Jump training for runners

Jump training for runners

Dale Guilford

Most runners understand that, all other things being equal, stronger athletes generally achieve better performance. But strength alone does not always improve athletic ability. It is important to be able to utilize that strength in the form of quick, explosive movements in order to achieve optimum performance. This is no less important to the weekend distance runner sprinting to the finish of his personal best training time than it is to competitive athletes in all sports at all levels. Jump training and plyometrics training can help anyone who wants a winning edge over the competition, even if you are only competing against yourself.

What is Plyometrics?

Russian exercise scientists seeking to maximize the performance of their athletes introduced plyometrics thirty years ago. Plyometrics is a technical term that applies to training exercises where there is a very short time between the initial movement, an eccentric braking phase, and the next repetition. Not all jumping exercises are plyometric, but the term has been absorbed into training terminology to apply loosely to all jump training and other exercises that use quick movements with resistance (such as medicine ball work).

Jumping exercises are effective performance enhancers because they use quick powerful movements that combine strength and speed in activities that involve maximum muscular contraction in response to rapid stretching of the muscles. Plyometrics train the muscles to fire more quickly and to respond explosively, resulting in a runner who can run faster and more powerfully. Examples of plyometric activities include leaping, bounding, and jumping. Plyometric movements train the muscles to move fast. If you combine plyometrics with strength training and running, you can maximize performance with greater speed, strength, and ultimately power.

Getting Ready

The explosive nature of jumping and plyometric activities results in a huge amount of stress on the muscles, joints and connective tissues. Just because you are a runner, it doesn’t mean that your body is ready for the intense challenge involved in jump training. If you are interested in adding jump training to a regular training schedule, you must have an established base of mileage, pace, good form, and–most important–a solid base of strength training. In some references, it is suggested that a candidate for plyometrics is able to squat one and a half to two times his weight before embarking. This is because in jumping, ground reaction forces can be many times your body weight. Although that recommendation is not being made for these exercises, it should emphasize the importance of having a good base of strength training before doing serious jumping exercises. It is also assumed that you are free of any sport injury–either chronic or acute. Once these basics are established, plyometrics must still be int roduced gradually.

Jumping Technique

Jumping increases your risk of injury. In order to avoid that unwanted side effect, the technique employed in taking off and landing should not be neglected. Here are some guidelines: the stance before take-off should be balanced with the feet about shoulder width apart. A good way to proceed from this point is to make a fist with your hands and put your thumbs next to your ears. Lower your body position by bending your knees (not your back-it stays straight). As you lower your body position gradually lower your hands until they are about at your ankles. Now you are in a crouched position ready to jump up. It’s a good idea to lower and raise yourself a few times without jumping just to get the rhythm of raising and lowering your body.

When you are in a crouched position ready to jump, your body weight should be balanced on your feet. As your knees straighten out, the weight transfers to the balls of the feet and ideally, the final take off is from the sole of the big toe. The landing is just the opposite. The initial contact is made with the big toes, then the balls of feet, heels, and finished by lowering the hips toward the floor. One of the most common errors you can make is to land with stiff legs. Remember Wily Coyote in the cartoons falling from huge heights, landing ramrod straight with that reverberating sound effect? That is what you want to avoid. It is hard on the joints and it fails to load the weight on the quadriceps and the gluteus maximus, the target muscles from which your power comes. Think of your body as a large shock absorber that only works if the shock is distributed.

Cycling the Workouts

As with most exercise programs, the activities should be performed in cycles. A typical program might last from eight to twelve weeks. The program should start with an introductory period of simple exercises that emphasize technique. The next period should be a developmental period of about four to six weeks. The exercises in this period will become gradually more complex and more intense. The final weeks are a peak period in which the exercises are the most complex and technically challenging. Athletes should train only once per week in the early period and twice per week in the middle and final periods.

These guidelines can get you started with jump training. If you are interested in more information Jumping into Plyometrics, by Donald A. Chu, Ph.D. (Second edition, 1998, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 177 pp. $15.95) is an excellent reference. Another good resource, with a very complete list of additional references and suggested readings, is High Powered Plyometrics, by James C. Radcliffe and Robert C. Farentinos (1999, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 171 pp., $19.95.)

(Dale Guilford is a foot ball and track coach in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He is a regular contributor to “Running & FitNews.”)


As with all aspects of your training, use your common sense–if it hurts, don’t do it. Exercises are best completed on a mat or some kind of cushioned surface. Outdoors on a grassy surface is okay but check first for rocks or divots that could twist an ankle. Heavier runners should be extra careful–muscles, joints, tendons, and bones are all more vulnerable the heavier you are. Be absolutely certain your strength and conditioning are adequate before getting involved in jump training. Although plyometrics can shave time off races, increase running efficiency, and provide power for explosive finishes, it won’t do you any good at all if you end up injured.

Beginning Jump Exercises

After a thorough warm-up and complete stretching, you should practice the following exercises at fairly low intensity to begin with, building up to higher intensity, over a period of weeks. Remember that plyometric exercises are done with a complete recovery allowed between sets. Each exercise should be practiced in two sets of 10 repetitions. Add plyometrics to your training routine once a week when starting and increase to twice a week as you develop. As you move on to higher level plyometrics, increasing repetitions is not recommended. Rather, increase height and power and distance with each jump. Here are some lower level jumping exercises that can be increased in height and intensity as power develops.

* Two legged jumps up and down

* Hop in place off both feet.

* Jump from two legs, side to side

* Jump from two legs forward and back

* Jumping Jacks

* Jump in place moving your legs and arms the way a cross-country skier would

* Skipping in place

Moving on to More Advanced Jumps

Plyometrics is not meant for endurance training–it is designed for increasing speed and power. Limit yourself to 10 repetitions and two sets. As your skill develops your goal is to achieve more height with each jump, or more height and distance with lateral bounds. This is your evidence that explosive power is evolving from your jump training.

* Triple Jump

This is a bounding exercise combined with a long jump. Bound two strides in preparation for a long jump landing on two feet.

* Standing Long Jump

Stand with feet shoulder width apart, hips low, hands at your sides near your ankles, push off explosively swinging arms forward covering as much lateral distance as possible.

Alternate Leg Bounding

* Begin with one leg in front of the other. Push off the back leg, driving the knee up and forward to get as much height and distance as possible Repeat alternating legs 10 times.

* Galloping

Similar to bounding, but with galloping the same leg remains behind during each repetition. Do one set with the right leg behind and one set with the left leg behind. Again your goal is to cover as much height and ground distance as possible with each push-off.

* Plyometric Skipping

This is just like the kids at the park do, only exaggerated. Practice the motion of skipping first; then increase intensity until you can achieve the greatest height and distance with each lift-off from the ground. Do sets of 10 skips from each leg.

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Running & Fitness Association

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