The search for an easier way to increase running efficiency

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It’s pretty clear at this point that plyometric training can make you a more efficient runner. There is still a lot of debate about how this works. Does it streamline the signals that travel from the brain to the muscle? Does it make your tendons stiffer, allowing them to store and release more energy as they’re stretched with every step? Does it alter your running style to take quicker, lighter steps? No one is sure, but there is little debate that it does something.

As a result, studies like this one in Sports biomechanics, released last month by a group led by Aurlien Patoz of the University of Lausanne, hasn’t garnered much attention. They found a 3.9% improvement in running economy after eight weeks of plyometric or dynamic strength training, roughly comparable to that produced by Nike’s original Vaporfly 4% shoe. (They also found no evidence that either form of training altered running pace significantly, for what it’s worth.)

Why no excitement over a free four percent raise? As someone who has experimented on and off with various forms of plyometric training for several decades, let me hazard a guess: It’s perceived as too complicated and possibly risky for most of us. Plyometrics involves explosive movements where you try to maximize the force produced in the least amount of time. You often see people leaping down steps, stepping over obstacles, and performing various other feats of impressive coordination.

The subjects in Patoz’s study were amateurs with no prior experience with any form of structured strength training. As a result, the exercises they did weren’t particularly daunting by plyometric standards. But they weren’t simple either. Here is an overview of the programme:

(Illustration: biomechanics of sport)

Even if you think your hamstrings can handle drop jumps, plyometric lunges, lunges, and so on without snapping, you still need various pieces of equipment and plenty of time. Does it have to be that complicated?

This is the question addressed by another recent study, conducted by Tobias Engeroff of the Goethe University of Frankfurt and published in Scientific reports. They stripped plyometric training to the bare bones, tested it on a group of recreational runners, and found a significant improvement in running economy after just six weeks. The exact extent of the improvement depends on how you measure it and at what speed, but it was between 2 and 4 percent.

Engeroff’s plyometric program involved nothing but hopping in place. Specifically, participants were asked to start with both feet no wider than hip-width apart and jump as high as possible with both legs, keeping the knees extended and aiming to minimize contact time with the soil. They started by jumping for 10 seconds, resting for 50 seconds, and repeating five times for a total of five minutes. They did this five-minute program every day, decreasing the rest and increasing the number of sets each week: Week two was 6 sets of 10-second jumps with 40 seconds of rest; the sixth and final week was 15 sets of 10-second jumps with 10-second rest, for a total of five minutes.

This program was based on the idea that its tendon stiffness increases running economy. Specifically, the stretch and recoil of the Achilles tendon provides between one-half and three-quarters of the positive work required for running, by some estimates. Engeroff’s short daily program is based on recent research by Keith Baar and others which suggests that connective tissue such as tendons respond better to short, frequent stimuli rather than longer, harder workouts. Notably, this approach didn’t hurt any of the riders.

The point here isn’t necessarily that daily hops are the new magical exercise everyone should be doing. In fact, it’s worth pointing out that Patoz’s study found essentially the same improvements with both plyometrics and dynamic strength training. This is a familiar finding in studies that have tried to determine the best economy-boosting regimen: all sorts of different approaches seem to produce similar results. Patoz’ dynamic strength program features a series of bodyweight exercises that focus on concentric contractions: lunges, step-ups, squats, stair jumps. These are all components of my current strength routine, and I like the idea that in addition to tightening up my tendons, I could also strengthen my muscles.

It is worth acknowledging that the subjects in both of these studies were recreational runners with little prior plyometric or strength training experience. The minimalist program that works for them may not do much for a serious competitive runner with years of resistance training experience. Those are the people who might need to do the elaborate one-legged three-axis hurdle jumps you see in online training montages. For the rest of us, though, the message seems to be: do it something. It is as effective as supershoes and much cheaper.

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