Strength and power training for runners and triathletes.
By Andrew Harrison
Andrew has been competing in triathlons for 5 years at all distances up to Ironman. He has been teaching and coaching swimming for 8 years and is a level 2 coach. He has recently qualified as a UKA level 2 endurance coach.
His current studies include British Triathlon level 2 and ABCC cycle coaching and a sports science degree all of which are ongoing.
When we talk about power in sports we have many different ways of describing it. Dwain Chambers looks powerful on the start line. Chris Froome looks powerful on Alp d’ Huez etc. Really these descriptions don’t mean anything, unless you describe why they are powerful. To be powerful you need to exert force over a distance quickly. So a weightlifter doing a heavy squat is forceful but slow so less powerful. A long jumper is fast and forceful so he’s powerful.
Power = Force x Distance / Time
So to be more powerful you must either apply more force for a shorter amount of time or the same force faster. So how does this relate to your training? When we run we get faster by either increasing our stride length or stride rate. Most of us notice that when we get tired our stride either gets shorter or slower. Obviously power is more important in short races which is why sprinters train with heavy weights to increase the amount of force they can apply to the ground. Sprinters also spend a lot of training time on improving the speed of their movements using plyometric training.
Plyometric training involves a combination of bouncing, bounding and jumping to train the muscles and tendons to return more of the energy that is lost as your foot hits the ground. The best way to imagine your tendons when you run is to imagine them as thick elastic bands that act like shock absorbers absorbing the impact of hitting the ground and also returning some of that energy. The thicker and stiffer that band the more energy is returned.
For most runners training involves improving endurance through long runs, speed through track work and maybe some core exercises to prevent injury from the other two modes of training. This type of training works and has worked for runners of all abilities for a long time. So the question is does plyometric training designed for sprinters have any effect on a long distance runner?
Fortunately there has been research done on endurance runners. One study showed explosive strength training improved running economy (reduced oxygen use for the same speed) 5km time and jump height in elite level 5-10 km road and cross country runners in nine weeks.1
Another study showed an improvement in running economy in “regular but not highly trained runners” in a six week training protocol.2
What you need to ask yourself is will plyometrics improve my running? Will doing explosive strength training make me faster than doing an extra run?
This type of training is not for everyone. The first few sessions leave you with quite severe delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) which will affect the rest of your training so doing this type of training 3 weeks before your marathon is not a good idea. As part of a well planned periodised training programme explosive training will help most experienced runners to run faster without taxing their already tired aerobic energy system.
If you are planning to add plyometrics to your training, as with all new training systems it’s best to start slowly. Plyometric training is not measured in time or distance but in contacts. So a session for a beginner will contain 70 contacts. i.e. you make 70 contacts in total for the session. That’s all. You will then increase the number of contacts up to about 130 over 6-8 weeks.
So what are plyometrics?
If you’ve ran at one of the Serpentine track sessions you’ve probably done some basic plyometrics as part of your warm up. There are too many different exercises to list here but here is a sample session
15 min warm up including, high knees, heel flicks, leg swings, walking lunges and 50m strides. Increasing in intensity and speed in course the of the warm up.
- Vertical jumps (straight knees) 10
- Vertical jumps (tucked knees) 6
- Two legged hops forwards 6
- single leg hops forwards 6 (both legs)
- Split squat jumps 6/6 alternate lead legs
All exercises are performed in series and done twice. The order of the exercises can be altered, finishing with light jogging and stretching to cool down.This session can be performed in 45 minutes including 2 minute rest periods between exercises.
The tricky part of any training protocol is deciding if it has worked. Did you run a pb? Do you feel faster? These could be the result of loads of other variables so I propose doing an 8 week course of progressive exercises with a testing session at either end with some basic field tests to determine whether you have improved.
- Improvement in running economy after 6 weeks of plyometric training. Turner, Owings & Shwane 2003.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
- Explosive-strength training improves 5km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Paavolainen et, al 1999.
Journal of Applied Physiology