As a runner, one of the most desirable goals for you is probably to increase your average running speed over an extended distance—ie. your per-mile or per-kilometer pace. Aside from the classic tool of endurance training to improve your run speed at duration, there’s been more research over the last twenty years that’s developed into using plyometric training, alongside traditional endurance training, in order to improve your speed more. For example, research has extensively shown this enables you to reduce the energy cost of running, in essence allowing you to run at a given pace for longer or have more energy in the tank to utilize for greater speed.
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A second, less well-known benefit is the potential link between plyometric training and the reduction of muscle and joint injuries. Distance running requires your muscles to create and cope with relatively large forces in very short, fast time frames. Plyometric training is linked to increasing your ability to generate large forces fast, making it plausible there could a benefit in using this training to build injury resistance.
The demands of this training, however, do require a very considered approach in to avoid creating injury problems as well. Our observations show triathletes can be quick to use plyometric exercises too advanced for them, or without building appropriate strength training first—leading to limited benefit or to injury.
What is a plyometric exercise and how does it work?
A plyometric exercise is simply one which requires a muscle to lengthen then shorten very quickly, using relatively long rest periods to allow you to perform these in an explosive manner. It is, in essence, an explosive exercise. As an example, imagine if I asked you to jump as high as you could. You would achieve this by quickly bending your hips and knees, then powerfully jumping. The fast nature of the movements allows you to use energy stored in your tendons to assist your muscles in generating more power, for greater performance.
Common examples of plyometric exercises: hopping, jumping, skipping, and bounding. These movements, when used in sufficient amounts and done technically well, improve your explosive power and allow your muscles and tendons to store and release more energy—and, in turn, have been shown in trained runners to reduce the energy used when running by about 6%.
Another way plyometric training can be beneficial is when it comes to running mechanics. One of the most desirable characteristics is to improve stride length—ie. the distance you cover between each foot contact. If you can cover more distance each stride without using more energy, you will increase your run performance. Research shows plyometric training increases stride length and, therefore, run performance to a greater extent than not using this training.
Is it suitable to use plyometric training as a runner?
As with any training tool, context is key. Plyometric training can involve unfamiliar and large forces that many endurance athletes are not used to or physically prepared for. A good base level is to have sound lower body strength—not just because this is critical to ensure you are prepared for a plyometric routine, but also because strength training is already shown to deliver highly desirable improvements in performance and injury resistance.
As a runner you should first ensure you are performing a structured strength training program, then in due course start to integrate plyometric exercises into your program and progress them. However, this should never be at the expense of your strength training fundamentals. The difference is strength training builds the maximal force your muscles can produce and, to a degree, the speed at which it can do this. Plyometric training is much more focused only on the later—and if strength training is neglected, it likely will affect your performance. Another way to see this is: There’s not much point in having a Formula 1 race car that can go from 0 to 70mph super quickly, if the top speed of the car is only 80 mph.
It’s also worth noting that as an endurance athlete your muscles, tendons, and joints are already exposed to a lot of load from running. That means you shouldn’t use plyometric training in excess, but rather in a quality-over-quantity manner to balance the risk and reward.
How do I progress plyometric training?
To reinforce the prior point, your start is strength training. From there, you should start to look at using movements which require rapid bending then extending at the hip and knee, but require low impact. For example, an explosive squat or lunge. These are not true plyometrics as there is no landing, which forces muscles to really lengthen and shorten quickly under high load. However, this is often a necessary starting point for most triathletes to build on.
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From there you can start to use stable jump drills in a logical progression, which could include a countermovement jump. To develop this into a true plyometric you can then do a repeated countermovement jump. And then finally start to include single leg movements, such as ankling, progressing to skip drills.
The key with all of these is a steady, logical progression. Mastering plyometric exercises which are basic, that you can do with perfect form, will yield greater results than doing exercises beyond your ability or strength. As an example, this year, a study compared how bilateral (two leg) versus unilateral (single leg) plyometric exercises improved endurance run performance. They found both yielded improvements with no difference between the two—evidence to show there being no need to take risks for the sake of simply doing more advanced exercises.
Plyometric training does improve run performance, but it’s a type of training that should not be prioritized over endurance or strength training. From there, including plyometric exercises within your strength training, in a progressive manner based on your ability, could be of real benefit to further enhance the transfer of strength benefits to your run performance. Those with a history of joint pain or tendonopathy should use plyometrics with particular care, but, as with all training, using sound technique and exercise selection can work around such issues in most cases.