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Bruce R. Wilk, P.T., O.C.S. Director
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Sokunthea Nau, DPT, Eric Urrutia, Ryan Lopez, Bruce R. Wilk, PT, OCS

Recent surveys show that recreational and competitive running is gaining momentum. In 2010, 483 timed marathons took place; a significant increase from the estimated 397 marathons held in 2009 (1). The reasons may vary, but can be attributed to social media influences and a growing desire for a generally healthier lifestyle. People have recognized that obesity has become a major problem and are getting motivating to be more active. However, with the increase in running popularity comes the increase in running-related injuries.

Many runners make the mistake of being ill-informed or underprepared and find themselves looking at prolonged downtime after experiencing an often preventable injury. Our goal is to educate you on proper running form and technique in order to reduce the risk of sustaining an injury while exploring your newfound passion for running.

Most running related injuries are non-traumatic and arise either from biomechanical inefficiencies in a runner’s stride, training error, or underlying muscoskeletal impairments such as a muscular imbalance. One such biomechanical problem area is in a runner’s stride, which we have found this is often attributed to improper arm swing.

Although running requires a coordinated movement of the entire body, many runners focus primarily on their lower extremities. Arm swing plays a major role in the balance and momentum of our bodies during natural human gait. It is important to realize that arm swing is the reciprocal reaction of leg movement. In running, it helps with forward propulsion and balance. The backward motion of the arm swing helps the opposite leg to push off the ground and, in turn, regulates your speed. All of this regulates a base of support that helps to balance us when running. The base of support naturally increases with increased fatigue. So to compensate, the arm swing helps control balance. Research shows that more energy is exerted when arm swing is absent because the body is making an effort to maintain balance due to trunk instability (2). Therefore, the arm swing is necessary to sustain a stable base of support. Furthermore, proportional arm swing to leg swing proves to be the most economical way of running.

Based on the mechanical relationship between the arm and leg swing, there is a general guideline that runners can follow to run at their best. The most efficient way to run involves moving primarily on a sagittal plane, which is the vertical plane that divides the body into right and left sections. To maximize efficiency while running, keep your arms from swinging across your torso and crossing this sagittal plane. Unnecessary tri-planar movement (movement in planes that are outside the sagittal plane) increases the amount of torque and stress on the body while running. This tri-planar movement causes the valgus of the knee (collapse of the knee medially) and overpronation of the foot, which are both deviations that are attributed to inefficient movement and can cause repetitive stress, thus leading to a running injury.

Compensatory overpronation may occur for anatomical reasons. However, not only the amount of foot eversion, but also the way in which this eversion is transferred into tibial internal rotation may be crucial to the overloading stress on the knee (3). An overpronator pushes off almost entirely from the inside of the foot. The shock of impacting the ground is not efficiently distributed in the foot, so the ankle risks difficulty stabilizing the body through the gait cycle. From behind, an abnormal angle is observed which is formed upon impact at the point where the foot and ankle meet. It appears as an unnatural splaying out of the foot (4). Faulty alignment from excessive overpronation and valgus of the knee can lead to common injuries such as infrapatellar tendonitis, IT band syndrome, plantar facitis, Achilles tendonitis, and shin splints.

Another way arm swing helps with running efficiency is that it aids the stance leg to land under your center of gravity (COG) and prevent over-striking. Over-striking is when the foot placement is too far in front of the body’s center of mass. When over-striking, the runner tends to land on their heel, which increases the Ground Reaction Force (GRF) onto the lower limbs, causing more wear and tear to the joints and soft tissue. Newton’s third law of motion states, “For every action, there is an equal or opposite reaction.” Likewise, with every forceful step onto the ground, the ground will exert the same amount of force onto the body. Having the foot placement as close as possible to the center of gravity (COG) will help distribute the GRF throughout the body and will reduce the stress (or force) on a specific area, diminishing the risk of injury. Swinging your arms too far in front of the body causes a longer stride and disrupts a runner’s cadence, inevitably resulting in over-striking. The runner should not allow the arms pass their chest while in the forward motion of arm swing. Doing this will maintain a constant running cadence that conserves energy.


  1. Starting position (figure 1): Stand on one leg, lift the other leg and flex the knee at a 90 degree angle while keeping the thighs in line with each other. Keep the head in line with the horizon, relax the shoulders, and keep a neutral spine. Imagine a straight line drawn from your head, through your shoulders to your hip. Bend the elbows to 90 degrees. Dumbbells can be used to create a pendulum-like swing from your shoulders.

  2. While keeping your elbows bent, reciprocally swing your arms straight forward and back like a pendulum. Keep your body aligned in a straight position, and focus the movement to occur at the shoulder joint.

  3. Keep the arms moving in a straight plane, and don’t let them cross your body (figure 2). While running, if your arms cross your body, it will cause too much torsion and asymmetry and will result in too much torque and biomechanical inefficiency.

  4. As your arms swing forward, don’t let your arms go past your trunk (figure 3). While running, this will cause your opposite leg to go too far forward and cause you to overstrike, which will cause an unnecessary “braking effect” and create too much opposing force from the ground. Instead, focus the arm swing going backwards.

    In our PT clinic, we teach proper technique while we transition an injured runner back into their running program. The runner may initially present with musculoskeletal impairments such as swelling, muscular imbalance, joint hypomobility, and decreased proprioception that need to be addressed by manual therapy and therapeutic exercises. After addressing the impairments, we then teach the patient proper technique and form. This is time in which we can teach proper posture and arm swing technique. Initially, the patient will start with a fitness walking routine which will assist the runner with adapting to the appropriate/accurate/proper posture and arm swing for running. With continuous exercises the patient will adapt and get a feel for the accurate form which we will transition into their running form. Thus, when the patient begins to run again, they will come back more biomechanically efficient.
    An increase in runners does not have to equal an increase in injuries. It is important to learn proper running form and technique to prevent an injury. Controlling arm swing is the first step to running safely and efficiently. A proportional arm swing to leg swing is vital, as is moving primarily on a sagittal plane. Once arm swing is mastered, you will begin to see greater improvements in distance, time, and energy… and far less injuries.



1. MarathonGuide.com Staff. USA Marathoning: 2010 Overview. Retrieved from

2. Arellano, C. J., & Kram, R. (2011). The effects of step width and arm swing on energetic cost and lateral balance durring running. Journal of biomechanics, 44(2011), 1291-1295. Retrieved from http://www.christopherarellano.com/Journal Papers/J Biomech 2011 Arellano.pdfdf

3. Hintermann, B., & Nigg, B. M. (1998). Pronation in runners: Implications for injuries. Sports Medicine, 26, 169-176. Retrieved from

4. Pronation Simplified (2011). American Running Association. Retrieved fromom

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