Categorized | Form

Healthy Running Comes from the Arms and Head Connection

Posted on 24 December 2011

 A month ago, running form guru Jae Gruenke was kind enough to email me with some of her learning and observations from years of experience teaching and developing a program now called The Balanced Runner. She has taught hundreds of runners at her clinics in New York City.  She has also helped three-time Olympian Jen Rhines.

From the initial exchanges it was clear that she really understands the finer points of movement and could explain the anatomic principles in the best runners. Better yet, she shared some really simple cues that all of us can gain from.  I asked her to write this guest post for the Natural Running Center. After reading her article, I have adjusted my arms and head a bit. I soon discovered that playing around with what she describes, my movement was indeed more fluid. Try it! — Dr. Mark

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A fast train of East African runners demonstrating the ideal arm movement of hands close to sternum, elbows bent more than 90 degrees, with head erect and face looking forward.

by Jae Gruenke, GCFP

You’re probably familiar with the idea that healthy running form involves leaning from the ankles, whether barefoot or shod, but perhaps you’ve struggled with mastering it. Perhaps you think you are doing it correctly, but then when you see your race photos or your reflection in storefronts as you run pass, you see you’re upright!   We see this problem all the time in our Feldenkrais practice (see info at end of post) and have found there are a couple of reasons it happens that aren’t widely known.

So let’s begin.

The Arms Connection

Perhaps a coach once told you to keep your arms low and/or your elbows bent at a ninety degree angle.  Keeping your arms low, your hands far from your chest, or your elbows insufficiently bent will force your upper body backwards and up as a counterbalance, and no matter how hard you try you will keep losing your lean. Arms too low wreck the lean.  Try it. Picture sprinters, with their hands coming up high and very far from their chests, and their torsos generally quite upright. Now picture most Kenyans, with their hands and lower arms very close to their chests all the time, leaning beautifully. Then try it for yourself in exaggerated form — try running with your hands always at least a foot away from your chest (either by keeping them down or swinging them far out in front).  Are you able to lean while doing this?  Probably not… and you probably also feel pretty stiff.  Now try keeping your elbows always bent at a sharper angle than ninety degrees. Try about 50-80 degrees with thumb closer to your armpit.  (Watch the arm movement and posture in the video at top of this page.)

With your hands close to your chest, try bringing your knuckles to the midpoint of your breastbone on the forward swing. Do you feel more relaxed, and is it easier to lean?  Most of you will find that it is, though it’s tricky to make substantial changes in your coordination just from reading about it and that sometimes makes these experiments feel awkward.   Have someone film you so you can see what you are doing.

Face Forward

 Maybe another coach told you to tuck in your chin.  Tucking in your chin puts your head in line with your spine, which means you look at the ground and may feel a bit heavy and stiff when you run.  For a really great forward lean your eyes and face should be oriented to the horizon in a loose and free way that makes it easy to look at the ground if necessary or over your shoulder or wherever else you want (utterly essential for ball sports involving running).  Look at the horizon, far out ahead.

This is probably the biggest difference between good “posture” for running vs. standing and walking.  When you stand and walk you need to be basically upright, and having your head in line with your spine brings your eyes and inner ears upright for good perception and balance.  When you run and therefore lean, you still need your eyes and inner ears upright relative to gravity so they work properly for balance and orientation, which means you have to let the distance between your chin and your throat increase in a move we have nicknamed “face forward.”  What actually happens is that your skull slides forward on your atlas vertebra (this is the top vertebrae that along with the axis forms the connection to the skull)  the same way it does when you kiss someone or when you hunch up at your laptop.  But in running you allow this forward movement of your head to cause your whole body to fall forward, rather than just caving in your chest and hunching your shoulders, and it leads you into a beautiful, free, and easy lean.

To initiate it from standing just move your face — your whole face, not just your chin or just your forehead — forward in space and let your body follow, and in a split second you’ll find yourself running.  If your upper neck feels stiff and you find yourself looking down a lot during a run, bring your eyes up to the horizon and kiss the air.  Seriously, give a loud pursed-lips smooch and you’ll feel yourself pulled forward by the lips like a fish on a line.  If you want to lean more and run faster, move your face more dynamically forward, and if you want to slow down, let it move backwards a little — but don’t let it hang or tuck!  And feel free to look around as much as you need or want.

It’s an Everywhere Thing

Some of the key interrelated hallmarks of really excellent running form are a relaxed lean, a free head, really clear eyesight, and a very free diaphragm for easy breathing.  You’ll know you’ve got a good “face forward” and are leaning well if you feel your eyesight suddenly clear or your breathing suddenly gets easier.  You’ll find that keeping you hands close to your chest and your elbows quite bent helps a great deal with that too.  To quote Larry Goldfarb, a Feldenkrais teacher of mine, good running form isn’t just a collection of different correct elements… it’s an “everywhere thing.”

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The Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education(R) is a technique for learning how to move and function better using many of the same principles children use when they’re originally learning: exploration and experimentation, variation, listening to your body, and seeking out the most comfortable, easy, and enjoyable ways of doing things.  For runners, this method brings about improvements in coordination, economy, health, performance, and enjoyment.  

 The method was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, DSc, a distinguished scientist and engineer whose career included work at the Curie Institute in Paris in the 1930′s. He was also a respected Judo instructor, and was a founder of the Ju Jitsu Club in Paris.  It was, however, in the relationship between bodily movement and our ways of thinking, feeling and learning that Feldenkrais achieved his greatest success. An injury to his knee in his youth threatened him with severe disability in middle age. Despite being given little hope of ever walking normally, Feldenkrais refused surgery and instead applied his extensive knowledge of anatomy, physiology, psychology and engineering, as well as his mastery of martial arts, to healing his own knee.  His insights contributed to the development of the new field of somatic education, and continue to influence disciplines such as physical medicine, gerontology, the arts, education and psychology.

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5 Responses to “Healthy Running Comes from the Arms and Head Connection”

  1. Matt says:

    Great suggestion! Face forward…I noticed its effect immediately. In particular, I noticed it changed how my feet were landing. A great improvement!

    • MarkC says:

      Yes! do not “say” or “think” lean. you tend to look down and bend from waist. also when looking down your vestibular system tell you to go back upright.

      Dr. Mark

  2. Fascinating. Lots has been written about the connection between arm movement and leg movement. First time I’ve heard about arms and head. Tomorrow, I will start experimenting with it. Thank you.
    Deb Voiles

  3. Chuck W says:

    Very interesting. I know this is an older article, so I may not get a response. When I try to increase the flexion of my elbows as recommended (50-80 degrees), I always end up hunching my shoulders. Is there a cue to achieve proper arm position without hunching the shoulders? Thanks!


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