Restore your natural arm swing to improve posture and power.
You don’t run on your arms, but make no mistake, arms are important to running. “People think running is all about the lower body,” says sports rehab specialist Laura Bergmann. “But because it is all connected, tightness up top affects below. Tight lats and pecs, rounded shoulders, all inhibit your ability to have a tall spine when you run.”
The big reason why we’re tight? We hunch over computers. We hunch over phones and video games. “Sitting is horrible – tech added on top is awful,” says biomechanist and marathoner Rebecca Shultz, Ph.D., who works as product researcher and designer for Lumo Run, a clip-on stride monitor. And it does not stop there. We reach forward while driving, reading, writing, eating. Everything in our lives, it seems, cues our upper body to be forward oriented.
What happens when you’ve spent hours, days, years in a hunched position is that you end up with inward-curved shoulders and arms that lack the ability to move backward comfortably. If you look at a video of elite runners, however, you’ll see that invariably, regardless of how high they carry their arms or what their arms and hands do in front of their body, they drive their elbows far back with each stride.
“A powerful arm drive is 100 per cent backward,” says former elite runner and Good Form Running instructor Grant Robison. “It’s just the recoil that brings it forward. The faster and the stronger you can drive your arm back, the quicker your arm turnover will be, and the more reaction your feet will have in relation to that.”
In sum, tight, rotated shoulders can sabotage your running, throwing off your balance and drive, and negate gains you might get from working on posture, hip flexibility and glute strength. Try the following assessment and stretches to fully mobilise your shoulders – and in turn better your arm drive on a run.
SHOULDER AND CHEST MOBILITY ASSESSMENT AND STRETCH
Brad Cox, a mobility expert and coach, has a test to see if you have the mobility to get your shoulders and arms back into a position to swing freely and effectively.
Start by lying on your right side with your shoulders and hips stacked on top of each other. Reach your right hand over your left knee and hold on to it to keep it in place and not let it rotate backward. Lift your left arm straight up and rotate it backward, reaching out as you drop your arm. Attempt to drop your left shoulder to the ground without rotating your hip backward.
If you can’t reach the floor, you need to work on your upper body mobility. One stretch is to continue to do the evaluation, working on a greater range of motion. Cox recommends that you first inhale a deep breath into your belly as you rotate your shoulder over, then release as you lower your shoulder toward the floor. Repeat 5 times on each side.
FOAM ROLLER CHEST STRETCH
This stretch, recommended by physical therapists Bergmann and Jay Dicharry, works on opening up your chest using gravity and time. When we’re rotated forward, not only do the muscles on the back get overstretched and become weak but those on the front get tight and shortened.
TO DO THE STRETCH: To stretch your chest, lie on a foam roller aligned with your spine, facing upward with your arms out to the side, palms up. Your head and tailbone should be on the roller, with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Check that your lower back isn’t excessively arched – one hand width between back and roller is okay, but two hands’ width is too much. Tuck your chin down so your head and neck are aligned and straight.
Stay in this position ideally for 10 minutes, but at least for 3 to 5 minutes, letting your shoulders pull your chest open. Then slowly stand up and do a set of 10 rows as if pulling on two vertical chest-high handles, focusing on bringing the shoulder blades back and together, as if cracking a nut between them, while keeping your shoulders low and relaxed. Do this 2 times a week and for 5 minutes before a run whenever you can.
LAT STRETCH WITH ROLLER
Tight lats contribute to pulling the shoulders forward and limit the range of shoulder and arm movement. Lat tightness often stems from lifestyle issues – they get shortened when we stay hunched over and never open enough to stretch them to their full range of motion. Running from the arm to the pelvis, they not only affect shoulders and arms but simultaneously contribute to pulling the back of your pelvis up, compounding the overrotation and “spilling” out the front caused by tight hip flexors.
TO DO THE STRETCH: To stretch your lats, kneel in front of a foam roller with your toes facing backward and lower yourself down so your butt is resting on your heels. Reach out in front of you with both arms resting on the foam roller, thumbs up and palms facing each other. Lower your body so that your arms are straight in line with your torso, with your head between them. Yoga calls this a “child’s pose”. Hold this position, ideally for 5 to 10 minutes, pushing down gently, feeling the stretch on the backs of your arms and the sides of your chest below your armpits, relaxing with deep breaths, trying to go lower with each exhale. Alternatively, you can gently roll forward and back, rocking from left to right to feel more stretch on each side.
DOORWAY LAT STRETCH
One more recommended way to stretch your lats is by making a bow with your body in a doorway.
TO DO THE STRETCH: Stand near the centre of the doorway, lift your hands over your head, and get tall – engaging your core, lifting your chest and rotating your hips down in back and up in front. Lean your body over to the right to grab the door frame. Reach your left arm over your right arm to reach up as high as you comfortably can. Then cross your right leg over your left leg so you make your body into the shape of a C or an archery bow from your left ankle to your left hand. You should feel the stretch in both of your lats – the backside of your chest below the armpits – and toward your lower back. Your body should not be rotated – make sure your pelvis is facing forward. The stretch should feel gentle, not forced. Switch to your other side, reaching toward the top left corner of the doorway with your right hand and crossing your left foot in front of your right. To lengthen the lats, hold on each side for up to 3 minutes. You can also stretch for 10- to 15-second intervals throughout the day.
Running coach Andrew Kastor recommends doing the pass-through, an exercise popular with CrossFitters, as another method of loosening shoulders and increasing mobility.
TO DO THE EXERCISE: Start by holding a bar (such as a broomstick or PVC pipe) in front of you with an overhand grip that’s just over a metre wide. Keeping your arms straight, raise the bar to an overhead position, then all the way around until the bar hits your backside. Take care to stay tall with your chest over your hips, your torso straight, and your core and glutes engaged – don’t let your back arch or your hips drop forward. If you can’t get all the way around, try a wider grip. Work toward a narrower grip as your shoulder flexibility increases. You can also reverse your grip, starting with an underhand grip in front, for a slightly different stretch. Do 15 to 30 reps.
INTEGRATIVE WALL PUSH-OFF
Cox recommends a final integrative move that cues glute activation and the connection between that and arm drive.
TO DO THE EXERCISE: Standing facing away from a wall, raise your right foot and place it onto the wall behind you in the running posture. Pushing against the wall, fire the glute on the right side while simultaneously driving your right arm forward and left arm back. Feel the power flowing through your connected core from the leg drive all the way to your open shoulders. Reverse with your left leg against the wall. Do 5 times on each side. (And you can find more great exercises and techinques to improve your form in Your Best Stride, out now.)