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Study takes a swing at arms' role in running form

By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS The New York Times

This article was published August 4, 2014 at 2:32 a.m.

nwa-mediamichael-woods-05302014-w-nwamichaelw-university-of-arkansas-runner-grace-heymsfield-leads-the-pack-as-she-makes-the-first-water-jump-in-the-second-heat-of-the-womens-3000-meter-steeplechase-preliminaries-friday-evening-at-the-2014-ncaa-division-1-track-and-field-west-preliminaries-at-john-mcdonnell-field-in-fayetteville

NWA Media/Michael Woods --05/30/2014-- w @NWAMICHAELW... University of Arkansas runner Grace Heymsfield leads the pack as she makes the first water jump in the second heat of the women's 3000 meter steeplechase preliminaries Friday evening at the 2014 NCAA Division 1 Track and Field West Preliminaries at John McDonnell field in Fayetteville.

How we hold our arms affects how we run but not in the way some coaches think, according to a new study of upper-body biomechanics. The ideal arm swing could be the one you're using, the study concludes.

Distance running, of course, requires a lot of energy. Almost every aspect of the activity adds to that energy expenditure, like holding your body upright and metronomically swinging first one leg and then the other forward and toward the ground.

But scientists and some coaches have speculated that pumping your arms, although requiring energy, reduces the overall metabolic cost of running by helping to balance the moving body, increase forward propulsion and, perhaps, provide a bit more bounce to lift us off the ground with each stride.

In other words, they've suggested that swinging the arms makes it easier to run.

That idea, however logical it may sound, had not been proved. So for the new study, published July 15 in The Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers at the University of Colorado invited 13 experienced adult runners to pull on their favorite running shoes and visit the university's locomotion lab.

During their first session, the runners were fitted with masks to track how much oxygen they took in and how much carbon dioxide they puffed out. Those measures establish energy use.

The runners stood quietly for seven minutes as the scientists determined their baseline numbers. Then they ran on treadmills at a comfortable pace while holding their arms normally or in one of three increasingly unorthodox positions.

In one instance, they held their arms loosely behind the back; in another, their arms were crossed at the chest, like a mummy's; and in the last, they held their hands, fingers entwined, at the back of their skulls. In each case, the volunteers ran for seven minutes, with a rest period between each run. Their respiration was monitored throughout.

On a separate lab visit, the runners wore reflective markers on their shoulders, trunk and legs and repeated the four variations of arm positioning, as the researchers recorded them with three-dimensional motion-capture cameras.

The results showed, as the scientists had expected, that the volunteers used the least energy and were most efficient when they ran normally, their arms swinging at their sides. With each change in arm position, their efficiency dropped. Holding their arms behind their backs required 3 percent more energy than running normally; crossing them used 9 percent more; and parking them on their heads demanded 13 percent more.

The motion-capture recordings established why the oddball arm positions were so inefficient. When the runners did not swing their arms, the biomechanical measurements showed, they could not readily counterbalance the pendulum action of their legs. Their upper bodies began to oscillate. Like Weebles toys, they wobbled, increasing their movements and energy expenditure. The runners' upward momentum didn't change when they didn't use their arms, undercutting the idea that arm swinging provides bounce.

Essentially, the scientists found that arms were a nice accessory for runners.

"Normal arm swing is energetically a much cheaper way to counteract the motion of the legs than using the muscles in the torso," said Christopher J. Arellano, a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at Brown University and lead author of the study.

That conclusion, although foreseeable, needed to be tested, said Rodger Kram, a professor of integrative physiology at Colorado and the study's senior author. "Obviously, it's not likely that anyone would run with their hands on their head," he said, "but we wanted to see what would happen if they did." The answer is that every stride became a bit more grueling.

At the same time, the study's results offer surprising encouragement to those whose arm swings might be idiosyncratic.

"There was tremendous variation in the normal arm swings" of the volunteers, Arellano said. All bent their elbows, but apart from that, some were stiff and robotic, others noodly.

Most crossed their arms slightly in front of their chests with each swing. Efficiency was largely unaffected by these differences, the researchers concluded.

"This is good news," Kram said. "There's been a vogue for telling runners that they have to hold their arms this way or that way and not cross them in front of the chest."

The study's findings emphasize that there is no single, ideal way to swing the arms, he said, as long as you swing them.

"Most people," he said, "will settle into the arm swing that is the most efficient for them."

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