Why every runner should build their power
“When running, we are only on the ground for about 0.25 of a second,” says Rojas. Which means you want to be able to produce a lot of force, really quickly. A powerful stride comes with major benefits:
- Nell Rojas, Nike-sponsored long-distance runner and former triathlete
1. Faster times
“Speed doesn’t come from faster turnover; speed comes from applying more force down to the ground,” says Rojas. “Power allows runners to generate more force into the ground with each stride, which allows you to cover more distance in less time.”
2. Improved acceleration
Rojas says that building power as a runner allows you to accelerate faster from standing, or after a turn, and gain momentum and achieve faster initial speeds when you run.
3. Efficient stride mechanics
“When runners develop power, they improve their ability to generate force and transfer it through muscles, tendons, and bones effectively,” says Rojas. “This efficiency minimizes energy waste and allows for a smoother and more economical running stride.”
4. Injury prevention
As with regular strength training workouts for runners, strength exercises that improve a runner’s power strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which reduces the risk of imbalances and weaknesses that Rojas says can lead to overuse injuries. She adds that power training also improves bone density, which is essential for maintaining skeletal health and preventing stress injuries.
How lacking power in the push-off undercuts your speed
Although all parts of the running stride can become more powerful with effective power training, Rojas says that developing power in the push-off phase of running (also called the propulsive phase) is especially beneficial if you want to maximize your speed. This is the point in the running stride where one foot is leaving the ground at toe-off as you prepare to lift that leg up into the swing phase so that both of your feet are off the ground and you are briefly airborne.
“When the push-off lacks power, the force applied to the ground is insufficient, resulting in a shorter stride,” says Rojas. “A shorter stride length means that the runner covers less ground with each step, leading to a decrease in overall speed.”
Without enough power in the push-off, our feet also spend more time on the ground before we become airborne, reducing both efficiency and speed. And it can also disrupt the transfer of energy through the kinetic chain. This causes "energy leaks" and reduces the effectiveness of each stride, Rojas adds. “This inefficiency hampers speed and overall running performance.”
How to train for power in running
So, now that you're itching to build that power, how can you actually do it? Through plyometric workouts. “Plyometrics will enhance explosive recruitment of muscle fibers, train the stiffness and elastic recoil of tendons and ligaments, and improve running economy,” says Rojas.
The rapid muscle contractions and explosive movements also enhance neuromuscular coordination. "These exercises train the muscles to rapidly switch from eccentric (lengthening) to concentric (shortening) contractions,” says Rojas. “Improved neuromuscular coordination enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of muscle recruitment during running, leading to greater power generation.”
Additionally, plyometric exercises have been shown to target the stretch-shortening cycle of muscles and tendons, which helps provide energy storage. “The Achilles tendon is an example of an important tendon that stores and then rebounds energy, producing 30 percent of the energy to move you forward. This energy is then released as a powerful contraction,” says Rojas. We tend to think of having stiff tendons as a bad thing, but Rojas says stiffness in these connective tissues actually helps serve as a spring of sorts.
Lastly, Rojas adds that plyometrics are particularly beneficial for runners because they are designed to improve the rate of force production, which is the ability to generate force rapidly—and equates to a more explosive push-off.
What are the best power-building exercises for runners?
Rojas has three basic plyometrics exercises that she recommends starting with.
This exercise, also called pogo hops or ankle hops, targets the calves, ankles, and lower leg muscles. It helps to improve lower body power, ankle strength, Achilles stiffness and elasticity, and reactive abilities.
How to do it:
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, back straight, shoulders relaxed, and core engaged.
- Use quick and spring-like motions in your ankles to perform little bounces up and down, like you're on a pogo stick.
“Focus on pushing off the balls of your feet, utilizing the strength and elasticity of your calf muscles,” says Rojas. “As you perform the ankle action, let your body rise off the ground in a controlled and rhythmic manner. Keep the jumps relatively low, focusing more on speed and quick rebounding movements rather than trying to achieve maximum height.”
You want to spend as little time as possible on the ground between jumps, so the emphasis should be on a quick and explosive push-off so that you develop reactive strength and power in your lower legs.
This exercise focuses on improving your power, explosive strength, and reactive abilities. “Depth jumps increase stiffness and elasticity in the Achilles tendon and improve pre-activation of stability muscles acting on the ankle and knee,” says Rojas. “It involves stepping off an elevated platform, quickly absorbing the impact upon landing, and immediately exploding into a jump or another explosive movement.”
How to do it:
- Stand on top of a platform with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes close to the edge (begin with something around a foot high). Keep your arms relaxed by your sides or in front of you for balance.
- Step off the platform with one foot and quickly bring the other foot to meet it, ensuring both feet land simultaneously.
- As soon as you land, focus on absorbing the impact by bending at your knees and hips, and lowering into a squat position. Maintain a good posture with your chest up and your core engaged.
- Immediately push off the ground and jump vertically or perform another desired explosive movement, like a broad jump or a tuck jump. Emphasize a quick and powerful upward movement.
Bounding is essentially exaggerated skipping. This plyometric exercise helps increase single-leg hip strength and control, and explosive hip extension qualities while also improving the stretch-shortening cycle of tendons and ligaments.
How to do it:
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and your arms relaxed by your sides.
- Take a big step forward with your right leg while simultaneously swinging your left arm forward.
- Explode off your right foot and leap into the air, driving your left knee up and forward while swinging your right arm forward for balance and coordination. While airborne, maintain a tall and upright posture, aiming to achieve the maximum height and distance with each bound by extending your body and using your explosive power.
- Land on your left foot. Flex the ankle, knee, and hip joints to absorb impact.
- As soon as you land, immediately push off with your left foot and repeat the bounding sequence.
- Alternate legs with each repetition, bounding with power and rhythm.
How should runners incorporate power training into their routine?
Rojas is a big proponent of doing strength training and plyometric workouts as distinct sessions from your runs to allow for targeted training of specific muscle groups and energy systems without the added fatigue from running. Of course, how much power training you do can vary based on your training goals, current fitness level, and overall training schedule. But she offers some general guidelines for beginners:
Doing two or three power exercises once or twice a week is generally a good frequency for most runners, according to Rojas. This allows for enough recovery between sessions while still offering a sufficient training stimulus to promote improvements.
Repetitions and sets
“Generally, plyometric exercises involve explosive movements that should be performed with quality and proper form. A typical starting point for plyometrics could be two to four sets of four to six repetitions per exercise,” says Rojas. “As proficiency and strength improve, the number of sets or repetitions can be increased gradually." The bottom line is to listen to your body, progress at a manageable pace, and avoid excessive fatigue.
Rojas stresses that taking adequate recoveries is crucial for optimal performance during power training. She advises runners to take about two to three minutes of rest between sets and between exercises to allow for partial recovery so that they can hit the necessary intensity for power training to be effective (and safe).
Finally, Rojas tells all of the runners that she coaches that in order to continue building power, it's important to progressively overload the muscles so that you are challenging the body enough for adaptations to occur. “This can be achieved by gradually increasing the intensity, volume, or complexity of power training exercises over time,” says Rojas. “It's essential to strike a balance between pushing limits and avoiding injury.”
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