What are plyometric exercises?
Plyometric exercises, sometimes referred to as plyos or jump drills are high intensity exercises that build an athletes strength through the process of stretching the muscle and then releasing stored energy into the next jump. Think of the stretching process like a rubber band and as you stretch that rubber band further back to shoot it ahead, the rubber band builds stored (potential) energy.
Why are they important?
Through the process of stretching and releasing stored energy your body builds strength and improves running economy through increasing your body’s ability to recruit more muscle fibers which impacts how efficiently your body can utilize oxygen while running.
There have been a handful of studies on runners adding plyometric exercises to their training routine vs running only and in multiple studies the experiment groups which added plyometric exercises increased running economy between 2-3%. If you want to take a deeper look at some of those studies, you can click on the links below.
Another study took 35 moderate to highly trained runners and compared the results of dynamic weightlifting and plyometric exercises. After 8 weeks the group that incorporated plyometric exercises saw a greater increase in running economy.
Additionally, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found a correlation between jumping and increases in middle and long distance times with the longer distances seeing the greatest correlations.
While I do believe many of these studies were limited by factors such as time and sample sizes, it’s definitely enough to see how the short amount of time spent on plyos could have a measurable impact on running performance and runners should consider adding it to their routine.
I especially like that most plyos take little to no exercise equipment, eliminating the need to go to the gym. A key element for many non-professional runners crunched on time as they balance work, family time and run training.
How to add plyometric exercises to your running routine?
Just like any new workout routine, its best to start small and build up gradually. Keeping in mind that there is a lot of impact in plyometric exercises. Like strength training, I would really focus on plyos in the off-season and base phases of your training and then as you near the competitive portion of your racing season or goal race, I would back off and complete the plyos in smaller bouts for maintenance.
For the athletes that I coach, I would start them off with some basic body weight exercises before progressing them onto plyometric exercises. Because of their high impact nature, the additional pounding on the legs can lead to a greater risk of injury for newer runners who don’t have a strength training background. I would utilize plyometric drills for runners who are a bit more established, in between training cycles or looking to push them through a plateau. Start your movements slowly and focus on form first. Learning to safely land and proper form for these drills will also minimize risk of injury and maximize the benefits gained.
Here are some great starter plyometric exercises for runners that require no exercise equipment
Skips for height
Similar in form to traditional skips. However, when you are coming off your driving foot you will thrust your opposite knee upward and explode in an upward motion. Using your arms in an opposing swinging motion will help you ensure you are driving upward and not forward.
Similar to a regular running motion, you are pushing off your back leg bounding forward trying to take larger steps. Over-exaggerating the arm motion can be helpful in keeping the movement forward vs upward.
Jumps for distance
Standing with two feet about shoulder width apart jump forward, trying to cover as much distance as you can.
This is a move many soccer player practice at an early age. Any small item can work as a good focal point. You are tapping the ball/item with your toes as quickly as possible.
If you’ve gotten to the point were the previous drills are feeling pretty easy here are some drills that you can progress to the next level. This exercises still require not exercise equipment
Squat jumps increase power while building strength for both upper and lower body. Bonus, they burn more calories than traditional squats!
Stand with legs shouler-width apart. Go into a traditional squat motion and then explode up jumping from the squat position. be sure to land lightly and in a controlled manner. Go into the next rep as you drop back in the squat position.
Burpees are a great full body motion incorporating muscles in the chest, arms, legs, abs and more. They are also a great fat burning activity!
Begin in a squat like position, drop your hands to the floor in front of you. Kick both feet back so that you are now in a push up position. From the push up position, with your hands continuing to remain on the ground, in one fluid jump. Bring your knees back to near your elbows, then explode up. When you land drop back into a squat position and go right into the next. For an added challenge complete a push up at the bottom of the movement.
Calf jumps are quick movements that help isolate the smaller muscles in the lower legs. You utilize theses muscles during running every time your push off. Unlike squat jumps and burpees, these movements are limited to a specific group of muscles instead of working on a full body movement.
Similar to calf raises. Start with your feet flat on the ground. As you go into a calf raise,explode up limiting your force and movement to your calf and ankle muscles. I like to complete this close to a wall. This limits the amount of movement through my knees and helps me focus on balance a bit more.
Squat jacks take traditional jump jacks to the next level. Getting a deeper burn in the butt and leg muscles. I like to start the movement slowly for the first set and then progress the speed.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and slightly turned out, in a deep squat. Put your arms in a “goal post” position with elbows bent and close to your thighs. Jump up explosively, bringing your feet together and clapping your hands above your head. Keep your core engaged. Jump your feet apart, landing with control, and lower your body back into the sumo squat position with hands up to complete one rep.
If you are getting pretty comfortable with the previous drills then it may be a good time to introduce some light weights and box jumps. We will get a follow up article on those plyos later.
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