As a coach and triathlete, I have seen many practicing athletes fail to realize the importance of incorporating strength training into their program. For many of them, time spent in the gym feels like it eats into their precious time spent in the pool or on the bike—after all in order to swim, bike and run faster, all you need to do is to swim, bike and run more, right? Well, not exactly, but we’ll get into that in a minute.
First, I’d like to clarify, when I say “strength training” I mean a periodized plan that includes training all elements on the strength continuum ranging from muscular endurance, hypertrophy, speed strength, strength speed and maximum strength. We tend to see that when endurance athletes embark on a “strength plan” they navigate towards the muscular endurance side of strength, stay there and often neglect other forms such as strength speed and maximum strength. In this article, I want to look at the effect of plyometric training on running performance, specifically running economy. Hopefully, by the end of this, you’ll agree that strength training is an integral part in the development of an athlete’s performance.
Why has running economy been neglected in strength training research?
Over the years, there has been an increase in research surrounding the effects of various strength training programs, yet there’s very little research focusing on strength training and running performance. This is likely because other key factors such as VO2 Max, aerobic threshold, running economy, rate of force development and anaerobic power garner more attention independently.
One particularly intriguing scenario, that I have seen represented within my group of athletes, involves two different runners. Say both of these runners are well trained and perform at a high level, and from an outside observer’s perspective, much of their data is similar, including their VO2 Max level. However, when it comes to race day (holding race conditions equal) their performance is very different, one struggles and the other excels. Why does this happen and what does it have to do with strength training?
Going Beyond the SAID Principle
The SAID principle or Specific Adaptations to the imposed Demands means that if we want to be a better runner we should run. But when we look at this scenario, we need to delve a little bit deeper into other novel approaches such as plyometric training to see if its inclusion can improve our performance. I mean running itself is in essence a plyometric event.
Plyometric training is a form of strength training that uses bodyweight or lightly loaded resistance exercises. Plyometric exercises will have a period of rapid concentric contraction after a rapid eccentric contraction. In the Strength Shortening Cycle (SSC), energy is created and held in the elastic components of the muscle after the muscle contracts eccentrically, then transfers to the concentric contraction.
Plyometric exercises are categorized based on the length of ground contact time. Slow SSC or long response plyometrics last longer than 0.25 seconds. The exercises associated with slow SSC exercises are countermovement jumps or squat jumps. Slow SSE plyometric exercises transfer most directly to start and acceleration performance. Fast SSC or short response plyometrics last less than 0.25 seconds and include exercises such as drop jumps and rebounds. These best transfer to maximum velocity running.
How does this relate to running economy?
Research has found that plyometric training improves the neural and biomechanical components of running economy. It does this by increasing motor unit recruitment, firing frequency, muscular tendon stiffness, and intramuscular coordination—all of which enables greater force generating potential. If we think back to the scenario I mentioned earlier, these variables are omitted from the surface-level data of a runner (V02, aerobic threshold etc.). Therefore, when we see a substantial discrepancy between performances of aerobically similar athletes, these plyometrically-stimulated variables merit much of the credit.
In one study, the inclusion of plyometric training yielded improvement in sprint performance in 1 km, 2.4 km, 5 km, 10 km and 40 minute time trials. The improvement in the rate of force development was the key variable for short distances. Over long distances, we can assume that due to the lower levels of force production per stride, there would be a delay in the amount of muscle recruitment required therefore providing a fatigue-resistant effect in the later stages of the run.
With all novel approaches there is further research needed. Sadly, at this stage, there is a lack of research that includes females and young athletes. As always, when applying any type of strength training program, we need to complete a comprehensive needs analysis of the athlete and, where possible, take a periodized approach so as to set your athlete up for success.
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- Rønnestad BR, Mujika I.(2014) “Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review.” Sc and J Med Sci Sports. Vol 24(4):603-12.