These explosive moves will help your fast-twitch muscle fibers start firing.
In the mid-1970s, Olympic runner Fred Wilt started studying Russian training methods and found they were doing quick, fast jumps in workouts. Wilt became convinced it was the secret to their success.
Why would jumping be good for your running?
“Plyometrics is the use of explosive strength exercises, such as bounding, jumping and hopping, to enhance the muscles’ ability to generate power by exaggerating the stretch-shorten cycle (eccentric muscle contraction immediately followed by concentric contraction),” says Philo Saunders, a Ph.D. and physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport.
Plyometrics increase the power and elastic energy a runner produces, thus improving running economy. Improved running economy means you’ll be more efficient and use less oxygen, which translates to faster times and better performances.
Multiple studies have found that plyometric exercises improve running times, jumping ability and power — and not just for sprinters. Even plyometric programs of just six weeks have led to faster run times over 2,400 meters. Other studies have found jumping exercises improve 5K and 10K times.
“I also feel that plyometrics helps develop coordination and activation of key muscles, such as hamstrings and glutes, allowing better running mechanics,” Saunders says.
The only problem is it isn’t exactly known how plyometrics improve running economy or through what mechanism it makes runners faster. The exercises don’t improve VO2 max or aerobic ability. The belief is that plyometrics likely teach the body to recruit fast-twitch muscles and use the fewest muscle fibers possible.
“We don’t know how it really improves economy,” says Dr. Jason Karp, a San Diego-based running coach and author of Running a Marathon for Dummies. “We just know that it does.”
However, Karp cautions that runners shouldn’t just start jumping off things. Most runners could benefit from more endurance and aerobic training before they worry about explosive power.
“Maximize run training first,” Karp says. For advanced runners or those trying to get the last bit of speed out of their training, plyometrics can certainly be beneficial. But it can also cause injury if done wrong. Karp says, “It has to be done carefully.”
Many people now use the term plyometrics to refer to any type of jumping exercise. Traditionally though, plyometrics is used to describe when the takeoff and landing happen very quickly and explosively, transitioning the muscles from eccentric to concentric contraction.
“You don’t just jump off boxes until you do other exercises to strengthen first,” Karp says.
Build up and start slowly. Karp recommends that runners start by incorporating hill repeats into their workouts to strengthen tendons and prepare their legs for more stress. Then, he often has his athletes bound up hills, which is sort of a cross between jumping and running. Bounding helps strengthen all the hamstring, glute and calf muscles. And, if done quickly and explosively, it also improves power.
As runners improve, they can add more jumping exercises and increase the number of repetitions or the height of jumps. “The whole point is to improve the ability to produce force against the ground,” Karp says.
Things To Keep In Mind
— Start slow, with just 10 repeats of each exercise. Add repeats, exercises and height as you improve.
— Do jumps on grass for additional cushioning when possible.
Before You Get Started
— Warm up before doing plyometric exercises.
— Exercises are meant to be done quickly and explosively, with minimal time spent on the ground.
As you run uphill, explode from one leg to the other, bounding. Think of it as between a run and a jump. Photo: Scott Draper | Competitor
From a standing position on a 12-inch box or bench, jump onto the ground and land in a squat position. Then, jump as high as you can. Photo: Scott Draper | Competitor
Jump as far forward as possible from a standing position. Land and jump again. Photo: Scott Draper | Competitor
On one leg, hop up and down. Hop side to side. Hop forward and back. Switch legs. Photo: Scott Draper | Competitor
Starting in a squat, jump up as high as possible. Land back into the squat in one motion and jump again immediately. Photo: Scott Draper | Competitor
Start by jumping from a standing position up onto a small step, often done on a bleacher or bench. Increase the height of the step (or move to a box) as you improve. You can also do single-leg jumps. Photo: Scott Draper | Competitor