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Free Speed: The Benefits of Passive Energy Production For Runners

Race faster at the same effort level by improving the "springiness" in your legs.

Race faster at the same effort level by improving the “springiness” in your legs. 

“I’m not naturally good at the dynamic stuff.”

This isn’t an uncommon statement from distance runners, but I’m sitting across from Kim Conley, whose devastating finishing kick put her on the 2012 Olympic Team at 5,000m, helped her sprint away from Jordan Hasay to win the 2014 U.S. 10,000m crown and, most recently, catapulted her to a national title at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in January.

According to Conley, she didn’t always have that power, speed and bounce in her stride. She and her coach, Drew Wartenburg, have worked hard to develop it. They—and many coaches and athletes—are learning that you shouldn’t just train to improve VO2max, lactate threshold and running economy, but you should also train to improve your springiness, or the feeling of lightness and power in your stride. And, the reason is not just so you can outkick your rival to the finish line but also because possessing more dynamic ability may protect you from injury.

RELATED: The Benefits of Plyometrics For Runners

Active vs. Passive Energy Production

We typically think about training from what Steve Magness, author of Science of Running and head cross country coach at the University of Houston calls “active energy production.” We work to improve the ability of our muscles to efficiently break down fuel stores so we can generate more energy. But, there is another system at play that doesn’t get near enough attention. Magness calls it “passive energy production” and believes this neglected part of propulsion is an easy way for everyday runners to boost efficiency and reduce injuries. Here’s how the system works:

A key early adaptation to running is that your soft tissues, primarily the tendons, stiffen. While that may seem like a bad thing, it’s actually a very, very beneficial change. When we land with 2.5-3 times our body weight, the tendons stretch much like a rubber band being pulled and store energy. Then, as we move from foot strike and mid-stance to the propulsion phase of the stride, the tendons spring back and help generate force.

Tighter tendons act like tighter rubber bands, releasing more energy return when stretched, thus adding to the active energy our muscles produce. Think of this as “free speed.” Coaches like Wartenburg and Magness believe that incorporating training to improve springiness just makes sense. If you can get a bit more energy from this passive mechanism to add to what your muscles are already producing, you’ll race faster at the same effort level. These coaches are in good company as dynamic training is a long proven concept.

Coming Full Circle

Dynamic—or plyometric—training has been part of run training for over a century (and probably more). If you look back to the first half of the 20th century, you see that the best runners of the day (the Flying Finns for example) did a lot of calisthenics. This was a time of preparation for war in most European countries, so many runners underwent military training which included hopping, skipping and jumping in addition to shooting, marching and other military exercises.

These runners also ran on trails—not the nice groomed ones we enjoy today, but more rigorous ones. Plus their shoes were more like slippers (though the great Emil Zatopek reportedly trained in army boots from time to time) so they put more pressure on their musculoskeletal system to handle the load. The combination of the calisthenics and their training environments provided a hefty does of “springiness” training.

Then, in the second half of the century, great coaches like Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerutty were even more organized with dynamic training and included similar techniques to improve the springiness of their runners. Lydiard was adamant that his runners must have the bounce of ballet dancers and his preparatory hill phase was used to develop this skill. Before athletes could move to their race-specific workouts, they were required to build up their springiness using a variety of uphill runs, hops and bounds.

RELATED: 7 Ways To Improve Speed Without Increasing Mileage

Cerutty used running workouts like bounding up sand dunes for this same purpose. Around the same time, eastern European coaches began doing more and more plyometric training with their athletes to develop this aspect of fitness. Unlike Lydiard and Cerutty, these were often non-running, gym-type workouts but the end goal was the same—improved springiness. Whether running or non-running training, dynamic work was just part of the training process, an essential part according to these famous coaches.

Later, athletes from “old school” programs continued using hill training, calisthenics, sprint drills and any number of exercises to build this type of ability.

Then, something happened. I don’t know if it was the advance of exercise science, where we focused more on the active energy production, or the development of more supportive running shoes (the scapegoat for the Born to Run folks), or if it was the first running boom where everyone wanted to run the marathon and gradually faster, more dynamic training was pushed to the back burner. But, this type of passive energy training was left to the sprinters and some old-school coaches and athletes.

The Dynamic Revival

Today, however, there is a resurrection of dynamic training with distance runners. Nearly all professional distance runners include some type of dynamic training in their regimen. Videos regularly show them doing a variety of hops, skips, bounds and other dynamic movements—some as part of their running and some in the gym as they work on core strength and injury prevention. There are some very basic movements and others that are more complex.

Conley’s dynamic development is a great example. In addition to her form drills and core training, Wartenburg had her start jumping rope to develop her dynamic ability. That’s right: the simple act of jumping rope can provide a great stimulus for springiness in distance runners. According to Conley, she started with jumping for just 30 seconds twice per week then added 5 seconds each week till she got to one minute. She has since gradually built up to several minutes of rope jumping and credits this in part to her continued improvement in speed.

RELATED: Better Jumping For Better Running

Conley is lucky because Wartenburg is a smart coach. He understands that adding dynamic training for distance runners has to be done carefully and that’s what he’s done with his athlete. As with any new training stimulus, there is risk involved. Wartenburg reduces this risk by starting with very, very basic movements that even us mortals can do.

First, he’ll see if you can just jump up and down (like jumping rope but without the rope). If you can do that, he’ll advance you to actually jumping rope. Once, like Conley, you can jump rope continuously for 1-3 minutes, then he’ll continue to challenge your neural system with various types of jump roping—double leg, single leg, running in place, high knees—any change that causes the neural system in addition to the soft tissues to continue to develop.

Magness has a similar, smart approach. He starts with the basics of the running requirements, namely that you must be able to balance while standing on one leg. Mastering this single leg stance is an absolute requirement for runners and, once proficient, Magness begins to incorporate basic plyometric movements like dropping off a curb or step, landing on one leg then springing forward as if you were taking off in a normal stride.

Just these basic movements—single leg stance, hopping up and down, and dropping down and immediately springing forward, are things everyday runners need to master to see big improvements in springiness. You read that right. A few simple movements week in and week out can make a big difference.

Sample ‘Springiness’ Schedule

Below is a three-step process to putting more spring in your step over the next three months. Use common sense. Give your body time to adapt—and it will take time—especially if you aren’t good at dynamic work and/or haven’t done this type of work in the past.

Conley says she was stiffer than normal the day after she jumped rope so she and Wartenburg learned they must take it very slow and gradual. The same goes for us. Because you may be stiff when you first begin the program, be smart and don’t add this training in the night before a key workout. Over time, you’ll learn how your body reacts and adapts and be able to optimally sync your dynamic training with your run training.

RELATED: 6 Plyometric Exercises For Runners

Wartenburg suggests springiness training is best done as a pre-run or pre-strength training activity. You’ll find that the muscles are warmed up and the nervous system is more receptive to the challenge. And, if you have had issues with feet or lower leg injuries in the past, start with 50 percent of the program described below and give yourself a few months to build to the full program.

Step #1: Single Leg Stance

Start by standing on one leg in a similar position to mid-stance in your stride cycle. It’s best to stand in front of a mirror so you look up instead of down at your feet while you balance. How stable are you? Try it with the other leg. Same or different?

Balance on one foot for up to one minute then switch sides, even gently rocking up on your toes and back to your heels to match the running motion. Do this two to three times per week till you feel stable on each foot. Some runners will improve stability in just a few weeks. Others may take longer. Be patient and makes sure you get this essential position nailed down before moving on to Step #2.

Step #2: Hop

Running is essentially hopping from one foot to the other as you move across the ground. In Step #2, you will simply work on the basics of this movement: the hop. As with the single leg balance, get in a proper running posture and simply hop up and down using two feet. Imagine you are jumping a rope and just take small hops.

Start with 20-30 hops twice per week. Add 5 more hops each week until you get to 50-75 total hops. Then, start the process over again, but hopping on one foot instead of two. Once you are stable in the single-leg stance and can comfortably hop on each foot 50-75 times, move on to Step #3.

Step #3: Drop and Spring

Now that you’ve mastered single-leg balance and hopping, it’s time to integrate both into a more complex, running-specific movement. Find a curb or bottom step and drop off the step, landing on one foot and spring forward landing on your other foot. Repeat this movement 10-15 times on each foot. Visualize what happens in your running stride where you foot lands then pushes off. That is what you are practicing.