I’m often asked about the benefits of plyometric drills for runners. While most of us will probably be familiar with the impressive plyometric exercises we see sprinters doing on YouTube, plyometrics for distance runners can be incredibly effective too. Let me explain…
Why Perform Plyometric Running Drills?
While most of us are familiar with the general concept that our muscles can contract concentrically (shorten) to produce force at a joint – and that various muscles do so in combination to produce specific movements. One of the most important, and less widely (by most runners) considered functions of muscles is their elastic capacity, with their corresponding tendons, to store and release energy. Like tightly coiled springs.
As the foot strikes the ground, loads and passes under your body, these lengthen under tension and store elastic energy, ready to release.
This stored energy is then released to propel you off onto the next stride.
A significant proportion of this loading under tension is in fact done by your Achilles Tendon, which lengthens more than you might expect.
The above is a very simplified explanation of the “Stretch-Shortening Cycle” (SSC) which has to happen very quickly, so that the stored energy doesn’t get lost (as heat for example).
Which was easier?
The very quick hops… Right?
That was a demonstration of how the SSC is only capable of acting efficiently when the loading and unloading is a very quick process. The quick, cyclical process of running is also a great example of this.
So now that we understand this, it should be fairly obvious that improving the ability of your soft tissues to store elastic energy, through plyometric drills for runners, would have desirable effects on running efficiency.
Increased amounts of stored energy every stride, essentially means ‘free’ propulsion… propulsion that comes at a reduced metabolic cost – less effort! Thus improved running efficiency.
Plyometrics for Distance Runners: The Science
Since 2000, there have been various studies published on the topic of plyometric running drills, and their effectiveness. All the published research I’ve seen though has been conducted with small sample sizes, and is far from flawless.
However, the current body of research on plyos for runners all adds insight, and serves as a great basis for future research, I hope.
Do Plyometric Running Drills Improve Running Economy At A Steady Pace?
A 2003 study by Turner et al., at the University of Texas-Tyler, split eighteen mixed sex recreational runners into ‘intervention’ and ‘control’ groups. Both groups continued their regular running training program. However, the intervention group supplemented their normal training with a ‘Plyometrics for Runners’ programme three times a week, over a period of six weeks.
By ‘High Performance’ standards, most of the runners were not exceptionally gifted. The average velocity at VO2 max for the group was in the region of 7:00 minute miles.
After the six-week training period, post-intervention testing showed the group who completed the plyometric training programme demonstrated on average a 2.3% improvement in their running economy at speeds between 10:00 and 7:30 minute mile pace. These runners used less oxygen at equivalent speeds than before the plyometric training. The control (non-plyometric training) group, however, demonstrated no significant changes in running economy ater the six weeks.
As with most research. This study has its limitations, not least the small number of participants in both groups, and the wide variation of paces and levels of training between participants within these small groups.
How about faster runners?
To give an idea of the standard of these talented runners, they participants averaged close to 8:30 (some individuals much quicker) over 3k. It is unusual to get runners of this standard to participate in such research, as it presents a sustained impact to their training.
In pre-and-post intervention testing, similarly to in the study by Turner et al,. VO2 max, running economy, muscle power and strength was all measured.
The nine-week plyometric training block consisted of three sessions per week. In post intervention testing, the experimental group demonstrated a 4.1% improvement in running economy at 5:20 minute mile pace.
Interestingly however, this significant improved economy was not also seen at 6:00 and 7:00 minute mile pace.
Saunders and co-authors interpreted this as suggesting that plyometric drills for runners are is more beneficial to athletes running at higher speeds, perhaps due to the greater impact forces experienced running at increased speed.
With no change observed in VO2 max, the authors identify changes to the muscles and tendons, (rather than the heart, blood vessels, or lungs) as the location of the improvement in economy. While the blood delivered the same amount of oxygen to the muscles before and after the nine-week intervention, the plyometric-trained runners could run faster for the same metabolic cost.
How to include plyometric running drills
The above studies have presented a strong case for the merits of plyometrics for distance runners to be included in most running training programmes. However, as ever the research leaves questions unanswered.
Research is yet to identify the specifics of which particular plyometric running drills are best, and when the optimal time lies within a training cycle to include plyos for runners.
In general, plyometric running drills are probably best integrated progressively during the build-up to your “competitive season” or a big race. You’ll probably want a few days recovery between a plyometrics session and a race. However, since your gains will likely fade with time, don’t leave too long between the end of a ‘plyometrics for runners’ programme and the start of race season.
Due to their intense nature, plyometric running drills should not done year-round, rather included in the race specific portion of your training – often the last 4-6 weeks before competition.
IMPORTANT: Build Strength First!
…you’ll probably get injured otherwise.
Due to the explosive nature of these plyos for runners and the loading the drills produce at the ankles and knees, it’s vital to build a base layer of general strength before embarking on a block of plyometric training.
Such jumps, hops, and single-leg bounds could be a recipe for serious injury if you’ve not been building strength with exercises such as lunges, squats and single leg squats in preparation for your plyometric training block.