As runners, most of us spend at least some part of our training careers searching for another level of speed. Yet that seems to become even more elusive as we age. Buy WHY? And what can we do about that?
Fortunately recent research has given us a fairly good idea of how to answer both of those questions.
The WHY of slowing down seems to come from our calves. That powerful muscle group that includes both the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles is responsible for a little more than 60% of our forward propulsion. SIXTY percent. That’s massive over the course of a run.
Yet what does research tell us happens to our calves as we get older? They get weaker and less ‘springy’. ‘Springy’ refers to the elastic component of that giant rubber band that our calf attaches to, more commonly known as the Achilles tendon.
Although we think of ourselves as getting stiffer as we age, our tendons actually LOSE stiffness. Think of that nice, fresh rubber band getting older and starting to dry out. Its more brittle. When you stretch it, it doesn’t just spring back like it used to. If loses ‘stiffness’ that we need it a nice spring that is going to return our energy to use when we run.
How do we keep the springiness in the tendon and the strength in the muscles that provide us with such important forward propulsion?
To quote from Runners World magazine, “Plyometric training is a high-velocity movement that relies on power generated through what is called the “stretch-shortening cycle.”
Huh? Basically, this means that we are going to stretch the muscle and tendon and then shorten it quickly by contracting the calves in a forceful way. If you prefer more scientific jargon, its an eccentric contraction followed by a quick concentric contraction.
Think of hopping up and down. We land on our toes, lower our body weight as our heels come to the ground, and then contract our calves again for the next jump. If we do that quickly, that’s a plyometric.
Plyometrics include a lot of explosive and jumping exercises, such as jump squats and line hops. You may wonder why jumping would improve your running, but take a look at your running gait in slow motion. Your stride is basically a series of hopping from one foot to the other over and over.
With consistent plyometric training, you will increase the force you produce with each movement, making it easier to run faster. You will improve the elasticity of your muscles and tendons . Much like this elusive spring, your connective tissues will store energy from each impact and then release it to drive your body forward. This is called the “stretch-shortening cycle.”
Improvements in your muscles’ stretch-shortening cycle have obvious implications for runners as more stored energy gives you the ability to maintain a given pace using less overall energy. In other words, you improve your running economy and become a more efficient runner.
Here are five exercises that you can incorporate into your training once or twice per week.
Here you will start in a good squat position, keep knees straight forward, hips back and head up. Jump up, land soft, and quickly jump back up. Landing mechanics are most important here and should be with soft knees to absorb shock. After returning to squat position, quickly jump up again and repeat for 10-15 repetitions. Complete 2-3 sets of these.
You will start in a lunging position with left leg in front and right behind. Jump and switch leg positions so you land with right leg in front and left behind. Again focus on landing soft, absorbing the shock, and quickly getting into the air again. P.S. My form may not be the best as my balance has never fully returned to normal. Repeat jumping alternating front and back legs 15-20 reps. Try for 2-3 sets.
Line hops- both legs
Having an imaginary (or real) line, quickly jump side to side over the line. The goal here is to be as quick as possible and minimize the time that your feet are on the ground.
You can also then go forward and backward. Try 10-15 reps both ways and 2-3 sets.
Line hops- single leg
Same thing but jumping on one leg at a time.
You can do these on bleachers or on a regular flight of stairs. You simply hop with both feet together to the top of the stairs as quickly as possible. Walk or jog carefully down. Repeat 3-5 times. 2-3 sets.
Let us know how you incorporate these into your training days and how they end up helping your speed!
Suzi and Stephanie