Plyometrics is a term that can leave you scratching your head as to the exact meaning. Is it another term for Pilates? Does it involve – ugh– stretching? And perhaps the main one for runners: will it make me faster?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines plyometrics as 'exercises that involve a jumping movement to increase the power and strength of the muscles'.
And for runners, who require both powerful and strong muscles to help propel them further for longer, and crucially without injury, anything that increases muscle power is a must-have for their training regime.
Plyometrics, as we explain below, is perfect for training your muscles to stretch and then contract more powerfully, crafting you into an explosively fast runner that will smash your existing PBs – simply by adding one plyometric workout a week into your training schedule.
What is plyometrics?
Plyometrics are fast, explosive jumping movements that help build muscle strength. But as that’s still rather vague, we asked chartered physiotherapist Kate Cadbury to break down exactly what plyometrics involves.
'Plyometrics are exercises that involve fast explosive movements such as skipping and jumping,' she says. 'They use speed and maximal force over short periods of time and build muscle power.'
They achieve this by utilising the elastic recoil of muscles and stretch reflex to produce a faster, stronger muscle response. 'When performing plyometrics, you get a stretch of the muscle – eccentric contraction – followed by an immediate powerful contraction of the muscle – concentric contraction,' she says.
'This is also known as the stretch-shortening cycle [SSC], and it helps improve explosive power and muscle efficiency. The movements are fast as the aim is to have minimal contact time with the ground and the goal is to bounce back off the surface as quickly as possible – as in the action of running.'
Training your fast-twitch muscles to respond more quickly and powerfully is something that all runners will see benefits from.
'Plyometrics are about exerting the maximum amount of force in the minimum amount of time,' says sports scientist and master trainer for Auster Fitness, Harry Aitken. 'With the lower body, this typically means jumps, and with the upper body it often involves launching a projectile, such as a ball.'
How can plyometric training improve a runner's performance?
Luckily for us, there’s been plenty of research into the benefits of plyometrics for runners. A number of studies have shown that this type of exercise can have a positive effect on running economy and speed, especially on shorter distances of 10K and below.
One 2006 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research used 15 elite distance runners as its subjects, and had them undertake three plyometric sessions as part of their weekly training over nine weeks. The results showed that despite it having no effect on the runners’ VO2 Max, their running economy improved by 4.1 percent when pushing themselves fast at 5.20min/mile pace.
Another study in 2013 in the same publication tracked non-elite runners over a six-week period following the introduction of a weekly plyometric workout. The researchers found that not only was explosive strength increased, but also running speed, evidenced by faster 2.4km times at the end of the study when compared to their times at the start.
Improving explosive strength can benefit every runner, especially if you’re looking to break shorter-distance PBs. As these studies prove, plyometrics can help boost your strength and speed, as long as you make it a regular part of your training.
'Performing plyometrics can increase your number of fast-twitch muscle fibres, which helps improve your sprinting and speed ability,' says Cadbury. 'This can make you faster at running over short distances and also help you power up hills with more ease.'
How does plyometrics help sprinters?
'Plyometrics will feature heavily in the workouts of sprinters and short-distance track athletes,' says Aitken. 'This is because it’s an excellent way to strengthen the muscles of the lower body and increase the tendon elasticity, thereby increasing speed.'
If performed regularly, you’ll slowly build your plyometric volume and, as a result, increase the elasticity of the achilles tendon, strengthen the calf, soleus and anterior tibialis muscles, as well as greatly strengthen the quadriceps and hamstrings.
'By strengthening these, the risk of injury when subsequently running will also be greatly reduced, and fatigue will take longer to set in,' adds Aitken, giving you yet another reason to start doing plyometric exercises.
How can runners integrate plyometrics into their weekly routine?
If you’re already doing a weekly strength and conditioning routine, you can easily add a plyometric session in addition to your S&C workout to see increased benefits to your running.
If you don’t do any form of strength training, it’s best to build strength initially before tackling a plyometric routine, as it can stress muscles if they aren’t used to it. Try adding our beginner's bodyweight strength routine to your weekly schedule for a month first.
After a few weeks of base strength building, you can then begin to incorporate a few jumping-based exercises into your routine, before slowly transitioning to an entire plyometric session of seven moves for runners, as detailed below.
Cadbury stresses the importance of building up your plyometric sessions gently rather than jumping straight into it, as this form of exercise is high-impact and intense. 'I advise runners to work on their overall strength and core stability initially by doing something like Pilates to allow them to maintain good control and form when doing plyometrics.'
After that, she recommends introducing one 30-minute plyometrics session a week into your training schedule. 'Aim to perform three sets of 20 seconds of plyometrics, ensuring good form throughout, with a one to two-minute rest between each set. It’s common to get DOMs [delayed onset muscle soreness] following this training, so ensure you’re fully rested before you do another plyometric session.'
What are the best plyometric exercises for runners?
The great thing about plyometric exercises is that they require no equipment: all you need is your own body and, if you have one, an exercise mat (and even that’s not essential).
As Cadbury mentioned, correct form is crucial when performing plyometric exercises. This is not just so your muscles get the full benefit from the move, but also to help you avoid injury. If you can, ask a personal trainer or coach to assess your form and provide advice as you perform the workout. If not, study videos to ensure you are doing each exercise in the correct slow and purposeful manner to gain the full benefits and you will quickly begin to see improvements to your explosive power and speed when pounding the pavements.
Kate Cadbury suggests the first four plyometric exercises for runners:
'These build the explosive power of the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calf muscles.'
Stand with your feet wider than hip-distance apart.
Squat down as low as you can, ensuring you flex from the hips (to do this, ensure you stick your bottom out) and put weight through your heels. Keep your spine lengthened and chest lifted.
Jump straight up out of the squat, landing on the balls of your feet.
'Jump lunges help increase the single-leg explosive power of the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calf muscles. They also build balance, dynamic control and single-leg stability.'
Stand with your right leg forwards and left leg backwards. Ensure you have a good distance between your legs so when you lunge down your front shin is parallel to the wall in front of you.
Lunge directly down to the floor.
Spring up and switch your legs so your right leg goes backwards and your left leg forwards. You can drive with your arms, too.
'Great for working on single-leg calf power and control.'
Stand on one leg with your knee slightly bent.
Hop from one side to the other imagining you’re hopping over a line or rope.
Swap onto your other leg.
'A perennial classic for a reason: they increase the explosive power of the quads, glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles, as well as building upper body and core strength.'
Squat down, placing your hands onto the floor.
Jump your legs backwards into a plank position.
Perform a push-up.
Jump your feet forwards to meet your hands and come into a squat.
Jump straight up out of the squat landing on the balls of your feet.
Monique Eastwood, celebrity personal trainer and founder of fitness app Eastwood Fit, suggests the following four plyometric exercises for runners:
Single-leg squat variation
'This strengthens your ankles and helps correct tracking of the knee.'
Start with a wide-leg deep squat with a pulse as you sit into the squat.
Move into a single-leg low squat with one leg bent off the floor beside it hovering.
Lift into a side-leg lift with the same leg – ensure the foot is flexed with the heel up and toes pointed down.
Repeat on the other side.
Repeat x 10 on each leg.
For an extra challenge, use a resistance band around the thighs.
Single-leg raise with rotation
'This works to build a strong core and pelvis.'
Side reach with single-leg lift and upper-body rotation.
Reach opposite arms away from extended leg on a bent supporting leg.
Straighten standing leg as you lift extended leg up to a bent position, rotating your upper body towards it at the same time.
Use weights for extra challenge and rise up on toes in rotation move.
Repeat x 10 each side.
Unilateral explosive power move
'Focus on knee-tracking, pelvic placement and building core strength.'
Start in a lunge position in the centre of both legs.
Double pulse in lunge then drive up into a jump, bringing the back leg forward bent high as you do this.
Land softly into the lunge position.
Repeat x 20
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