As runners, the various major muscle groups of our lower body have important roles to play. Not just in terms of lengthening and contracting to absorb forces and generate movement at joints. Also important is the ability to utilize their elastic properties, along with their tendons, to store and release energy passively. In runners, an element of the propulsion in running gait should come from these muscles acting like tightly coiled springs.
As a runner’s foot loads, and passes under their body, from initial contact to heel-off, these muscles and tendons (the Achilles tendon it self lengthens more than you’d think!) lengthen under the load of gravity, as we have to support body weight. As this occurs, elastic energy is stored, ready to be released.
At terminal stance, as the heel leaves the ground, this stored energy in the calf complex is released propelling you off onto the next stride.
What I’ve just described is essentially a very simplified explanation of the “Stretch-Shortening Cycle” (SSC).
A key factor in the SSC is that for it to work efficiently, it has to happen quickly, otherwise stored energy will lost (as heat for example). The quick repetitive motion of running is a good example of this quick loading and unloading, much like jumping rope.
With the SSC in mind, it stands to reason that improving the ability of your soft tissues to store and subsequently use elastic energy for propulsion, would improve running efficiency. To an extent, the better we get at this, the more “free speed” we ca generate!
What is Plyometric Training?
Plyometric exercises are characterized by the the quick, often explosive nature of the landing and rebounding off the ground, thus training the SSC to efficiently use elastic energy in a very short time frame. Such jumping, hopping and bounding exercises are usually high-impact, thus calling for a careful approach to this type of training.
The video below contains a number of great Plyometric exercises for runners to incorporate into their training.
Include Plyometrics in Your Training
While there is research to support the reported benefits of plyometric training for distance runners, for example Turner et al., (2003), and Saunders et al., (2006), nobody has proven exactly which plyometric exercises and training protocols are best for distance runners.
Plyometric training is thought to be best integrated progressively during the build-up to your competitive season, rather than close to race day. Due to the high-impact nature of the exercises, you’ll need a few days recovery between a plyo sessions other high intensity sessions. However, since the benefits you experience from plyo training will likely fade with time, don’t leave too long between the end of a plyometric training program and the start of race season.
Plyometric exercises are tough on your body and shouldn’t be done year-round. Instead include them in the race specific portion of your training – often the last 4-6 weeks before competition.
Build General Strength First
Due to the explosive nature of these exercises and the loading produces, it’s vitally important to build a base layer of general strength before beginning a block of plyo training. Otherwise you increase the risk of injury!