Happy March! Spring has sprung, with any luck. And if it hasn’t yet where you are, that winter snow will melt soon enough, revealing the singletrack and scree we love. For most of us, the past few months of running have been less about mountain trails and more about slogging through snow, slush, and mud. When the trails do finally thaw and dry, the prolonged break can turn our technical trail legs into those of a newborn deer. We may feel weak, sloppy, and out of control.
How can we regain and even improve our tap-dancing talent on technical trails? Plyometric training (PT) is a great start.
For many runners, the word ‘plyometric’ may either be completely foreign or it may conjure an intimidating image of elite-level, high-intensity sports training that we loathed in our younger sporting years. But plyometric exercise is much more than the latter. Explicitly defined, plyometric exercise is a jump with an instantaneous reversal of energy between our body and the ground that creates a propulsive effect.
More plainly, plyometrics are the essence of running: land and bounce, land and bounce. A key component of running is the body’s ability to jump, land–an in a split second, absorb the landing energy from the ground–and bounce off the ground again. Like a springy, bouncing ball, this landing-storage-release effect is a key characteristic of the muscle-tendon units of our entire body, and the essential physics of running. Without the plyometric effect, running would be like trying to dribble an under-inflated playground ball that just splats to the ground without bouncing back up. With no bounce, you have to pick it up and throw it again.
And while the plyometric effect is a natural part of high-speed human propulsion, efficient execution isn’t a given. Yet at the same time, plyometric strength–the ability to bounce quickly with faster speeds, higher drops, and better control–is a critical aspect of trail and ultrarunning success. Moreover, it is the hidden key to both injury prevention and, ironically, treatment.
Here are some of the many benefits of plyometric training:
Plyometric activity represents multi-dimensional strength. Working muscles must simultaneously stabilize–keeping the joints of the lower leg relatively rigid–and propel. This places a substantial load on the tendons, which connect muscle to bone and are the primary ‘storage unit’ for the landing/bouncing energy. A major component of PT, therefore, is to condition the tendon to be able to hold large amounts of energy for a split second before releasing it for a propulsive, equal-and-opposite effect. No other type of exercise can train this dimension of athleticism.
Speed and Efficiency
For all runners, the major payoffs for plyometric strength are both top-end speed and endurance. For sprinting, storing and releasing large amounts of impact energy is what creates speed. The tendon’s ability to efficiently preserve and reuse energy without the muscle having to re-create it (‘pick up and throw’ versus ‘bounce’) is the foundation of endurance (and one of distance running’s hottest metrics, cadence).
Technical-Terrain Proficiency and Safety
For trail runners, there is another important dimension: technical-terrain proficiency. Plyometric strength and control are crucial for safely and efficiently navigating technical terrain, especially on downhills. The combination of uneven and unstable terrain on a steep descent together demand the ability to quickly and safely land on and bounce off such surfaces. To efficiently pop on and off that dusty, leaf-covered, unstable rock on the descent to Deadwood Canyon at the Western States 100 is a game changer. It can save your quads, that finisher’s buckle, and–when the terrain is really exposed–perhaps some life and limb.
Besides providing a stable foundation for landing and push-off, plyometric strength and control help prevent the overstretching of soft tissues (muscles, tendons, and ligaments) and well as help cushion heavy impact, protecting bones and joints.
This may seem most counterintuitive. How can something as high intensity and fast help treat a healing injury? It turns out that healing connective tissue (in muscles, tendons, ligaments, and even bones) not only benefits from but requires higher-level stresses to aid in late-stage healing-tissue remodeling. Beyond strengthening, PT provides necessary if not crucial remodeling force to scar tissue in mostly healed soft-tissue injuries, which is often responsible for chronic pain and stiffness in otherwise healed injury sites. This is one of the most important and often overlooked dimensions of injury treatment.
Here are some key factors in how to start your own plyometric exercise program:
Posture and Alignment
Adopting a running-specific, athletic posture is crucial while you do plyometrics. This includes:
- Hip hinge
- Neutral trunk
- Chest over knees, knees behind toes
- Knee externally rotated over the second or third toe
- Weight on toes (ideally with heels off the ground)
Exercises and Progressions
Just because plyometrics are fast doesn’t mean they should be difficult, painful, or exhausting. Appropriate graded progression is the key to getting stronger and healthier. Some keys:
Double Leg to Single Leg
If you think PT is only big, powerful jumps done by Olympians, think again. I use plyometric training for all my clients, including my geriatric clients (as a safety issue in maintaining an ability to move quickly). The easiest way to start is two-footed plyometrics. Double-footed hops in place or over a line on the floor are a great starting point.
Perform the movement correctly, in the appropriate posture and alignment, first. Key areas to monitor include:
- side-plane posture (butt back, chest forward, knees behind toes)
- strong and stable joints (do not let feet, ankles, or knees sink down or ‘deflate’ upon landing)
- frontal plane control (watch for knees buckling in and arch collapse)
…Then Add Speed
Once control is achieved, go after speed. The key metric for speed is three to four hops per second. The rationale behind this is that rate mimics typical flat or downhill running cadence, and has its roots in the innate plyometric energy-storage ability of tendons, which is about a third of a second.
Assist to No Assist
When initiating a PT program, it may be extremely difficult or painful to hop with good control or speed on either double or single legs. In that case, assist with the upper body. Stand by a table or countertop. Lean in and unweight enough to achieve ideal control and speed. Over time, decrease the assistance.
Stationary to Targeted and Small to Big
Hop in place, or use very small (forward/back or lateral) movements. Once control is achieved, add progressively larger movements. Here are videos of some of my favorite hopping progressions:
- Crossing over a line hops
- Crossing over a line with forward movement hops
- Hopping forward over objects
Flat to Elevated
All plyometrics should begin flat. Once control and strength are consistent, progress to elevation. Jumping low to high–such as single-leg hopping up a staircase–will take more strength. Jumping high to low, and instantaneously reversing to hop back up again, takes the most control. This video shows elevated jumps.
Beginning PT should be very short duration. We aim to train perfect control and strength (and leave the endurance training for the trail). As such, keep total hop intervals to under 20 seconds or less. What this might look like:
- Sets of 10 to 20 total hops (per leg, if single leg)
- Three to 10 sets per session
- Perform two to three sessions per week
Plyometric training is an outstanding method for making drastic improvements to your running speed, endurance, and control. And on the trails, it can turn a techy trail descent from frightening to fun: a double-barrel effect of more success and more fun!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you ever feel like your footwork is sluggish and uncoordinated at certain times of the year? Like when you return to technical singletrack following winter? After a big race and a recovery period following it? Sometime else?
- What plyometric exercises do you perform? Or have you performed in the past?
- Try a couple of the types of the hopping Joe Uhan suggests and then report back on how it goes. Remember his critical suggestions of posture and alignment, starting with control, and assisting the motion if you need to.