The Upper Body in Running

Think running is just about the lower body? Think again!
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the upper body and running

The We Run running analysis session (our ‘Runner’s MOT’) is a head to toe assessment of your running form. This is the first of a series of blogs looking at the best way to optimise your body to enable you to be the fastest, most efficient, runner you can be. Keep an eye on these blogs and pick one thing to focus on each time you go for a run and you’ll soon improve from head to toe. In this blog I’ll look at the upper body. (NB the importance of core strength is covered in a separate post)

The Head

Your head should be over your shoulders. That might sound obvious! However, I often see runners with their necks bent forwards, and sometimes backwards if they’re really pushing in a sprint finish and their attention to form has completely gone! To help control your head position, look at the ground about 10-15 metres ahead. This means you’ll spot any hazards but also hold good form and keep the airwaves between your mouth and your lungs open.

The Shoulders

You know exactly what I’m going to say here, don’t you! Your shoulders should be low and loose not high and tight. For some people this will be natural but for others it will take a bit of conscious effort. If you feel them starting to tense or you glance to the side and – ooh, there’s your shoulder! – then shake your arms out to release the tension.

The Arms

There is a reason why runners with no arms are in the Paralympics – they are at a massive disadvantage! Yet many runners don’t engage their arms properly. The arms should be bent at about 90 degrees at the elbow. This is to help you gain maximum momentum from them. They should swing backwards until your hand is at your side, either in line with your waistband or just above it. They should swing forwards until your hand is in front of your chest. Your hand should not cross the imaginary line which goes down the middle of your body – this will mean your momentum is starting to go sideways. You’ll notice that although this is the ‘arms’ section I’ve mentioned the hands a lot. A correct hand position will give you a correct arm position and focusing on the hands rather than the arms will stop your arms getting too tense.

The Hands

The hands are often the key to unlocking upper body tension. If your hands are tense, your shoulders will be too. For this reason your fists should not be tightly clenched – unless you’re running into a mass brawl – but I don’t want to know about that! However, your fists shouldn’t be completely open either – you’re not Carl Lewis, you don’t need to be running in the most aerodynamic way possible, you need to get some drive out of your arms. Therefore your fists should be loosely clenched. One of the ways I get athletes to do this is to give them a couple of pieces of paper around 1-2 inches square. I tell them to carry one in each hand throughout the run. At the end of the run I want to see them without creases and I don’t want them dropped either. If you’re concerned that running with pieces of paper in your hands will make it look like you’re fleeing the scene of a pickpocketing, you can try running with the top part of your thumb (at the back of where the nail is,) in between your knuckles on your first finger. This will also do the job.


what you need to know
  • The arms should be bent at 90 degrees at the elbow

  • Bring your arms back until your hand is level with, or just above, your waistband and forwards until your hand is in front of that side of your chest

what you need to do
  • Keep your head above your shoulders looking at the ground about 10-15 metres ahead

  • Keep your shoulders low and loose, not high and tight. Shake your arms out if your shoulders feel tense

  • Lightly clench your fists – when you run, try holding a small piece of paper in each hand without bending it or dropping it

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