As a long distance runner, you have probably tried everything to help improve your performance. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about plyometrics to help you do just that, but does it work? We know that it can help burn more calories and help those who are crunched for time get in and out of the gym faster, but what are its benefits for runners?
What is plyometrics?
Plyometrics is a type of training also known as “jump training” where you perform high intensity, high impact exercises with the goal of getting your body off the floor. Your muscles will exert maximum force for short intervals of time.
This is typically for about 30 seconds, and then you will rest for 30 seconds, and then repeat. Plyometrics helps you recruit more muscle, thus helping you run faster and more efficiently. Studies show that after two months of plyo training, you will see results.
Understanding muscle recruitment process
No matter what type of exercise you do, you are recruiting muscles fibers. The type of fiber; however, will vary with the intensity and nature of the exercise. When you are a distance runner, you usually recruit more slow-twitch fibers. These fibers are good for endurance, and most world-class long distance runners have a plethora of slow-twitch fibers. These slow-twitch fibers are great for runners because they store oxygen in the muscles, helping to give you better performance.
When you do speed work or exercises such as plyometrics, you begin to recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscle fibers help with speed and with rapid movements like jumping. They contract quickly, but they tire out quickly, too, so they use a lot of energy. It is to your benefit to have both, especially if you are a long distance runner. This can allow you to run not only farther, but faster while doing so.
In order to improve your ability to run, you have to maximize your muscle recruitment. The more muscles you recruit, the more you empower your body to leave the ground and go faster. However, you also want to use as few muscle fibers as necessary when you run, because the fewer muscles you use the less energy you expend, resulting in longer runs and better running economy.
Why is running economy important?
When you expend less energy, you increase your running economy (RE). To understand the concept of Running Economy, consider the fuel economy of your car and how much fuel is needed to get you from Point A to Point B. With RE, you are utilizing oxygen and calories as the fuel as you run. A runner who recruits fewer muscle fibers during a run will use less oxygen and calories. The result is being able to run farther and faster.
Using fast-twitch muscles is key, because you may start out using just slow-twitch muscle to hold your steady pace but after a while, those slow-twitch fibers will fatigue and fast-twitch muscle fibers will need to be recruited to keep you on pace. That's where plyometrics come in. You need fast-twitch muscle fibers in your arsenal and plyo will help you get them.
When you increase your running economy, you become a more efficient runner. This means you can maintain a given speed over a longer distance. The better your muscles are at producing force against the ground at a quicker pace, the less time your body actually spends on the ground. Again, this is where plyometrics can come in handy. It is jump training; and during plyo, your body will get used to spending time off the ground.
Plyometrics can help distance runners recruit muscle fibers more efficiently. Recent studies have shown that plyometrics will improve your running economy. A recent article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning followed 35 runners for 8 weeks. All ran the same mileage and subscribed to either a weight-training program or a plyometric routine. In just 8 weeks, the study showed that plyo improved running economy more efficiently than the weight-training program did.
Putting plyo into practice
If you would like to see if plyometrics would enhance your running performance, give these plyo exercises recommended by Donald Chu, Ph.D. a try. Chu is the author of Jumping into Plyometrics, and the director of rehabilitation at Stanford University.
Remember to start gradually. You will want to begin with just two sessions per week, otherwise, you run the risk of injury. Do just two sets of ten repetitions. Allow full recovery between sets. Do these exercises on a soft surface, such as grass, carpeting or a gym mat because you will be jumping up and down.
Try these exercises for eight weeks and see how your running economy improves. Chances are that you will see an improvement in your running with you now being able to run faster and farther.