It’s easy to think you run only with your legs and that your upper body is just along for the ride, but your arms are key to proper running form. “Many problems that are attributed to leg and hip issues are actually upper-body mechanical problems,” says functional movement specialist and running coach Brad Cox, co-founder of Wakefield Wellness Center in Wakefield, Massachusetts and Acumobility, an education and mobility products company.
Hours of sitting over computers and phones have left us hunched forward, creating overly tight chest muscles and weak, restricted back muscles. “You can only fight to consciously pull yourself into good posture for so long,” says Cox. “Eventually, [chronic poor posture] is going to win.”
And that’s a problem. To run effectively, you need proper running form, which means upright posture with an open chest and elbows that drive behind the body. An overly tight back, rotated shoulders, and a compromised arm swing can throw off balance, mechanics, and muscle recruitment, says Cox.
The first step is simply to cue a better stance—some runners can improve their posture, arm swing, and stride just by focusing on them. Drop your shoulders down and back, releasing your arms to swing backward. By driving your arms back at the elbow, you’ll shift your balance farther forward over your hips, cueing your legs to drive backwards, which creates a more efficient stride.
Next, Cox suggests doing the following test to assess your shoulder mobility.
Shoulder Mobility Test for Better Running Form
This test will tell you whether you currently have the mobility to get your shoulders and arms back into a position to swing freely and effectively.
1. Start by lying on your right side with your shoulders and hips stacked on top of each other.
2. Place your right hand over your left knee to keep your left knee stacked on top of your right. Do not let it rotate up or slide back.
3. Lift your left arm straight up and rotate it out with your palm up as you attempt to drop your left shoulder to the ground without rotating your hips. Do the same lying on your left side, reaching with your right arm.
If you can’t reach the floor with your top arm, you need to work on your upper-body mobility. To do so, you can simply repeat this test, each time working to stretch your muscles and increase your range of motion. Inhale a deep breath into your belly as you rotate your shoulder over, then release as you lower your shoulder toward the floor, says Cox, and briefly hold. Repeat 5 times on each side.
If you hit a wall of tension and can’t get your shoulders down, stretching by itself likely won’t restore all the range of motion you need. That’s when a more active intervention to address trigger points and mobilize the muscles is appropriate. Cox finds most people get quick results by targeting two areas: the chest and upper back.
The first mobilization exercise works the pecs, the muscles along the top of your chest.
1. Place a firm ball, like a lacrosse ball, against a doorframe at chest height.
2. Starting with the left side of your body, lean against the ball, moving it around your pectoral muscles until you find a trigger point that is tight and tender. Hold there, using your right hand to pull yourself toward the door frame.
3. Move your left arm to open your shoulder while releasing the trigger point. Then do five reps each of the movements below to open your shoulder while releasing the trigger point.
- Reaching through the door frame, lift your left arm up to shoulder height, then slowly lower back to your side.
- Lift your left arm to the side, stopping when it’s at shoulder height. With your palm facing forward, pull your hand backwards to open your shoulder and stretch your chest. Slowly lower back to your side.
- Lift your left arm to the side, stopping when it’s 20 degrees higher than your shoulder.
- Holding the ball against your chest, move to the side and re-pin the ball so that it’s now pressed against the wall and the side of the doorframe. Lift your arm on that side and place your hand flat against the wall. Slide your hand straight up and down the wall as far as you can while keeping the ball pinned between the wall and your chest.
4. Repeat the moves above with each trigger point on your left side.
5. Repeat on the right side of your chest.
The second mobilization exercise targets all the muscles in the upper back. “Everybody needs to be doing the upper-back release every day,” says Cox. “It’s great to do right before you run; it wakes up sleepy glutes, helps to drop those shoulder blades, and mobilizes that tight upper back to improve breathing and rotation.”
1. Place two balls (lacrosse balls, tennis balls, massage balls) on the floor next to each other. Lie on your back, so that the balls are at shoulder-blade height and on either side of your spine.
2. Tightening your glutes, bridge up so that you create a straight line from your knees to your shoulders, which should be resting on top of the balls. Your arms should be resting against the floor, palms facing down.
3. Contracting your abs, do a slight crunch and hold that position. Raise your arms until they are pointing straight up, and then lower them over your head until your thumbs touch the ground.
4. Rotate your arms outward along the floor like a snow angel until they are back by your side. Repeat 5 to 10 times.
5. Move the balls up or down the spine to find tender spots and repeat the arm roll five to 10 times at each spot.
Take note: The first few times you do these exercises may be painful. Don’t fret; Cox says you won’t hurt yourself and that it gets better. The sensation will vary every day, depending on your tightness. Finding a tender spot—and releasing it (you should feel the tenderness subside and the muscle relax, allowing a greater range of motion)—is how you know the self-massage is working.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.