5 Running Specific Plyometric Exercises To Improve Running Economy

Runners are always looking for ways to maximize their time in the gym because, let's face it, you would rather be out running!

There is enough information populated in running magazines, books, and online reporting the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes.  It's no longer a question of "should I do strength work" but rather "what's the BEST and most EFFICIENT strengthening workout with optimal results".  

Often, runners perform body weight exercises at home with bands or ankle weights out of convenience or even to avoid going into the intimidating free weight section of their gym.  It's understandable to feel overwhelmed and fearful of getting into the squat rack for the first time or swinging a 30 lb kettle bell over your head.

Research in this area has been clear---strength training improves running economy. 

The type of strength training you do is key.  To truly improve running econcomy (the ability to run at a set pace with less effort) you need to perform

Maximal Strength Training and Plyometrics

Before we dive into the 5 running specific plyometric drills, let's take a look at some research on why you need to add these exercises to your weekly training plan.

Plyometrics and Running Economy: The Research  

Plyometric exercise involves actions that cause your muscles to reach a maximum amount of force in a short period of time.  The goal of this type of training is to increase the power of movements by harnessing the natural elastic components of the muscle/tendon complex. 

Within our muscles are specific structures that "sense" tissue stretch and load.  When a certain amount of stretch is felt they automatically create a muscular contraction in the opposite line of force.  Although this is a protective mechanism, it can be trained to improve performance.

One of the keys in accessing what is termed the "stretch-shortening cycle" is to begin with a lengthening (eccentric) muscle action.  In running, this refers to the moment from initial foot contact to peak knee flexion (most amount of knee bend).

The straighter your knee is upon ground contact and the less you bend your knee during loading the less stretch-shortening occurs and power is sacrificed.  Improving your ability to load your quadriceps, calf, and buttocks muscles will provide you with more propulsion during running.  This is where running specific plyometric training can make really make a difference.

What Does The Research Say

Short term plyometric training improves running economy in both novice and highly trained endurance runners.  A research team in Norway demonstrated that 8 weeks of maximal strength training improved running economy and time to exhaustion in well trained endurance athletes. 

Similarly, Saunders Et. al.  demonstrated how 9 weeks of plyometric training improved running economy in highly training middle and long distance runners. 

These and othe studies have made it clear that plyometric training and maximal strength training can help you run faster and with more ease.  So, let's move onto the exercises.

6 Plyometric Exercises To Improve Running Economy 

1. Double Leg Banded Box Jump

2. Single Leg Bench Jumps

3. Single Leg Box Jumps

4. Single Leg Counter Box Jump

5. Single Leg Repeated Runner Jumps

Training Parameters For Plyometrics 

The intensity of plyometrics can be increased in various ways.
   1.  Decreasing contact points (doing single leg drills)
   2.  Increasing the speed during the movement and between repetitions
   3.  Increasing the height of each jump
   4.  Adding weight to each jump (using a weight vest)
Since plyometric exercise places a greater demand on your neuromuscular system a longer recovery time is needed before the next plyometric workout.  Typically 48-72 hours is enough time for full recovery.

Plyometric workouts are graded by the amount of foot contacts per session.  Although there are no "gold standard" contacts by training age there are some generalities to make.  Below I have listed an example of contact points per workout for novice and elite athletes.

  • Novice (beginner) -----  80-100 contacts 
  • Intermediate (some plyo experience) -----  100-120 contacts 
  • Advanced (substantial experience) ----- 120-140 contacts 

It's also important to mention that you should be adequetly warmed up before starting a plyometric workout.  Examples of exercises to do before the 5 exercises listed in this post would be things like lunges, squats, skipping, or jump rope.

As you integrate this plyometric program into your running be sure to remember that increased muscle soreness is expected for 24-48 hours after each workout.  Be sure to time your plyo workout a few days before a long run or hard interval track workout.

Plyometric exercise can help you improve running economy.  Work hard and have some fun!

\Written By:   Kevin Vandi DPT, OCS, CSCS
Owner of Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy in San Jose

Serving San Jose, Los Gatos, Almaden, Campbell, Bay Area