If you want to start a debate between coaches and sport scientists, or even coaches themselves, ask how arms contribute to performance. I personally believe the arms are a vital part of running fast, but I also recognize the research is very conflicting even today. In this article, I zero in specifically on the role of arms when running at peak velocity and explore why we have issues with research not illustrating how to make athletes faster with what we already know. This isn’t a bashing of the available science; it’s more of a framework of what we need to discover down the road and what we can do now based on the research.
Recently, Tom Tellez released a book on sprint mechanics, and in his own words he clearly supports the role of arm stroke in dictating range of motion and the tempo of running stride. Similarly, nearly 100 years ago, in his book How to sprint; the theory of sprint racing, Archie Hahn outlined the importance of arm action with near poetic language and in great detail. For those who don’t know the history, Archie won three gold medals in the 1904 Olympics and later became a great resource for sprinting theory.
Much of the early work on sprinting was poorly documented, and nearly all of the training theories stemmed from repurposed horse-racing concepts. Still, those books complement one of the best books on sports performance, The Mechanics of Athletics by Geoffrey Dyson. In that text, Dyson brilliantly states the importance of an aggressive arm drive:
While, in all forms of running, the primary function of the upper body is to “take up” reaction to the eccentric leg drive, “counter-balancing” and “following” leg action, in sprinting particularly, the arms may be used to spur on the legs, which speed up and consequently add to their horizontal component of drive; for (as mentioned on page 27) action and reaction are interchangeable factors.
The phrase “spur on the legs” really resonates, as well as the understanding of eccentric leg drive. I wrote about the drum drill being underrated, and as expected, the stride frequency chart, like my split velocity conversion table, was an uncomfortable migration from old dogma. We simply need to move away from timing sprints as a goal instead of a means to an end. Stride parameters fall into the same class, so focusing on how to run faster versus only measuring speed or stride parameters is vital.
Current Science on Arm Motion
The connection of arm action to leg motion is a cloudy one, but there is enough science to confirm that the arms are not just there for the ride. Arm action has been both oversold and underappreciated for years. Usually, arms are seen as just reflexive steering appendages for sprinting and running, but now we are at the point that arms need a voice of reason.
Currently, there is not enough research to say with absolute confidence that the arms contribute to peak speed or acceleration with a specific amount of force or time benefit. Arms are essential to increasing angular and linear momentum, but the effect of arms on a force plate during sprinting isn’t easy to tease out. We are getting closer to knowing the contribution of arm motion today, and it will take a few more years to see how teaching and training arm swing contributes to speed.We are getting closer to knowing the contribution of arm motion today, and it will take a few more years to see how teaching and training arm swing contributes to speed, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Although each athlete is different and modeling the differences between athletes is difficult, we can say generally that arms do contribute some angular momentum and torque, along with some coordination benefits, especially in acceleration and block clearance. At slower speeds, the contribution of the arm swing has shown to be valuable in reducing the metabolic cost of running compared to purposely removing the arms. From a neurological standpoint, removing them from activity doesn’t seem like a good idea, as the body wants to work in a connected way. Coaches are likely interested in how much coaching (technique instruction) and training (loading the torso and arms) will transfer to higher speeds.
So far there is scant research showing intervention value, but due to the heterogeneous techniques in research groups, this isn’t shocking. There isn’t much science available, and of what is, not much is useful due to the very precise changes necessary, which may not be done in a conventional 8- to 12-week study. We do have the evidence to show arms help athletes run faster, but the unknown is how technically sound the athletes need to be and what are the best ways to make them better. We need to know how arms can override the possible central pattern generators already programmed in the body, and how the arm swing connects to the pelvic and spinal motion within the sprinting cycle. We don’t have perfect information on what happens in the air and on the ground, but we do have enough information to know it has an impact.
Arm action won’t be enhanced by counting numbers in the weight room. The double bodyweight or max pull-up theories by some strength coaches look good on paper, but frankly, they aren’t proven to make an impact. A contralateral lat muscle helping the opposite glute downstream is technically a possible and likely scenario but adding more back muscle to a sprinter for pulling strength of the upper body is futile. The legs are still the limiters to athlete speed, and while countermovement jumps with arms play a big role, the arms contribute far less to sprinting.
With celebrations common in sport, with or without a ball or sporting implement in hand, we know you can do rather well without arm action for a brief moment. The obsession with removing arm contributions in track drills is, frankly, foolish if done too much, as it will likely minimize the neural drive benefits of linking arms to the exercise. Perhaps the overzealous single-leg training hype that misinterpreted the bilateral deficit and turned two legs to one leg to no arms is the culprit? Who knows?
Why Arms Can Screw Things Up
The number one cause of errors is bad coaching. I will take the blame for making mistakes with athletes from time to time, but video keeps me honest and able to steer back technique later. With all the running with sticks or doing drills that don’t use the arms, the concepts seem more for the coach to discover something novel than helping the athlete move more fluidly. Sometimes removing arm action teaches the athlete to value the contribution of the upper body, but for the most part, arms need both exposure and small tuning.
Much of the natural arm motion is already there, built into the athlete’s nervous system and anatomy, we just tended to guide it subtly as the athlete learned to run faster. In fact, arms are very hard to improve and are more likely to be hindrances than enhancers. Let’s not blame arms for everything, though, as they usually act as checks and balances in the leg and arm cycle.
Based on theory, the arms are connected to the feedback of the foot making contact with the ground and during leg recovery, so the limbs constantly work in concert during the entire running or sprint cycle. While we don’t know enough about central pattern generators, as I hinted earlier it is my suspicion that arms act as a conscious brake or throttle to legs, but performance limits come from training the lower body.Usually, fixing arms IS worth it in the long run, especially if it’s clearly causing a premature ceiling for performance, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
As the athlete runs faster and closer to absolute speed, very little conscious effort is involved—just enough to guide the body forward. Arms tend to have common motion errors, usually with slower athletes. Some world-class sprinters have had a few errors, but I have yet to see the upper body motion of a world champion or world recordholder look strange in the last 50 years. Small but common errors in arm mechanics sometimes have noticeable interference with running form, but often it’s so subtle that coaches tend to let them go, as they are worried it’s not “worth it.” Usually, fixing arms is worth it in the long run, especially if it’s clearly causing a premature ceiling for performance. Errors in arm action tend to be:
- Arms excessively crossing the midline of the body.
- Arms staying too square to the shoulder line.
- Arms swinging too passively on downward stroke.
- Arms not swinging and excessively bending.
- Arms too rigid and not allowing enough unfolding.
- Arms not symmetrically balanced in all planes of movement.
Coaching and training can fix all of these errors, and most errors need a commitment by the athlete and everyone else involved. Rarely do I see weight room programs fix arms, but some athletes have benefitted from general power and muscular balance training at high levels. You may not see strength training help everyone, but it isn’t easy to stay tight at high speeds in a pulsating form unless you have high rates of force production.
The arms are not just a set of bones and muscles—they are very complex parts of the body and have more motion than gross flexion and extension. Some of the motions are simple, but don’t overcoach them either, as the small natural motions, barely seen on video, are washed away with overly exuberant coaching or training.
Simple Coaching Strategies That Improve Technique
The arms are often clues to what the athlete is trying to do during high speed. The arms may not get the same ground reaction force feedback as the legs, but keep in mind that good sprinting has contact times of one-tenth of a second or less, a sensation that’s not as rich as we think it is. The feedback that arms give sometimes is both visual and haptic, and the ground shock forces up to the head become minimized from the torso and hips. Arms are the true signature of the early stages of sprinting, as athletes who rush their stride decrease their arm swing, and when an athlete is too stiff, small natural motions of the shoulder roll become lost in a rigid and forced motion.
When coaching arms, coaches need to remove the errors from an array of different athletes, who have likely been tainted with inaccurate perceptions or have picked up some bad habits during their development. Thus, the coach will have to be a sculptor and remove unnecessary motion that isn’t true to the sprinter, even if it means fixing their own earlier mistakes with instruction. Video feedback showing the athlete what they are doing in slow motion for reference is perhaps the most potent way to address arms that are not productive. In fact, sessions that have a few repetitions with video can so dramatically fix the athlete that a coach may look obsolete after a small number of private sessions. In training with groups, this becomes harder to do, and doing it outdoors with sunlight is not easy.Video feedback showing the athlete what they are doing in slow motion for reference is perhaps the most potent way to address arms that are not productive, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Running up hills, light sleds, and timeless form runs at slightly slower speeds work wonders. Why? Give the athlete a chance to continuously adjust their motions when they are at submaximal speeds or force the athlete to use arms or let gravity teach them the hard way that they are not the master. The inclusion of weighted gauntlets or similar is another direction gaining interest with sprint coaches. Cues and instruction do work, but the majority of improvements will likely stem from changes in range of motion, tension, and effort.
You can easily correct an arm opening up too much (arms too straight) or arms that seem to create a “drummer boy” look (poor swinging of the upper arm) with verbal feedback. Overcoaching the arms to help range of motion issues is a classic solution, and the athlete generally just needs reference points. Coaching arms isn’t hard, but if you look to drill your way out of a problem and move away from submaximal and conventional training, it’s hard to create the change you need.
Know When and When Not to Intervene
Perhaps this last bit of advice should be titled “when to talk and when to keep your mouth shut.” As coaches, a question we sometimes face is how long it takes to fix arm action. I usually answer a season or two, as we are always trying to refine things. Sometimes training the arms never stops, as the sprinting event is artificial and field sports can get into bad habits.
I expect a few articles down the road from SimpliFaster contributors specifically on how to coach small changes at very high speeds. Remember, the arms pump back and forth nearly five times a second, so with such fast time frames, you can’t give an athlete a solution that can cause them to retard their speed and cause paralysis by analysis. The “arms race” for understanding how upper limb mechanics interact with the body will not be solved overnight, but the information shared should do damage control for common errors we see today.
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