One of the most important functions of muscles and tendons in running is to store energy. Like a pogo stick, your body can store energy from impact and then release it to propel your body forward. As such, a large portion of your propulsive energy actually comes from the energy stored in your legs from impact previously made with the ground. This is why you can leap higher and longer if you do a “countermovement” before jumping, like swiftly bending your knees, which allows you to reach much higher into the air than slowly bending your knees.
While this “stretch-shortening cycle” has been known about for some time, standardized methods of training this reflex are fairly new. Improvements in your muscles’ ability to elastically store energy have obvious implications for runners, as more stored energy means you can maintain a given pace using less overall energy. In short, your efficiency would improve.
Plyometrics are exercises that aim to develop strength and speed by conditioning the neuromuscular and elastic characteristics of the muscle. The main objective of plyometric training for runners is to produce greater power by training the muscles to contract more quickly and forcefully from an actively pre-stretched position.
Over the following pages, we’ll take a look at the research backing the benefits of plyometrics for runners and then explain how to effectively incorporate these exercises into your training program.
How do plyometrics benefit you?
Numerous studies have confirmed that adding plyometrics into your training routine can improve VO2 max, running efficiency and help you improve performance at shorter distances up to 10K. A study conducted on beginner runners showed that after completing a six-week plyometric routine, the runners demonstrated a 2.3-percent improvement in their running economy at speeds between 10:00 and 7:30 mile pace—meaning they used less oxygen at these speeds than they did before the plyometric training. The control group, meanwhile, demonstrated no significant changes in running economy.
Obviously, that’s a large range of paces and might not be pertinent to runners who are more experienced or trying to race faster. Another study, however, provides insight for faster and more experienced runners. In this study, researchers found that after plyometric training subjects demonstrated improvements of 2.7 percent in their jumping ability, 3K time, and running economy at 8, 7, and 6 minutes per mile. This result is encouraging, showing that for more experienced runners, the potential benefits of plyometric training is even greater.
It’s always helpful to conduct these types of training studies on elite athletes as well. Unlike recreational runners, elites are more likely to be training optimally compared to non-elite runners. As such, gains in fitness and physiological markers are less likely to be attributed to simply adding more exercises.
A 2006 study conducted on elite runners found that after nine weeks of plyometric training, runners showed a 4.1% improvement in running economy at 5:20 mile pace and a nonsignificant trend toward improvement at 6:00 and 7:00 mile pace. The authors interpreted this as an indication that plyometric training is more beneficial at higher speeds, since the impact forces are much higher. Additionally, since there was no change in maximal oxygen uptake ability (VO2 max), the results point to the muscles, not the heart or blood vessels, as the cause of the improvement in economy. While the blood delivered the same amount of oxygen to the muscles before and after the nine-week training program, the plyometrics-trained runners could go faster with it.
This series of studies makes a fairly convincing case for the merits of plyometric exercises in a training program, and the results indicate that the faster you’re trying to run, the more important muscle explosiveness and elasticity become. So, how can you add plyometrics into your training schedule?
Incorporating Plyometrics Into Your Routine
Because plyometrics are explosive and require a quick and forceful recruitment of muscle fibers, they are the last building-block of a successful strength training regimen and should only be implemented once a solid foundation has been built. I recommend at least six weeks of strength training (general strength work, core and leg work) if you’re athletic or have done lots of strength training in the past.
For beginners, you should take eight to ten weeks of general strength and core work before adding plyometrics into your routine. Furthermore, it’s essential that you practice good form when implementing plyometric exercises since performing them incorrectly can significantly increase injury risk. Ensuring that you have the proper strength, coordination, and rhythm will mitigate potential issues with form.
Following the “hard days hard, easy days easy principle,” your plyometric workouts should come after your hardest workout days. I prefer to do plyometrics only once a week and use other strength training days for core, hip and preventive work. I suggest implementing plyometrics exercises after speed workouts, since you’re engaging the same muscle fibers in similar bouts of explosive recruitment. If you want to add a second plyometric day, I would suggest having it follow your tempo or threshold session.
Just like a sound running schedule, there isn’t a “best” or “secret” plyometric routine that is better than any other. As long as the exercises are specific to running, your performance will benefit. Keep the exercises to eight to ten different movements to prevent yourself from doing too much.
Here is a sample from our strength training for runners program:
1. Water Pump (x 15 each leg)
Balance on one leg with your other leg behind you. You can place the trail leg on a bench or other support structure. Slowly bend down, as if in a one-legged squat position. Raise yourself back up.
2. Water Pump Hops (x 15 each leg)
Perform exactly as the regular water pump, but jump in an explosive fashion when driving the leg up. Take a four second break between each jump to allow the stabilizing muscles to be engage by trying to balance and steady the body.
3. Height Skips (x 15 each leg)
Skip across the ground, jumping as high as you can with each skip. Concentrate on the height of your skip, not the distance. Practice landing softly on the ball of your foot.
4. Ankle Jumps (x 15)
While keeping your legs straight, jump into the air using only your ankles for power. Don’t bend your knees or your hips.
5. Jumps For Distance (x 15)
From a standing position, jump as far out and forward as you can – like a standing long jump.
6. One-Leg Connect Four (x 3 cycles each leg)
Visualize a square with 4 separate quadrants. Balance on one leg and jump to each quadrant continuously until you’re back at the starting point. That’s one cycle.
7. Toe Taps (x 15 each leg)
Find a surface that is 2-3 feet high. Stand in front of the surface and perform a version of high knees, except tap the top of the surface with each foot.
8. Rocket Jumps (x 15 total)
From a standing position, squat down and jump into the air as high as you can. Jump and land with both feet.
9. Split Squats (x 10 each leg)
From a lunge position, jump into the air. While in the air, switch your legs so that whichever leg was in front of you, now becomes the trail leg. Land with your legs switched and drop into the lunge position again. Repeat.
Start with the easier exercises first so your legs have a chance to ease into the explosive movements. Don’t force the repetitions if you start to get too tired or your form falters. It’s better to perform 10 strong, correct repetitions than 15 sloppy ones.