Most runners know now that strength training is non-negotiable — it’s no longer a question of “Should I do strength work?” but “What’s the best and most efficient strength work I can do?”
Because let’s face it: runners just want to run!
Even when you know all the supplemental training is good and necessary, it’s still time spent away from the road or the trail… so you want to make the most out of every strength workout.
The thing is, most runners stick to bodyweight exercises at home, using easily accessible equipment like resistance bands or ankle weights.
Part of this is for the sake of convenience and not having to drive to a gym; the other part is that actually going to the gym can feel intimidating with all the heavy weights and squat racks.
Unfortunately, opting for the more convenient workouts is rarely the solution if you want to make true progress. Learning how to overcome those mental hurdles is essential so you aren’t holding yourself back from successful, safe running.
Ease yourself into weighted workouts; runners need a mix of maximal strength training and plyometrics to improve. Both contribute greatly to your running efficiency and performance, much more than any bodyweight workout will.
How Do Plyometrics Improve Running Efficiency?
To put it briefly, plyometric training improves how well your body can generate and utilize power, making every step more efficient.
Plyometric exercises — also referred to as “plyos” or “jump training” — focus on contracting muscles to absorb impact forces and repurposing said forces as energy for your forward movement.
Because your muscles and tendons are made of pliable, “elastic” tissue, they have a high capacity to handle loading forces. This is referred to as the stretch-shortening cycle: when the tissues in your muscles feel a certain amount of stretch, they automatically respond by contracting your muscle in the opposite line of force (i.e., they elongate and shorten as quickly as possible).
Technically, the stretch-shortening cycle exists to protect your muscles from excessive impact forces. But why not take advantage of our physiology for better training, right?
When you train for plyometrics, you’re training the muscles’ ability to produce a maximum amount of force in a short period of time. This process begins with eccentric muscle contraction, which is when your muscles contract while they’re in a lengthened position.
In your running gait, eccentric loading occurs from the point of initial contact through peak knee flexion — or, in other words, when you first start weight bearing to when you bear the most weight on your leg. At both points in your gait, your knee has to be bent just enough to elongate the muscles and initiate that eccentric contraction. (Proper joint flexion is an essential component for effective shock absorption!)
If your knee isn’t bent enough during loading, it restricts your muscles’ ability for stretch-shortening, thus limiting the amount of power you can generate.
You also need direct practice with loading the large muscle groups in your legs, particularly the quadriceps, calves, and gluteal muscles. The combination of increased joint flexion and loaded muscle contraction is what builds that force in your tissues and fuels your forward propulsion.
That’s where running-specific plyometric training will make all the difference.
Training Parameters for Plyometrics
Although plyos are excellent for building power, it’s important to remember: they involve a LOT of loading and impact forces, and it takes a lot of strength to match that power demand.
So, increasing your power generation isn’t as easy as just adding a bunch of plyometric workouts to your training schedule…
In order to get the most out of plyos, you need to strategize WHEN you do them — mostly to account for the recovery needed afterwards.
As a rule of thumb, around 48-72 hours is enough time for your body to fully recover before heading into your next round of plyos. However, if you have a long run or a hard interval track workout coming up in the week, make sure you schedule in your plyos a few days beforehand so your body doesn’t overwork itself.
(It might sound like a lot of recovery time now, but your muscles will likely feel more sore in the 24-48 hours after each plyometric workout anyway.)
Level of Difficulty
Alright, there are countless exercises that fall under the “plyometrics” category, so they can’t really be deemed a certain level of difficulty. (Plus, most exercises can be progressed in one way or another to add more challenge.)
Instead, most plyometric workouts are categorized based on the amount of foot contacts you make per session. There isn’t one agreed upon set of numbers, but here’s a rough range:
- Novice (just starting out with plyos): 80-100 foot contacts
- Intermediate (some plyo experience): 100-120 foot contacts
- Advanced (substantial experience): 120-140 foot contacts
These numbers don’t seem drastically different from each other… but just 20 more foot contacts can make a big difference when you account for the amount of loading and impacts involved.
Regardless of what “level” you sit at, always remember that you need to be adequately warmed up before diving into your plyometric workouts. You can make these warmups running-specific as well, like lunges, squats, skipping, or jumping rope.
The more your body adapts to plyos, the more you’ll need to increase their difficulty.
Naturally, people assume that that simply means performing more reps — but, that can actually have potential to increase your risk of injury or overtraining.
Instead, there are a few alternative ways to make your plyos more challenging without overloading your body:
- Increase the speed at which you perform each rep. (Speed is the key component that builds power in your muscles.)
- Increase the height of each jump. (This can help you practice direct force production for a powerful push-off as well as proper shock absorption upon landing.)
- Add weight to each workout. (Using a weight vest or handheld weights will create more resistance for your muscles to work against.)
- Switch to single-leg drills. (This will challenge your ability to recruit the proper tissues for power generation, shock absorption, AND functional stability.)
Progressing your plyos is less about quantity and more about quality! Don’t try to constantly one-up yourself and how many reps of plyos you can do: focus on building speed, power, and resistance to target your muscle strength and functionality.
Okay, enough about the how-to’s… let’s get to the exercises, shall we?
The 5 Best Plyometric Exercises to Improve Running Economy
One final disclaimer before we get into it!
There are LOADS of plyometric exercises to choose from — but as you may have heard us say before, your workouts will be the most effective if they’re running-specific. These will target the same major muscle groups and recruit similar movement patterns to train your body for the nuances of running biomechanics.
That’s why we were able to narrow down our list to just these 5 exercises: we’ve seen the most success with our runners who diligently practiced and progressed these drills.
So without further ado, let’s get to exercising!
#1. Banded Box Jumps (Double-Legged)
#2. Single-Leg Bench Jumps
#3. Single-Leg Box Jumps
#4. Single-Leg Counter Box Jump
#5. Single-Leg Repeated Runner Jumps
Let’s Get to Jumping!
And those are the golden drills to get you started on your plyometric journey! Continue to build your strength and speed independently, and train to use both skills in combination for optimal, explosive power!