When we started our first Faster Than Ever 5k Training Program this Fall, I was tasked with creating a lower extremity workout to supplement the running workouts. The Faster 5k program is different than our other training programs as it challenges the participants to not only run the 3.1 miles, but to do it faster than they ever have before. Aside from running faster, what is so different about the way we train this group versus other groups? From a non-running aspect, explosive lower extremity training is what is going to help improve 5k running time.
Explosive training, also known as plyometrics, are exercises that require the muscle to generate force as quickly as possible. The muscle quickly goes from a stretch to a contraction. For example, hopping up and down requires the calf muscle to generate an explosive contraction to spring us up off of the ground, a stretch as we land and lower our heel to the ground, then another quick contraction to jump again. Performing plyometric exercises that resemble similar motions of the running gait cycle can be especially beneficial. Drills like bounding, hopping, and skipping are examples of drills that can be performed to supplement running workouts.
It has been shown that implementing explosive exercise into your routine just twice a week can improve 5k time without any increase in VO2max. This suggests that there is no increase in the body’s capacity to transport oxygen to working muscles (VO2max), but rather an increase in the muscles’ ability to generate power and speed. Much of the benefit obtained from performing plyometric exercise comes in the form of improved neuromuscular efficiency. With plyometric training, the muscles of the leg are able to produce greater force at a quicker rate during the stance phase of gait. This causes an increase in stride rate and overall speed.
The research supports the idea that explosive training can improve running speed. The part of the equation that is still inconclusive is whether or not adding resistance to the exercises is more or less beneficial. Heavier loads require more neural input to handle the load, so there is a benefit there. However, lighter loads permit quicker movement speeds. There has been research showing benefits of both types of plyometrics, loaded and unloaded. So either way, if a runner adds this type of activity to their weekly routine, they should see an improvement in their speed.
A great starting place for introducing plyometrics into your routine is the squat jump. Many runners already perform body weight squats as part of their regular training. The squat jump is a progression of that exercise that challenges the muscles of the legs to contract in a different, more explosive way. The squat jump begins as a regular body weight squat, but when you get to the bottom of the motion (knees bent, hips flexed), jump up as quickly and as high as you can. When you land, bend your knees and come all the way back down to the bottom of the motion again. Repeat 10 times successively. Once this exercise becomes easy, you can progress to lunge jumps and single leg squat jumps. As your body becomes more familiar with plyometrics, increase the number of repetitions to 15 or 20 and perform 2 – 3 sets.
Explosive training taxes the muscle in a different way that running does. You might feel sore for a couple of days after performing these exercises. That’s ok, it means you have challenged your muscles and they are adapting to the new stresses that you have placed on them. If the soreness lasts more than 3 days, you over did it.
To improve your running speed, there are many things that must be taken into consideration. Quality running workouts are obviously a major part of that, but explosive lower extremity training cannot be overlooked when your goal is to get faster.