Running and the upper body

It’s that time of year. Those good intentions that spring to life with the turn of the year have either fallen by the wayside or are getting a reboot as February kicks in.  If you’ve got the running bug (or are determined to find it), your legs will probably already be telling you about your exertions. We will deal with managing legs between sessions in a future blog.

What many new runners don’t recognise is the role of the upper body in running. You will often see people out running with their phone or a bottle clasped in their hand. Over time they come to realise that this is less than ideal.

Running with a relaxed upper body is the goal here. Tense the upper body and you will automatically restrict your breathing potential, antagonise your neck for no good reason and wonder why your shoulders have started to ache in a rather unusual manner. There are several contributing factors, some of which are easier to deal with than others.


Back to our runner out with the phone/iPod/bottle gripped in one hand. The hands determine the tension of your upper body. Holding onto something in your hand requires sustained muscle contraction which is managed by and transmitted to the muscles and nerves of the upper arm, shoulder and neck; nothing in the body works on its own. Holding that contraction on one side at a time is going to unbalance the load through the shoulder girdle. Over time this will accumulate and manifest anywhere between the hand and the neck.


There is another consequence of having one hand holding onto something whilst running. It alters how that arm contributes to your running action. Holding onto something reduces your arm swing on that side; run behind someone and see the difference between the movement on either side.

Now, you are probably thinking that you run with your legs. Actually you run with your entire body and your arms are an important contributor to your forward movement – if you allow them. Keeping your hands open with your fingers pointing forwards will ensure that your arms are contributing to forward motion. If you do prefer to run with your hands gently closed into a loose fist, that is no bad thing. Make sure it is a loose fist (not one you could use to throw a punch) and instead of thinking about your fingers pointing forward, think of your thumbs pointing in the right direction. To get the feeling, imagine you have an egg in each hand that you must deliver to the finish point. You cannot close your hand around that egg too tightly or disaster will strike.

Letting your hands cross in front of your body is also incredibly common but it wastes a considerable amount of energy as instead of helping you move in your desired direction, they send your energy from side to side which is not beneficial. If you keep the hand position in mind, with the fingers pointing forwards etc this easily

  • Relax your shoulders
  • Open your hands
  • Fingers forward
  • Elbows back

What’s the solution?

How to solve the holding kit in your hand issue? Put your iPod in an arm pocket (something like these) or the pocket in the back of your leggings. If you really need to carry water with you, put it in a waist belt (many styles to choose from). (If you at out for under an hour, unless it is a very hot day, you can probably leave the water bottle at your finish point to pick up on your return.)


The head is a hefty weight on the top of the body. Place it in poor alignment will result in your muscles and bones having to manage a much increased load unnecessarily. Look ahead at your natural angle; look at where your feet will be going rather than watching each step hit the ground. This should keep your head over your neck and shoulders rather than letting it drop forward. Think about holding onto an orange under your chin. You don’t want to hold it so tight the juice squeezes out but enough to keep the head in a relatively relaxed position.

Remember to stretch out your upper body even though it’s your legs that will be shouting loudest at you! They’re in the focus next time out.

[In the spirit of full disclosure, links out to Amazon will generate a small payment to me if you make a purchase…]

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