Off-Season Plyometrics for Running

While strength is definitely important and should be part of any runner’s off-season programming, so is the ability to develop power.

So you’re a runner and you want to spend a little bit of time in the gym while the weather is bad getting stronger. You’re hoping that strength will translate into running somehow, and since you’re a runner, you can figure out exactly what you need to do. You devise a periodized plan that involves lots of heavy lifting, a few bodyweight exercises, and some core work, because everyone knows you should work your core.

So you’re a runner and you want to spend a little bit of time in the gym while the weather is bad getting stronger. You’re hoping that strength will translate into running somehow, and since you’re a runner, you can figure out exactly what you need to do. You devise a periodized plan that involves lots of heavy lifting, a few bodyweight exercises, and some core work, because everyone knows you should work your core. You follow the plan exactly as it’s written out, never missing a day (as a runner, you know how to follow training programs). You figure next season will be full of PRs and age group victories. You excitedly set up for your first 10k of the season after three months of carefully following your program only to find yourself barely faster than you were at the end of last season. What should you have done differently?

Runners love numbers. Strength training is a very numbers oriented activity, with set and rep schemes, percentages, and a general fixation with “how much” instead off “how fast?” So it makes sense that runners would gravitate towards improving overall strength during the off season.

However, while strength is definitely important and should be part of any runner’s off-season programming, so is the ability to develop power away from the ground. Power is defined as work/time or force x velocity 1; strength is measured as a function force output. Strength and power are related, but are not the same thing, but both increasing strength and power have been shown to improve running economy through strength training and plyometrics.2

First, Define Plyometrics

Plyometrics are exercises that utilize the stretch-shortening cycle by an eccentric movement followed by a concentric movement.3 Remember, eccentric movements are lengthening the muscle under tension and concentric movements occur when the muscle shortens under tension. When you jump, for instance, you bend your knees and squat down a little bit first, eccentrically loading the muscles that are going to propel you upwards.

Conveniently, when you run, the thing that enables you to have the force to transition from one foot to the other is the stretch-shortening cycle.4 It begins to make sense why plyometrics training translates to improved running efficiency—you are training the very thing that propels you forward.

Now, before you go do that standard endurance athlete thing and program one hundred box jumps into your next gym workout, it’s important to note that the introduction of plyometric exercises requires adequate tissue tolerance. Basically, all of your tissues need to be ready to withstand the loads that come along with jumping. This also means maybe starting with box jumps isn’t the best idea, and definitely don’t start with 100. Start with sets of three or four (I will discuss this in more detail a little bit later).

Okay, so how do you ensure your tissues are ready for plyometrics? By doing introductory plyometrics, or what I like to think of as preparatory plyometrics. Things like skipping, bounding, jumping rope, and hopping are great preparatory plyometric exercises. They prepare the tissues for higher level jumping exercises and get you used to leaving the ground in a more dynamic manner.

“But wait,” you might be thinking, “I am a runner! That is plyometric in nature. I leave the ground in a dynamic manner all of the time.”

True, running differs from walking in that both feet are off of the ground during the swing phase of gait. And while this it technically dynamic in nature, those of us that have run for many years are probably less dynamic than we think, since efficiency decreases with age unless we work on it.2

A few of you may know that researchers believe increasing step rate or cadence decreases ground reactive forces, which basically means there is less load on the lower extremities.5 In order to maintain this step rate, you have to be kind of bouncy; if you don’t practice either running with a metronome or activities that require your feet leaving the ground quickly, it’s going to be extremely difficult to increase your step rate in a way that feels like it can be maintained.

One final note about tissue preparedness before I dive into how to incorporate plyometric work into your training during the off season: in order to jump or bounce well, you need good ankle mobility. You also need strong (but flexible) feet and hips that coordinate well with ankle and foot motion, plus a fairly strong core to stabilize and absorb the motion from the ground. Otherwise, you are going to either sound like a bag of bricks dropping into the floor or you will feel a complete lack of control when you leave the ground. When you look at jumping (including basic jumping patterns, like hopping), they are the last motor pattern infants learn to do, and for good reason. They require strength and coordination. If you are missing the basic foundation to hop and jump successfully, work on the basics first.

Preparatory Plyometrics

Remember the preparatory plyometrics I mentioned earlier? Let’s return to those in order to build a base.

The first thing I want you to do right now is stand up and hop on one foot, ten times. Now switch sides. How did that go?

If you felt heavy/uncoordinated/lost your balance/felt it in your knees you need to start with preparatory plyometrics before you move on to the more dynamic moves, and you need to start with low reps. You are not trying to set a PR in jumping; you are trying to use jumping to improve your running. Less is more.

If you have ever sprained an ankle, chances are high the two sides felt different while you were hopping. They may have felt different anyway, and that’s okay. Single leg hopping work will improve overall coordination and get you more comfortable on the less coordinated side.

Twice a week, on days that aren’t back to back, add 3 minutes of preparatory plyometrics into your program. Hop on two legs or one. Skip. Bound. Jump rope. Set up obstacles that you leap through or to. Remember those agility drills you used to do when you played high school sports? Incorporate them into your life, just twice a week. You might even find yourself having fun while developing a little more responsiveness.

After one week, add one more minute of drills. After six weeks, you will be at eight minutes, twice a week of plyometric drills. You will feel stronger, more coordinated and, if you are running at all, maybe a little lighter.

Incorporating More Powerful Movements

Once you have built a foundation of plyometric training, you can begin exploring more challenging plyometric movements. Remember, the goal still isn’t a PR in plyometrics. You do not need to do one hundred box jumps to achieve positive benefits; in fact, working to the point of fatigue during plyometric exercises can be counter-productive. It leads to higher risk of error, and error can result in injury. Less is more.

Back to incorporating more dynamic plyometrics. A few of the jumping variations most people are familiar with include broad jumps, depth jumps, and tuck jumps. There is technique involved in landing that allows your tissues to absorb the load in an integrated fashion. Using your arms becomes extremely helpful when performing these movements (notice I said arms, not neck), and keeping the arms close to the body helps with efficiency. This is not unlike the running gait pattern, where the arms swing close to the body rather than flailing out in space. For dynamic movements to be performed well, efficiency matters and flailing limbs use more energy than limbs that are kept a little bit closer to the torso.

If you haven’t performed these types of jumping patterns since your senior year in high school, they will probably be awkward, so be patient with yourself. Pick one jumping exercise, try two repetitions, take a break, and then try two more. Perform a total of 4 sets of two, once a week for a month. See if you can figure out how to land as softly as possible, and make sure your knees are bent when you land, so the force is absorbed from your feet all of the way up into your hips. Begin to notice how your feet land. What way do your toes point? Do your feet go completely flat upon landing? What happens to your knees? Do they cave in or point out to the sides? Maybe they point straight ahead. Observe these things and see if you can find ways to make the landings feel like they aren’t jarring in any way.

In the meantime, keep up the preparatory plyometrics once or twice a week. This crazy thing will start to happen as you practice. You will feel lighter. You will begin to land a little more softly and you will feel like you have a little more control.

There is a Feldenkrais lesson I do once every six weeks or so where the instructor discusses how pushing into the foot moves the body up. She correlates this to the running pattern. When you land during the gait cycle, the foot that lands pushes into the ground, moving the torso not just forward, but vertically upwards as well. Jumping patterns reinforce the idea that pushing the feet into the floor springs the body up into the air. It’s a sensation that’s often missing in long distance runners. We get so fixated on the forward momentum, we forget running is an oscillatory movement.

If you train for running events and/or consider yourself a runner, it’s easy to get caught up in PRs, interval training, and long, slow distances. However, conditioning the body for the act of running and learning how to be lighter can make not just the act of running more enjoyable, but more efficient as well.

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1. Sapega, A.A., & Drillings, G., (1983). The definition and assessment of muscular power. The Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 5(1).

2. Midgley, A.W., McNaughton, L.R., & Jones, A.M., (2007). Training to enhance the physiological determinants of long-distance running performance. Sports Medicine, 37(10).

3. Davies, G., Riemann, B.L., & Manske, R., (2015). Current concepts of plyometric exercise. International Journal of Sports and Physical Therapy, 10(6), 760-786.

4. Komi, P.V., (2000). Stretch-shortening cycle: a powerful model to study normal and fatigued muscle. Journal of Biomechanics, 33(10), 1197-1206.

5. Heiderscheit, B.C., Chumanov, E.S., Michalski, M.P., Wille, C.M., & Ryan, M.B., (2012). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine Science of Sports and Exercise, 43(2), 296-302.

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