additionally, a collapsed chest reduces breathing capacity, which apparently hinders the connection between lat muscles to opposite glute, thereby preventing the glutes from firing properly! 
  • Any posture, hip-flexibility, or strength workouts that are done as part of your regular run/fitness training routine, may actually serve little purpose if your chest, shoulders, and lats are overly tight and/or in a hunched position.

For more info, read Jonathan’s article here, and check out his website for further running inspiration and coaching tips.