The Benefits of Plyometric Exercises for Runners
The term ‘plyometric’ is commonly used to describe any explosive, jumping exercise (e.g. squat jumps, skaters, clapping press ups, etc.). Though a popular addition to boot camp style circuit training, plyometric exercises are not something many runners tend to either do or enjoy.
And yet, many articles on running performance sing its praises and say runners should be including plyometrics as part of their strength and conditioning.
So what’s it all about?
As we have said before here at RunnersConnect, running can essentially be seen as an extended series of hops from one leg to the other.
Research from Boise State University, Idaho showed in 2007 determined that the average number of steps required to run a mile ranges from 1,951 steps at 12-minute pace to 1,064 at six-minute pace.
However fast you run, that’s a lot of hopping, especially when we consider that every time the feet hit the ground, the body has to deal with approximately 2.5 times its body weight.
Fortunately, we are gifted with an incredible piece of machinery, and through ingenious biomechanics, our body is designed to not only absorb the impact each time we land but also convert the force into energy for forward propulsion.
The stretch-shortening concept
Imagine applying a force to a spring; as it bends it stores ‘elastic strain energy’ and on releasing it the spring recoils and releases the energy. Muscles and particularly tendons are thought to act in a similar way to springs when we run. They store elastic energy as the foot lands and the knee & ankle joints bend (flex), then release it as the knee, ankle and hip all straighten (extend) to help propel our body forwards and upwards.
This concept of a lengthening of the muscle-tendon unit followed by a shortening is referred to as the Stretch-Shortening Cycle (SSC) and is characterised by three phases:
- Landing Phase – eccentric contraction of muscle for absorption and storing of energy
- Amortization Phase – minimum turnaround time between landing and take off
- Take-off Phase – contraction of muscle for release of stored elastic energy and propulsion. Training the body to make the most of this stretch-shortening cycle is the basis of plyometric exercise.
History of plyometrics
Yuri Verkhoshansky was one of the USSR’s leading biomechanists and sports trainers in the 1970’s working extensively with the Soviet national sports teams for the Olympic Games and is credited with developing the stretch-shortening concept of muscle contractions.
In 1975, USA Olympic long-distance runner Fred Wilt was watching athletes from the Soviet Union perform jumps in their warm-ups prior to their event in track and field. To describe them, Wilt coined the phrase ‘plyometric’ and after consulting with performance coach & researcher Dr. Michael Yessis, Wilt discovered that the jumps were based on research being pursued by Verkhoshansky, called his ‘Shock Method’ of training.
Centred on the concept of the stretch-shortening cycle, Verkhoshansky’s had been developing exercises such as his signature ‘depth jump’ which aimed to optimise conversion of the forced, involuntary eccentric contraction of a “shock” landing, e.g. an athlete jumping off a box, into an immediate concentric contraction, e.g. the athlete immediately jumping upwards after landing.
According to his studies, this replicated the ground force actions that occur in running and jumping, duplicating the forces required in landing and takeoff.
Given the often exceptional performance of Soviet athletes in the 60’s and 70’s, Dr. Yessis went on to visit and work with Verkhoshansky in 1980’s and published translations of much Soviet science-based sports research. In doing so, ‘plyometrics’ was introduced to the rest of the world.
Today, the term plyometrics is often used to describe any explosive jump, regardless of the time difference between landing and takeoff.
Though there will still be strength benefits from performing say a deep squat followed by an explosive jump, in terms of specific training for shorter distance running like sprinting it may be useful to recall Verkhoshansky’s principles.
Test it yourself. Which gives you a more powerful, higher jump: a deep squat or a very quick knee bend?
Distance running does not of course share the same demand for explosive type muscular contractions as sprinting so it may be wiser to avoid potential injury and focus on simpler jumping exercises of 20 to 30 consecutive jumps.
Though explosive reactive jumps with minimum ground contact time can still be practiced, there need not be as much the focus on ‘shock’ landing and timing as is expected in depth jumps and other pure plyometric exercises.
Plyometrics for distance runners
The joy of plyometric exercises for distance runners is that you can potentially get good results without the need for huge time expenditure.
For runners who are unlikely to fit regular ancillary sessions of strength & conditioning into their week, one option may be to include a few plyometric exercises in the latter part of the dynamic warm-up. The consistency of performing a little every week will be safer than sporadically surprising your body with a sudden hour of effort once a month.
One study (Paavolainen et al., 1999) on well trained endurance athletes found that replacing one-third of their normal running with plyometrics improved their 5k race times. The 18 runners in the study underwent the same total training volume over a nine week period but 10 of them had 32% of the running replaced with plyometric training. Following the nine weeks, the 5K time of these 10 runners improved whereas no changes were observed in the other 8.
It is important to remember that plyometric exercises are tough on the body and require a base level of general strength. Competitive runners will often choose not to do them all year round but instead include them in the race specific portion of training, 4-6 weeks before competition.
However, as long as you are careful and introduce them gently, a 5-10 minute circuit routine once a week or a couple of exercises at the end of your warm up could help you reduce injury risk and improve performance.
Sample plyometric exercises
You will need to be warmed up first; number of reps will depend on personal fitness level – start with 10 and with time work your way up to 20.
With feet shoulder width apart, jump as high as possible off both feet; land in a slight squat and with minimal ground contact time repeat up to 20 times.
The same as the squat jump but as you jump bring the knees as high as possible. Remain upright and avoid bending forwards from the waist.
Lateral squat/tuck jumps
The same as the squat or tuck jump but traveling sideways.
From a slight lunge (with body weight equal distance between feet) jump as high as possible; in mid air, reverse the positions of the legs and land; with minimal ground contact time repeat up to 20 times.
Stand on your left foot with your left knee slightly bent and your right foot elevated; jump as high as you can and land on the right foot; with minimal ground contact time repeat up to 20 times.
A popular run-specific drill, bounding is essentially an exaggerated skipping motion focusing on a powerful leap into the air, holding the arms in a fixed position during the moment both feet are off the ground.
Plyometric training forms a great part of the Runners Connect “Strength Training For Runners” package with a huge library of exercises and routines to choose from, as well as in the “6 Week Online Running Form Course.”
Be sure to take a look and do come back to let us know how it goes!