Plyometric training is a popular method in strength and conditioning to improve power output. While running is not typically seen as a power sport, running does rely on repeated, powerful contractions especially when running fast or running uphill. This article delves into the science behind plyometric training, if runners benefit from plyometric training, and how to include plyometric exercises in your training.
What is Plyometric Training?
The goal of plyometric training is to increase a muscle’s ability to produce high amounts of power (a combination of high force and high speed). To achieve this goal, you perform quick, powerful exercises (plyometrics). Plyometric exercises aren’t just rapid, explosive exercises; they must involve the stretch-shortening cycle to be effective. The stretch-shortening cycle is a physiological description for when a muscle actively lengthens, followed by a quick active contraction. The elastic energy stored in the lengthening (eccentric) phase transfers into greater power output in the contraction.
Plyometric training is NOT HIIT training. The goal is not to get a cardiovascular workout, so do not rush the reps or skip the rest period. Nor do you want to do high reps (more on that below). Instead, plyometric exercises are focused on quick landings and powerful jumps, skips, or bounds.
The Science of Plyometric Training
The stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) is a neuromechanical phenomenon that can produce large amounts of power. It is the vital movement that makes plyometric exercises unique and effective. The stretch-shortening cycle has three phases: eccentric, amortization, and concentric.
In the first phase (eccentric) the working muscle rapidly stretches, which causes elastic energy to be stored in the series elastic component of the musculo-tendinous unit. The quick stretch also stimulates muscle spindles, which leads to a reflex that increases activity in the muscle. Increased activity leads to increased force.
In the second phase (amortization), a very brief pause after the eccentric phase occurs before the final concentric phase begins. In this short amortization phase, the muscle spindle reflex sends a message via the afferent nerves to the alpha motor neurons in the spinal cord. The alpha motor neurons send a message back to the muscle, which triggers a reflex to release elastic energy.
In the final phase (concentric), the stretch reflex contributes to the muscle action (such as a jump) and the elastic energy transfers into greater force in muscle as it moves. (If no movement occurs or the delay is too long, the elastic energy dissipates as heat.)
Plyometric training enhances all these mechanical and neuromuscular mechanisms, so that you can generate more power in the stretch shortening cycle over time.
Put all those phases and you get a plyometric. Think of the jump squat: you squat down quickly in the eccentric phase, then rapidly jump out of the squat with power. The amortization phase is the very brief transition; when performing the jump squat, you will not pause for that phase.
Why Should Runners Do Plyometrics?
The running stride is essentially a series of horizontal and slightly vertical plyometrics of varying intensity. Theoretically then, plyometric training should improve running – but let’s see what the research says.
Plyometric training does offer benefits for long-distance runners. A 2015 review in Sports Medicine reported that plyometric training improves running economy via improved neuromuscular mechanisms. (Here’s more on the multifaceted nature of running economy.) In a 2016 review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers reviewed studies on strength training for runners and found a combination of strength training and plyometrics improved running economy. Importantly, this plyometric and strength training (also called complex training) were part of an 8-12 week program concurrent to run training. The better your running economy, the faster you run at any submaximal effort.
In a 2022 review in Sports Medicine, researchers observed that small doses of plyometric training are typically used twice peer week by world class runners in the early and mid-preparation phases. These plyometric exercises include skips, bounds, hill sprints, and squat jumps. Once the athletes enter the competition phase, they reduce their sessions to once per week or eliminate them entirely. If you do plyometric training, it is not something you do every week – especially when a race is approaching.
How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?
Since plyometrics lose their efficacy once you spend more time on the ground, high rep schemes become ineffective due to fatigue. If you try to do 10-15 sets, you will at best waste your time – and at worse, increase your injury risk. The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends a rep scheme similar to power exercises, with 3-6 sets of 2-5 repetitions per exercise as a maximum if you do a plyometric-only workout. If you combine it with strength training, you should do 1-6 sets of 4-6 reps of 1-2 exercises (particularly when balanced with run training).
If you are new to plyometric training, begin with low sets and reps. Plyometric training volume is calculated by number of foot contacts. Beginners should aim for 80-100 contacts per session. As you gain experience, you can increase up to 120 contacts per session. The number of sets, reps, and exercises you do is determined by that volume.
You should have generous rest in between sets, with 1:5-1:10 work:rest ratios. This means if you spend 10 seconds performing a plyometric exercise, you should rest for 50-100 seconds. If you are doing high-intensity exercises such as depth jumps or exercises with step down recovery like box jumps, you should rest for 5-10 seconds in between sets.
How Often Should I Do Plyometrics?
Plyometrics require a minimum of 48 hours of recovery in between each session. The recovery will also be impacted by workouts you do in addition to plyometrics, such as interval workouts. During an off-season or base phase, you can do more frequent plyometric sessions such as three times per week. During race specific training, you may only do one to two sessions per week.
How Do I Include Plyometrics with My Running Plan?
Avoid doing plyometric exercises immediately after a run. Endurance exercise decreases muscle tension and can temporarily reduce power production, which is not favorable for completing plyometric training. It’s better to do them before a run when you are fresh; plyometrics will not affect performance on an easy run. (Do not do them before a hill workout, interval workout, tempo run, or other quality session when higher force production is desired.)
Most runners will not do a separate plyometric session each week. You are already doing a lot if you both run and lift! Most runners can benefit from complex training, which combines resistance training and plyometrics in a singular session. Essentially, complex training means you include one to three plyometric exercises in your strength workout.
Common Plyometric Training Mistakes
- You spend too long in the amortization phase. Too long between the eccentric and concentric phases, and the elastic energy is lost. This error is common for slow-twitch dominant runners, so begin with low reps and focus closely on technique.
- You do high reps with little rest. Plyometric training is not HIIT training! The goal is not to get your heart rate up high. You want to improve power, not cardiovascular fitness.
- Doing plyometrics with weights. Unless you are very advanced and working with a strength and conditioning coach, stick to body weight. Technique and rapid movement matters more than load.
- You start with too much, too soon. As with running, that’s a quick recipe of injury. Begin with low-intensity plyometrics such as skips and bounds.
- You perform plyometrics in highly cushioned running shoes or barefoot. Firm lifting shoes are the best choice. (If between the two, choose the running shoes – barefoot plyometrics will quickly get you injured.)
- You use a hard surface. Plyometrics should be performed on grass, a rubber gym mat, or a track.
What Plyometric Exercises Should You Do?
Plyometric training should be sport specific. While there are upper body plyometrics, runners will benefit the most from lower body plyometrics. Lower body plyometrics include jumps in place, standing jumps, bounds, and box jumps.
I do not recommend performing depth jumps (jumps off a box) unless you are experienced in plyometrics and working with a strength & conditioning professional. Depth jumps are high intensity and require experience. For runners, the impact may be too much (since running is already a high-impact sport) and injury risk could increase.
These sample exercises are low-intensity and safe plyometric choices. As you progress, you can try box jumps or other more advanced plyometrics.
As stated above, include these as part of a strength training routine. Begin with 1-3 sets of 3-5 reps of one exercise (repeat on other side if single leg), focusing on a light and quick landing. As you progress, you can increase sets/reps or add another exercise (up to 120-140 foot contacts per session).
Do not perform plyometrics if you:
- Have an active muscle or bone injury
- Have an orthopedic condition such as osteoporosis or joint degeneration
- If you had a history of knee surgery, avoid single-leg plyometrics until cleared
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and lower down into a squat, so that your thighs are slightly higher than parallel to the floor. You can lock your hands behind your head or hold arms out forward for counter balance. Then, explosively jump up, straightening your legs, and then land softly and immediately repeat.
Single Leg Hops
Stand on one leg, with the other leg bent at the knee to keep it off the ground. Perform a slight countermovement (lowering slightly to the ground) and then jump up (do not move forward, back, or to the side). Land back at the starting position and immediately repeat.
Stand on your right leg with a slight bend in the knee, with the left leg bent at the knee to keep it off the ground. Perform a slight countermovement (lowering slightly to the ground). Next, bound laterally and land on your left leg, then immediately bound right and land on the right leg. Arms will perform a contralateral balance (left arm forward with right landing, etc.).
Hill sprints are not your typical plyometric exercise, but they achieve a similar outcome. Like plyometrics, hill sprints require high power output against gravity and do involve the stretch-shortening cycle. Hill sprints can increase the elasticity of the muscles and tendons in the lower legs. These changes improve mechanical power output and running economy. For a true plyometric effect, hill sprints should be short (8-20 sec) and near maximum effort, with generous (1-2 min) recovery.
Key Takeaways on Plyometric Training for Runners
If you add plyometrics, add it in small doses as part of resistance training. Opt for one to two exercises, beginning with 1-2 sets of 3-5 reps with generous recovery. If you do incorporate them, periodize them around your running. Proper technique and programming are vital for effective plyometric training for runners.