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The benefits of plyometrics to your running speed

You're a runner and its getting tough. You don't seem to be getting any quicker, yet you are pounding the pavements 3-4 times per week. Surely this is enough? Not necessarily.....

A recent review of published papers, written up in the Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning looked at the benefits and effects of plyometric training on running economy (RE) and found that a 6 week programme of 1-3 sessions per week of plyometrics had a beneficial effect on long endurance runners (5K+). Specifically, runners who are not currently performing strength training, have not previously undertaken a structured plyometric training program or have not undertaken such a programme in the previous 3 months.

So lets look at what this is all about and exactly what training we should be doing to gain these benefits.

A number of physiological attributes contribute to successful long-distance running performance. Specifically, these include maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max), lactate threshold and RE.

RE has been defined as the steady-state oxygen consumption (VO2) at a given running velocity and reflects the energy demands of running at a constant submaximal speed.

Runners with superior RE expend less energy or consume less oxygen than runners with an inferior RE at the same steady-state running velocity.

RE is also said to account for a significant amount of the variation in performance among trained runners with a similar VO2max.

So it makes good sense to increase your running economy.

The primary mechanisms behind the improvement in RE are thought to revolve around neuromuscular changes including increased muscle- tendon stiffness and an increased ability of the muscles to generate power.

So what is Plyometric Training (PT)?

It is typified by explosive body weight resistance exercises that involve an eccentric (lengthening) muscle contraction followed immediately by a rapid concentric (shortening) muscle contraction. This type of muscle action has also been referred to as the stretch-shortening cycle. PT is used to train muscles to produce maximum force as quickly as possible, thus improving the quality of power.

Common plyometric exercises include activities such as bounding, jumping and hopping performed with maximal effort and high velocity.

Heres a bit of science background, for those interested:

There are two important components required for plyometric muscle action;

muscle elasticity and

the stretch, or myotatic, reflex.

When a muscle is rapidly stretched it can store the tension developed during this stretching for a brief period of time, therefore possessing a potential elastic energy (i.e. potential for a rapid return to its resting length). Sensors or proprioceptors within muscle spindles, relay information about rapid muscle stretching for activation of the stretch reflex. Activation of the stretch reflex results in a concentric muscle contraction response. These two components enable the SSC to produce more force than a normal concentric muscle contraction. PT has been shown to enhance physical capacities including speed, strength and power.

So, what should I be doing?

According to the review, PT should be implemented for a minimum of 6 weeks, comprising 1-3 sessions per week. Lesser trained, less economical runners may benefit from as little as 1 PT session per week, whereas highly-trained runners with greater initial levels of RE, may need greater volume and frequency of PT to induce improvements.

PT programs should begin with low volume, low complexity exercises and progressively overload volume and/or the complexity of exercises over time. Appropriate PT exercises include jumping in both vertical and horizontal planes on double or single leg, depth jumps, drop jumps, alternate leg bounding and sprinting over short distances (10-50m).

You should be aiming to give maximal effort with minimal ground contact times when completing PT exercises. It is recommended that up to 6 exercises be included in a PT session, with the chosen number dependent on time available and volume considerations/requirements. PT load may be monitored by recording sets and repetitions performed of each exercise or by the total number of foot contacts that occur in a session. The table below outlines an example six-week plyometric training program prescription.

PT may be completed before or after a short-medium duration easy run or on a non-running day in a distance runners weekly training program.

If done before a run or on a non-running day, a comprehensive warm-up should be undertaken before completing the PT session. For this reason, it may be more time efficient to complete a PT session post-run. You also want to consider the surface on which these exercises are undertaken, recommendations include a flat, well maintained grass surface or a sprung gymnasium floor.

ANKLE JUMPS - jumping quickly from the ankles, not knees. Either single or double leg

SCISSOR JUMPS - from deep lunge position, jumping and swapping legs

FORWARD HOP - DOUBLE OR SINGLE LEG - keeping it continuous and fluid

HURDLE JUMP - springy continuous vertical jumps, getting knees up single or double

DROP JUMP - from a platform into a deep squat

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