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Why Should Runners Jump? Plyometric Training

Land. CLOMP. Lift. CLOMP. Reach. Land CLOMP.

As a runner you are familiar with this rhythm as your feet land one step after another in a hypnotic repetitive pattern each time you lace up and head out the door. Whether it be the loud clomp of rubber on cement, reverberating off urban structures, the softer, muted plop of a running trail, or the stampede-like discordant footfalls of a speeding pack on a rubber track, these sounds are unmistakable, and also, unique.

Previously, we talked about what the beat of our heart can tell us about our running, but what about the beat of our feet? Are those footfalls loud? Or soft? Are they even side to side? Sound alone can give us a glimpse of what is going well, or in need of improvement, in your running form. How efficiently you are pushing off and landing, accepting and transmitting the force of foot contacting the ground, tells us a lot about your running efficiency. With each CLOMP of the foot connecting with pavement, our body is absorbing force (3 to 4 times our bodyweight!) and then pushing off, releasing like a loaded spring to propel us forward, into the next (hopefully) symmetrical step.

In previous posts, we have harped on the importance of strength training for runners, and the myriad of benefits to be reaped from adding a few strength sessions into your weekly exercise routine. However, although strength training is a good start, our training should go beyond building up muscular strength. We need to be able to absorb high forces and to produce a large amount of force to power ourselves forward, step after step. When running fast, this acceptance of force with landing and push off can happen 180 to 190 times per minute! Thus, runners should be skilled at jumping too, since running is essentially a quick progression of single leg jumps.

Almost half of the required energy to propel you forward when running comes from the spring like capacity from your muscles and tendons. Jumping exercises, or plyometrics, are the key to running faster while using less energy, essentially making your internal “springs” more efficient.

Clearly, it’s time for runners to start jumping, from both a performance and a clinical perspective. Clinically, when undergoing a return to run program after injury, being able to jump efficiency is a prerequisite for returning to run. Being able to accept load evenly and efficiently, and then push off in a symmetric, efficient manner, is one of many indicators that you are ready for the highly repetitive running movement out in the ‘wild’. However, jumping practice shouldn’t stop there.

A research study that looked at forward jumping performance in runners found that jumping ability is closely correlated with running performance from sprints through 5k race distances. Although the correlation was largest for sprinters, it was still significant for distance runners, showing us that the ability to jump efficiently positively impacts running performance. A similar study found that race performance is impacted by both strength AND jumping ability.

Are you Ready to Add Jumping to your Lifting Plan?

Ok, you’ve heard enough. You’re ready to start jumping around and building those muscle and tendon springs. Where should you start?

When I introduce individuals to plyometrics in the Zenith clinic , there is a tiered plyometric progression. Where you start on that continuum is determined by your current skill level with jumping. This is similar to strength training, where your strength program should meet you at your current capability level, and progress as your strength and stability improves. This often entails advancing over time from less complicated two legged exercises to more advanced single leg movements.

Your entry point with this jumping continuum is not always closely correlated to your current running performance level. Don’t be fooled, there are folks who can run very fast yet demonstrate sloppy running and jumping mechanics. I see this with my own eyes more than you would think. (Just think how much time and running potential you are leaving on the table when this is not addressed)

The type of jumping that is right for you is also influenced by your training goals. For example, studies have looked at how different types of jumps correlate to different aspects of running performance. These studies have reinforced the specificity of training principle, or the idea that the jumps you are doing will have the most effect if they most closely mimic the force/vectors that you are absorbing and producing in your given sport activity.

Start Simple.

Start simple, with two legged small jumps, progressing to single leg, and higher level jumps over time. Always giving your body time to adapt to the new stressors you are adding into your routine. Just like running or lifting weights, it is important to progress gradually. Just like your training program goes through cycles of a slow build of volume, then intensity, then taper, then rest, your plyometric training should have a similar periodization. One session of plyometric exercises per week, as part of your strength training routine, can be a good starting point to build off of as your body gets more and more efficient.

So, next time you turn off your earbuds and embrace the rhythmic monotony of feet clomping on pavement, listen to what they are telling you. Are you maximizing the potential of when your foot hits the ground? Could those footfalls be quicker, softer, more even? If so, the time has come to embrace the performance power of plyometric training.

For more guidance on where to start, what jumps to do, and how to incorporate this into your training for injury rehab, injury prevention, or for performance, you can contact me here to learn more.

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