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Your running posture is more important than you think. Whether you’re a novice, sub-elite or mid-pack runner, improving your running posture can shave seconds and even minutes off your time by improving your running economy, the amount of energy you’ll burn for a given distance.
Posture includes your lower body and hips, but in this article, we’ll focus on the upper body posture, particularly the arms and shoulders. You can notice how important arm swing is to running if you try to run with your hands held together behind your back.
An effective arm swing helps create balance between the upper and lower body and can magnify the effectiveness of your stride. In contrast running with form deficiencies such as a side-to-side arm swing, arm carriage that is too high or too much in front of your body can reduce efficiency, shorten your time to fatigue, negatively impact race performance, and increase injury risk.
What Posture Works Best for Running?
Ideal Upper Body Running Form Checklist:
- Balanced forward/backward arm motion with minimal side-to-side motion
- Level shoulders with arm carriage that’s not too low or too high
- Neutral upper back and shoulder posture that’s not too rounded over or too extended/leaning back
To learn how to swing the arms effectively, try this drill:
Do 6-8 x 10-15-second intervals of seated arm swings 2-3 times a week to help improve your arm swing mechanics. Focus on driving the elbows back, letting the forward motion just be the natural elastic recoil. Avoid side-to-side motion of the arms and hands.
This drill teaches how to pump the arms during faster running, but the principles can be applied to any running speed. For distance events, your arm swing should range from your hand swinging just behind the top of the hip at the bottom, to brushing your ribs at the top of the swing. The faster the pace, the larger and more powerful the arm swing becomes. At top speed, your hands should swing from the top of the hips to as high as the front shoulder.
You Shoulders Affect Your Arms, Your Your Arms Affect Your Legs…
Your entire body works together during the running stride in what is called whole-body kinematics. As the song goes, your leg bone is connected to your knee bone and your knee bone is connected to your thigh bone, and so on. Everything is connected and affects the other.
Since this is the case, lower body issues can affect the upper body (bottom-up cause) and upper body issues can affect the lower body (top-down cause). For example, if your knee collapses in too far, you may over-pronate during ground contact. This will lead to a chain of unfavorable events up the body such as excessive upper body rotation and lateral arm motions.
With our modern day seated postures, hunched over desk and devices, our upper backs are becoming more slouched, our shoulders are becoming more rounded and our necks curved down in text-neck. This doesn’t bode well for optimal upper body posture when running, as it causes us to keep our arms perpetually in front of our bodies. This ineffective arm swing affects how our legs swing and how they land to keep us balanced.
There are ways to improve the mobility in your upper back and shoulders to improve your upper body running posture and you enable you to run tall and effectively. Since running is a skill, your running form can be changed with mobility and strengthening exercises, run-form coaching and concerted practice.
Upper Body Exercises
These six exercises will increase your upper body mobility and the shoulder and back strength necessary to maintain an effective posture, counteracting the unbalanced posture from the excessive sitting and reaching forward of our lifestyles. You can perform this little circuit before each run to maximize the affect from these exercises.
3 Upper Body Mobility Exercises
1) Half Kneeling Single Arm Shoulder Circles
WHY: To improve and restore upper back extension and rotation ability and to un-round the shoulders.
HOW: Kneel beside a wall or vehicle with your outside knee on the ground and inside foot out front. Start with arms and hands together in front of you and rotate the inside (next to wall) arm up and around so that your chest is against the wall. Rotate back to the starting position and repeat. Perform on both sides.
HOW MUCH: Do 20-30/side
2) Door Lat Stretch
WHY: To improve shoulder flexibility and upper back extension ability
HOW: Hold on to your car door or a rack if you’re in a gym. Walk back from your grip, soften your knees and bend over forward. Let your chest “fall through” your arms.
HOW MUCH: Hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds
3) Band Shoulder Circles
WHY: To un-round and improve shoulder flexibility
HOW: Hold a long exercise band with a wide grip and straight elbows. Brace your abs and rotate your arms up and back to bring the band to your low back. Return the band to the front of your body.
HOW MUCH: Perform 20-30 reps
Upper Body Strengthening Exercises
1) Half Kneeling Band Y Raise
WHY: To strengthen the lower trapezius muscle
HOW: Kneel on your left knee with your right leg in front. Hold one end of an exercise band next to your left hip with your left hand and hold the other end of the band with an underhand grip with your right hand. Brace your abs and bring your right hand up, forming one side of the letter Y (think Y-M-C-A). Return your left arm down. Perform on both sides.
HOW MUCH: Perform 2025 reps/side
2) Band Arm Rotation
WHY: To strengthen the rotator cuff, middle trapezius and rhomboid muscles
HOW: Hold an exercise band with an underhand grip with your elbows bent to 90-degrees. Brace your abs and rotate your arms outward as your hands stretch the band. Try to move your shoulder blades toward each other without arching your low back. Return your hands to the starting position and repeat.
HOW MUCH: Perform 20-25 reps
3) Band Row
WHY: To strengthen the middle trapezius, rhomboids and lat muscles
HOW: Loop an exercise band around your car door or rack if you’re in a gym. Walk back to create tension in the band, soften your knees and brace your abs. Move your shoulder blades together as you pull the band towards you. Slowly straighten your arms and repeat.
HOW MUCH: Perform 30 reps
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS, CEP is a strength and conditioning specialist and co-owner of a personal training boutique gym, JKConditioning, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.