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Basics of Run Technique for Swimmers

By Barb Lindquist

In the swimming world, proper technique is critical. Even though most kids start running when they are 2 years old, whether it is away from Mom at bath time or while playing chase, most adults have never been taught proper running technique.  Many college swim programs use running for cross training, yet there is no instruction on technique. The purpose of this article is to equip you, the swimmer, with the practical knowledge of three basic running technique principles — arm carriage, cadence and lean.


Just like in swimming where an errant kick can wreak havoc on the rest of the stroke and an efficient kick can add to propulsion and allow the body to stay aligned, the same can be said with how we approach the arms in running. A proper arm carriage and drive can align and allow power to the legs, while improper arm motion can cause the lower body to counter-balance inefficiently. The arms should be held at slightly less than a 90 degree angle and stay at that angle the majority of the time when running, opening only slightly at the back when sprinting. The arms are a short pendulum as they swing, as compared to a longer pendulum when the arms are down by the waistband of the shorts or lower. The arms should swing in an arc as if they were pulling a string from the ear to under the armpit. The hands are never far from the body in this motion. Bobby McGee, USA Triathlon running specialist and five-time Olympic coach, stresses that you don’t want your hands to break your “glass tutu,” meaning the waistband of your shorts. Since we are stronger anytime we are closer to our core, a shorter pendulum allows the athlete to become a compact and powerful runner.

There is also a connection between the arms and the legs called the kinetic chain. If you drive the elbow back, you can actually get a pop in the knee drive on that same side and a more essential drive down on the opposite side. The shorter pendulum allows for a higher foot cadence. And if you release the shoulder just a bit when the elbow is driving back, you can feel more leg extension out the back on the opposite side. This reduces the vertical component, which is essential to efficient running.  

Common mistakes:

  • The sawer: the arms drive in front and away from the body
  • The little drummer boy: the forearms stay by the side and go up and down instead of a more constant elbow angle
  • The swinger: the arms move side to side instead of forward and back

Here are pictures of great arm position and elbow drive:

run technique for swimmers 

Exercises: Stand in front of a mirror or building window to see your reflection. Move the arms back and forth, first methodically, then closing the eyes to feel the flow. Next, do this while balancing on one leg without letting the back leg sway, and increase the tempo of the arms. Females can tuck their thumbs into their sports bra straps to over-emphasize the elbow drive. Males can grab the shoulder of their T-shirt, twist palms to face inward and hold on to the shirt while running and swinging their elbows. Holding a small round pebble in the crook of each elbow and not dropping it also works well. Relax your shoulders though when you do this.  Lastly, you can tie a sweatshirt around the waist, then not have the arms go below it.


Just as swimming uses stroke rate, runners focus on foot cadence. A runner counts the foot strike of one foot for a minute. A cadence of 90 and higher is ideal. Cadence, or stride rate as it is referred to by bio-mechanists, goes up with speed increase, so a long-striding, light individual would perhaps do his or her easy runs at 88, race 10k at 94, run a mile at 96 and sprint hills or strides at 115. Most beginner runners are in the mid-70s to low 80s. The bigger male swimmer tends to be in the 70s, running with power instead of elastic pop.

A higher cadence has many benefits. First, it almost eliminates over-striding (planting the foot in front of the athlete’s body center of mass). When a runner over-strides, it is like putting on the brakes with each foot strike. An ideal assessment is a vertical shin when hitting the ground. The force that the ankle, knee and hip have to take when braking is uncomfortable and can lead to injury over time. Second, a higher cadence means that the foot is on the ground for less time. When the foot is on the ground for longer, the runner’s body actually sinks into that foot and then has to press out of that sunken state. It is like doing a mini lunge each step, which puts stress on the knee and is extremely fatiguing. This crumpling also takes the runner off the line of travel and support musculature has to over work to regain this straight line. At lower speeds, higher cadence runners will not have a large stride length. This is OK! As the runner’s speed increases, the stride length will increase, gained from leg extension out the back — not from reaching in front with the foot and leg. Another way to increase cadence is to think about getting the foot to the ground rapidly, preventing the pelvis from dropping downward with gravity. The elastic return from foot energy into the ground will help the foot bounce off the ground and will add to knee drive. With the emphasis on foot placement for higher cadence, there should be a rolling heel to toe movement when heel striking as opposed to a slap of forefoot in a two-part motion. A quiet runner has an efficient foot placement, as seen in this video on foot strike:

Exercises: Count your cadence every 5 minutes of a run. Press start on your watch as your right foot strikes the ground and start counting with “zero, one, two…” A minute’s worth of steps equals cadence. If lower than 90, the following cues can help: make sure the arms are a short pendulum, think about spending less time on the ground and running on hot coals, and think about planting/driving the foot under the body instead of reaching the foot out in front.


Proper body position in swimming addresses the principle of drag, which we know is a drag. Proper body position in running takes advantage of the principle of gravity and maintenance of momentum, where gravity is anything but a drag. Gravity is a friend. Running is a controlled fall where the legs keep the body from falling while keeping the body falling. This is called dynamic balance. Lean comes from the ankles, not from the waist. As the foot leaves the ground, a gently curved line can be drawn from the ear through shoulder, hip, knee to the ankle. This means an athlete is not looking at the horizon, but instead is looking about approximately 30-35 feet in front of him. Common mistakes are sitting in the bucket, where the hips are low and back; leaning at the waist, where the butt is back; and leading with the chest, where the shoulders and head are back. Dynamic balance and momentum cannot be maintained if the body is being held back and up as seen in this video by Bobby McGee, demonstrating lean and power application.

Exercises: With arms in the 90-degree bend ready position, lean into a partner who will catch you with his or her hands on the front of your shoulders. Your partner stands only 2-4 inches away from you.  In the lean, your heels stay on the ground and your body is in a straight plank. It will be easy to see if the plank is broken and your butt goes out. This can also be done into a wall. Next, with a partner you can put surgical tubing around your waist and lean into the tubing and then be pulled back. Lastly, you can lean into the tubing, start running in place then move forward into a run. The partner creates resistance to run against and eventually lets the tubing go so that you can continue running with that lean.


This video of world class runner Tirunesh Dibaba running a 30:30 10k displays all of the above technique principles.


In the swimming world, we tout swimming as a life-long sport. But when you are done competing, and life starts to crowd in with commitments of work and family, there is no better time-efficient workout than going out for a 30-minute run.  At USA Triathlon we hope that by making running more enjoyable and efficient, you and your team will be encouraged to participate in the Second Annual USA Triathlon/CSCAA Aquathlon Challenge in October, a virtual competition of a 500-yard free and mile on the track.