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Running is an "Arms Race": Keep those Arms Pumping

As a runner, you probably have experienced leg fatigue. Somewhere towards the end of a race (or in the middle, depending on the length of the race), your legs refuse to respond. Your turnover is just not turning over; you’re slowing down despite your best effort.

We’ve all been there and it can feel like a bad molasses-filled dream. However, there is a simple technique to wake up those legs and get your cadence back on track: pump your arms!

Everyone agrees that arm pumping helps to increase leg turnover, but there’s some disagreement about what specific type of arm movement works best. Old school coaches and runners have long contended that a very relaxed arm motion with arms held passively by one’s sides to conserve energy was ideal for distance running. This view privileged the supposed benefits of keeping form and gave the stink-eye to an active cross-body swing.

Recent research studies, however, dispute that conventional wisdom. In a 2014 issue of The Journal of Experimental Biology, exercise physiologists Christopher J. Arellano and Rodger Kram demonstrated that actively swinging the arms while running consumed less metabolic and mechanical energy and was, therefore, ideal for more efficient running.

Mo Knows Form:
A vigorous arm swing makes the difference

Arellano and Kram conclude “actively swinging the arms provides both metabolic and biomechanical benefits during human running.” This represents a change in thinking about arm swing and ideal running form. A more active swing of the arms results in greater efficiency in the legs because arm and leg motion is “neurocoupled.” When runners activate their arms, their legs follow.

Therefore, a good way to maintain your pace when you start to get tired is to pump your arms more actively to maintain a high cadence. Your legs can’t help but follow.

To do this most effectively, swing your arms from your shoulders in a forward and back motion. Do not cross your body. Keep your shoulders and your hands relaxed. You can learn how to do this with practice –– perhaps make it a part of the end of your long tempo runs or track workouts. What you’ve practiced with intention, you can deploy on race day.

So, the takeaway point: if you want to maintain your speed and efficiency when your legs tire, pump your arms to maintain your running cadence. Remember, running is an “arms race.”

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