Is this going to be the year you nab a PR in the 5K or half marathon you signed up for? It’s easy to get caught up in the number of miles you need to run each week and what your pace should be for each run, but training isn’t only about logging miles.
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Strength training also plays a big role, says Wendy Winn, PT, director of Custom Performance in New York City. And plyometrics specifically could be the difference between hobbling across the finish and dashing through with speed and strength.
Dive into what makes plyometric training so great for runners and which exercises you should start doing today to dominate your next race.
So What Is Plyometrics?
Put most simply, plyometrics means jump training. Think of plyometrics as the combination of power generation and neuromuscular agility, says Winn. That means you’re building strength and speed with exercises that require you to dynamically move your core.
Generally, you’ll start with basic body-weight exercises like squats and lunges, and then add a jump, which Winn says is important in pushing yourself to the next level. “Even just trying a few jumps here and there, as long as you have some strength, makes a big difference for improving energy cost and time trials,” she says.
Why Plyo Is Essential for Runners
First off, plyometric training makes runners faster. And what runner doesn’t want that?
In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, competitive runners were assigned to either a control group or an explosive-training group that required the athletes to incorporate plyometric exercises into their strength workouts.
After six weeks, the control group didn’t show any changes, but the explosive-training group reduced their 2.4-kilometer run time by almost 4 percent and their 20-meter sprint time by 2.3 percent.
Being able to run faster also means you’ll improve your running economy, Winn says. This is usually measured as VO2 max, or how efficiently the body uses oxygen, and plays a role in endurance, she says.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared training with plyometric versus dynamic weight exercises (full-range movements that involve at least one joint, like biceps curls).
Thirty-five endurance runners participated in the study over the course of two months, and the plyometric group saw a greater improvement in their running economy compared with those who focused on dynamic weight training.
Read more: The Most Neglected Muscle Group for Runners
What to Know Before Jumping In
Adding plyometric moves to your routine doesn’t have to take over your entire training plan, though. The plyometrics group in the 2014 study performed the exercises for less than an hour a week total.
Even with the small time commitment, you can expect to see results quickly: A 2013 study published in The Scientific World Journal noted plyometrics can help improve an athlete’s running economy in less than a month.
Ready to get going? First, make sure you’ve mastered the static movements. “You have to have really good strength in order to do plyometrics,” Winn says. Work on perfecting your form without the plyometric component. “If you can’t balance on one leg, you’re not going to be able to do a one-leg jump,” Winn says.
Without the right form and muscle strength, you put yourself at an increased risk of injury. “If your calves are really weak and you start doing plyometrics, you’re going to have Achilles problems,” Winn says. “You need to have strong muscles so you don’t have a tendon injury.”
To steer clear of injury, the National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends emphasizing quality over quantity. Good landing form (i.e., landing on the balls of your feet with your shoulders, knees and toes aligned and knees slightly bent to absorb the impact) is also key.
The 4 Best Plyometric Exercises for Runners
Start by adding these moves to your usual strength routine two or three times a week on days you don’t run, Winn says. Complete two sets of 20 reps of each exercise.
1. Jump Squat
HOW TO DO IT: With your legs shoulder-width apart, lower into a squat. Jump into the air and land back in the squat. Winn suggests standing in front of a mirror so you can make sure you’re maintaining good form and not letting your knees knock in. Focus on landing lightly and staying in control, she says.
2. Single-Leg Jump Squat
HOW TO DO IT: Stand on your right leg with your left leg hovering above the ground behind you. Squat, jump up, and then land on the ball of your foot. Think of the plyometric movement as a bounce, where you land and take off again without spending much time in contact with the ground. Do 20 reps, and then repeat on the left leg to complete one set.
3. Alternating Jump Lunges
HOW TO DO IT: Lower into a lunge. Jump up, switch your legs in midair and land with your opposite leg forward. Repeat the movement so you’re back in the starting position. That’s one rep.
4. Box Jumps
HOW TO DO IT: Stand in front of a plyo box or another sturdy surface. Keeping your feet hip-width apart, squat down and jump onto the box, landing in a squat. Focus on jumping with control, stepping down between reps, and increasing speed when you feel ready, Winn says.