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About the author
Damien Howell has been using slow motion video to analyze runners for over 22 years in order to treat injuries and improve performance.  He has an Advanced Masters Degree in Physical Therapy and is Board Certified in Orthopedic Physical Therapy.

Arm Swing Running

What the arms do and should be doing during running is a topic that has little attention. 

The lack of interest likely has several explanations including a belief, that the arms while running are used primarily for balance and have little to do with getting the body moving forward.  Some experts argue the focus should be on the lower body and let the arms do whatever is natural to smooth out the stride.  Others argue that arm swing assists with forward propulsion, assisting with the lift of the center or mass, and affecting momentum.

The ideal arm swing is up for debate, and is based more on expert opinion than measured data.  However a safe assumption is that arm swing should be balanced and symmetrical.  A slow motion analysis using video can provide evidence of what your arm swing looks like. 

Examples of Asymmetrical Arm Swing

A recent patient who is a high school 400/800-meter runner complained of right anterior hip pain.  During slow motion video analysis of her running form the most striking observation was an asymmetrical arm swing.  

The backward swing of the left arm was excessive compared to the right arm.  The elbow swung backward and came to the midline of the body.

On closer analysis the moment that the left arm backward swing reached the peak or end of the backward swing, the right foot was coming off the ground and the hip was at it’s maximum amount of extension.  Comparing the amount of hip extension between the right and left leg at toe off there was greater amount of hip extension on the right (symptomatic side) than the left.  

The working hypothesis is the excessive hip extension leads to excessive tensile loading or stretching of the muscles, tendons, and bursa on the front of the hip. If she consciously modifies her running form to eliminate the excessive backward swing of the left arm it will lead to a decrease in the observed excessive amount hip extension which is occurring at toe off on the right. She was given instructions to modify he left arm swing and a repeat slow motion video analysis she demonstrated symmetry of arm swing as well as hip extension.

Several questions arise.  Which came first the excessive right hip extension at toe off or the excessive backward swing of the left arm, or did they develop together.  She had just finished indoor track season and a majority of her training and racing had been on a on a short indoor track with tight turns, and she was consistently running counter-clockwise on the track.   Perhaps this faulty running form was an adaptation to running tight turns constantly turning to the left.  The recommended treatment was to consciously strive to keep her arm swing symmetrical.  Also she was instructed to run both clockwise and counterclockwise direction on the track in training.  This is a current patient, so I am awaiting long term outcome to the recommended treatment. 

A male high school middle distance runner complained of a “stitch” or cramp in the right side, which only occurred when he ran fast and hard.  A slow motion video analysis was done and the striking observation was asymmetrical arm swing.  The backward swing of the right arm was excessive.  When the right arm swung backward the trunk rotated excessively to the right. 

The working hypothesis was the excessive trunk rotation was straining and stretching the trunk muscles and diaphragm.  He was instructed to modify his arm swing to avoid excessive backward swing of the right arm and avoid excessive right trunk rotation.  A repeat slow motion video analysis he was able to demonstrate symmetry of arm swing and trunk rotation.  For the last 6 months he has been able to avoid stitches/cramps.   

Arm swing can be of importance.  Symmetrical arm swing is desirable. Asymmetrical arm swing can be related to anatomical asymmetries, related to previous injury or congenital deformity.  Asymmetrical arm swing can indicate faults are occurring in other regions of the body typically the opposite leg. Striving to improve the mechanics of arm swing has potential in terms of alleviating injury or improving performance. 

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