Best known as a training tool for boxers -- outside the playground, that is -- jumping rope is an inexpensive and convenient way to help runners train when they're not pounding the pavement. It can increase short-term speed for sprinters and build long-term endurance for other runners when used properly.
Muscle Fiber Types
Running of any type uses your leg muscles, but how you use those muscles varies based on your preferred running style. When sprinting you develop your fast-twitch muscle fibers for speed over short distances. Long-distance running, however, builds slow-twitch muscle fibers, designed more for endurance. Jumping rope works more like sprinting, using fast movements over relatively short time spans, making it ideal for increasing sprinting speed.
Endurance and Agility
Jumping rope doesn't just help sprinters. As you build up your jumping repetitions and speed, you increase your cardiovascular endurance -- an essential tool for long-distance runners. It might not help you increase your actual speed over a 5K race, but it can help you get to the end of the race without running out of steam, which can improve your overall running time. Jumping rope also helps strengthen your ankle and calf muscles, making it easier for you to prevent injury if you land wrong on one of your running steps.
Jumping the Right Way
To help increase your speed and long-distance endurance times, jumping the right way is key. Forget what you learned on the playground; these movements need to be fast and tight. Hold the rope handles out to each side with your elbows bent, then move only your wrists and forearms to turn the rope. Stay on your toes, jumping just a couple of inches off the floor. Start with a slow rhythm and gradually speed it up as you gain agility and confidence. Stick to sets between 30 and 60 seconds each.
Changing up your movements helps with agility as well as foot speed. Try hopping on one foot for three swings, then change to the other foot. Use a double-under technique, where you jump slightly higher but spin the rope under your feet twice before touching the floor again. Have some fun with crossovers, where you cross your arms in front of your body every few hops.