Running economy is now considered to be one of the critical factors to increase endurance performance. In fact, many exercise scientists and coaches argue that it is a stronger determinant than VO2max. While in the past slow, long-distance workouts were often used to improve running economy, studies now suggest that plyometric workouts could be the key.
By way of definition, running economy is a measure of efficiency and is calculated by the volume of oxygen relative to body weight that a person needs in order to run at any given speed. Someone with a high running economy has a lower energy demand and requires less oxygen to maintain a faster speed.
Running economy can be improved by maximizing muscle recruitment through the use of more muscles to increase force. However, athletes face the challenge of recruiting as few muscle fibers as possible in order to lower the total amount of oxygen needed in their muscles, explains coach and exercise physiologist Dr. Karp.
Efficient training is needed to resolve this seeming paradox. While aerobic workouts are useful for improving running economy, plyometrics take the athlete to the next level.
Maximum Force in Minimum Time
Plyometrics are exercises designed to allow muscles to reach maximum force in the shortest possible time by combining speed and strength. In a study by Paavolainen et al, explosive strength was discovered to lead to significant neural adaptations such as an increased rate of motor-unit activation. With plyometrics, an athlete’s muscle force can be optimized by heightening the rate of motor-unit stimulation and by increasing the number of motor-unit activations.
Studies have shown that optimal muscle recruitment can be attained through plyometric exercises with effects taking place in as little as two months of training. As Dr. Karp explains, this is because plyometric exercises work on the elastic properties of muscles and tendons to utilize energy pushing off from the ground. Plyometric exercises then lead to an increase in the rate that muscles can produce force, in turn improving the body’s ability to maintain oxygen at any given speed.
Marathon runner David Jankowski is a case study of an athlete who has incorporated plyometrics into his exercise regime. After doing so, Jankowski noticed a significant increase in overall performance as well as a change in stride from a formerly-loping step to a more bouncy movement. Improvements in speed and endurance led to a decrease of 14 seconds in his 1500m run time.
Another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning tested the effect of plyometrics on running economy through a group of distance runners. Half of the runners spent eight weeks training with plyometrics, while the other half focused on weight training. By the end of the experiment, the plyometrics training group had seen significantly larger improvements in their running economy compared to the weight lifters.
While competitive athletes will always rely on some level of lower-intensity continous training, research shows that plymetric exercises can efficiently improve one of the critical determinants of endurance performance, running economy.