Chapters 5 through 9 of this book deal with strength training and the specific anatomy affected by properly performed resistance exercises. This chapter deals with alternative forms of exercise that complement the strength-training exercises detailed in the previous chapters. Specifically, this chapter examines water running and plyometrics as performance-enhancing training tools for runners.
Full-body conditioning is an important training element because it can diminish the injury potential that a repetitive, high-impact exercise such as running can have on the musculoskeletal system. By substituting a deep-water running session for a land running session, you can avoid countless tons of force on the body’s anatomy without a concurrent loss in cardiovascular stimulation. Also, incorporating plyometrics into a training plan strengthens muscles, aiding the ability to withstand the impact of accumulated running training miles. It also helps in recovery from injury (when performed at the appropriate time), and it can improve running economy.
Most runners have been introduced to water running as a rehabilitative tool for maintaining cardiorespiratory fitness after incurring an injury that precludes dryland running. However, runners should not assume that aquatic training’s only benefit is injury rehabilitation. Running in water, specifically deep-water running (DWR), is a great tool for preventing overuse injuries associated with a heavy volume of aerobic running training. Also, because of the drag associated with running in water, an element of resistance training is associated with water running that does not exist in traditional running-based training.
Although shallow-water running is a viable alternative to DWR, its benefits tend to be related to form and power. Although the improvement of form and power is important, it comes at a cost. Because shallow-water running requires impact with the bottom of a pool, it has an impact component (although the force is mitigated by the density of the water). For a runner rehabbing a lower leg injury, shallow-water running could pose a risk of injury. More important, balance and form are easier to attain in shallow-water running because of a true foot plant. Fewer core muscles are engaged to center the body, as in DWR, and there is a resting period during contact that does not exist in DWR. For our purposes, all water-related training exercises focus on DWR.
In performing a DWR workout, proper body positioning is important (figure 12.1). The depth of the water should be sufficient to cover the entire body: Only the tops of the shoulders, the neck, and the head should be above the surface of the water. The feet should not touch the bottom of the pool. Runners tend to have more lean body mass than swimmers, making them less buoyant; therefore, a flotation device will be necessary. If a flotation device is not worn, body position can become compromised and an undue emphasis is placed on the muscles of the upper body and arms to keep the body afloat.
Figure 12.1 Proper body position for deep-water running.
Once buoyed in the water, assume a body position similar to dryland running. Specifically, the head is centered, there is a slight lean forward at the waist, and the chest is “proud,” or expanded, with the shoulders pulled back, not rotated forward. Elbows are bent at 90 degrees, and movement of the arms is driven by the shoulders. The wrists are held in a neutral position, and the hands, although not clenched, are more closed than on dry land in order to push through the resistance of the water. (See figure 12.2 for an example of poor body position during DWR.) The strength gained from performing wrist curls and reverse wrist curls (see chapter 6) are beneficial for this.
Figure 12.2 Incorrect body position for deep-water running.
Leg action is more akin to faster-paced running than general aerobic running because of the propulsive force needed for overcoming the resistance caused by the density of the water. The knee should be driven upward to an approximate 75-degree angle at the hip. The leg is then driven down to almost full extension (avoiding hyperextension) before being pulled upward directly under the buttocks before the process is repeated with the other leg.
During the gait cycle, the feet change position from no flexion (imagine standing on a flat surface) when the knee is driving upward to approximately 65 degrees of plantarflexion (toes down) at full extension. This foot movement against resistance both facilitates the mechanics of running form and promotes joint stability and muscle strength as a result of overcoming the resistance caused by drag.
Due to the unnatural training environment (water) and the resistance created when driving the arms and legs, improper form is common when beginning a DWR training program. Specifically, it is common to make a punting-like motion with the forward leg instead of snapping it down as shown in the B motion on page 24. This error is due to fatigue of the hamstrings from the water resistance, resulting in poor mechanics. To correct this error, rest at the onset of the fatigue, and don’t perform another repetition until the time goal is met. Do not try to push through it. You won’t gain fitness, and you will gain poor form.
Figure 12.3 shows a DWR technique that most closely resembles dryland running form. It is the best technique for facilitating proper running form while training in deep water. A high-knee alternative does exist (figure 12.4), but it is less effective in mimicking the nuances of proper running form. Instead, it more closely resembles the form used on a stair-stepping exercise machine. There is little running action other than the lift phase and therefore very little muscle involvement.
Figure 12.3 Deep-water running, traditional form.
Figure 12.4 Deep-water running, high-knee form.
DWR is effective because it elevates the heart rate, similar to dryland running. And because of the physics of drag, it requires more muscular involvement, thus strengthening more muscles than dryland running does without the corresponding overuse injuries associated with such training. Specifically, it eliminates the thousands of impact-producing foot strikes incurred during non-DWR running.
DWR is easily integrated into a running training program either as a substitute for an aerobic run, lactate, or VO2max effort or as a supplemental workout, such as a second running workout of the day. Because pace is easily controlled by speeding up or slowing down leg turnover, adjusting efforts based on heart rate or perceived effort is simple. Studies have found that heart rates during water running are about 10 percent lower than during land running, so a heart rate of 150 beats per minute (bpm) during water running equates to a heart rate of 165 bpm on land. Also, perceived effort is greater in water because of the combination of greater muscle involvement and the warmer temperatures of most pools. Because running for an hour in the pool is boring to most runners, we recommend 50 minutes in a pool as a good substitute for an on-land easy run; fartlek and interval-type efforts should be the emphasis of DWR training. Also, multiple intense efforts akin to speed work on land can be performed weekly because of the lack of ground impact. The following are two sample DWR workouts.
Sample Lactate Workout
The goal of this workout is to elevate the blood-lactate accumulation. At the end of each subsequent repetition, muscle fatigue should be increasingly present because the one-minute rest does not allow full recovery. This is not an easy workout, but it would not be a true speed session.
Warm-up: 15 min easy running + 4 × :30 @ 5K race pace (perceived effort)
2 × 10 min @ 10K race pace (perceived effort) with 1 min recovery jog
1 × 15 min @ 10K race pace (perceived effort) with 1 min recovery jog
Cool-down: 10 min easy running
Sample VO2max Workout
The goal of this workout is to simulate 5K race effort. Because pace can’t be replicated in a pool, the emphasis of the workout is on perceived effort. Heart rate can be used; if you know your training zones from an LT test and you own a waterproof heart rate monitor, the exact effort can be substituted. Rest is given to allow for proper form on each repetition. Note that, as in running on dry land, body position is an important component of running efficiency. Good body position (as described and illustrated earlier in the chapter) leads to a more productive workout. This would be a moderately hard effort for a trained runner and a difficult effort for a beginner.
Warm-up: 15 min easy running + 4 × :30 @ 5K race pace (perceived effort)
5 × 2 min @ 5K race pace (perceived effort) with 2 min recovery jog
3 × 3 min @ 5K race pace (perceived effort) with 3 min recovery jog
3 × 2 min @ 5K race pace (perceived effort) with 2 min recovery jog
Cool-down: 10 min easy running
The term plyometrics is mysterious to many distance runners, although it is a common training tool for many elite distance runners, middle-distance runners, and sprinters, most professional athletes, and many athletes rehabilitating from injuries. For the noninitiated, it sounds like, and at times is represented as, a hyperspeed method of improving performance. Just perform plyometrics, drink amino acid–laced recovery drinks, and voilà, instant performance improvements.
By definition, plyometrics means measurable increases, in this case through body-weight exercises. Because it is the use of strength, not raw strength, that contributes to speed development, plyometric exercises have one main goal: the conversion of strength to speed by generating a large amount of force quickly. Plyometric exercises train the neurological and muscular systems to increase the speed at which the body’s strength can be used. By performing plyometric exercises, runners can measurably improve running performance, but not in the way they may think.
A by-product of the development of muscular power is an improvement in running economy. Running economy is the cost, or amount of oxygen, required to maintain a defined pace. The less oxygen used to maintain a certain pace relative to other runners or your previous measurement, the better the running economy. It does not quantify the efficiency of running form (the terms are often confused), although running form may affect running economy.
Plyometric exercises trigger improved running economy through recruitment of muscle fibers in a way that distance training does not. A plyometrically trained athlete’s muscle contractions are shorter in duration; because less strength is required to perform the contraction (a result of both increased strength and neurological development), running economy improves. This chain of events leads to faster performances caused by the delay of muscle fatigue.
But, unlike DWR, plyometrics cannot be substituted for running training to improve performance for distance runners. Although DWR has an impact on LT and VO2max, plyometric exercises train the neuromuscular systems with almost no impact on the cardiothoracic systems described in chapter 2. Without running training, plyometric training could not sustain improvements in running performance.
There is debate about the phase of training in which plyometrics should be incorporated. There are no definitive answers, but we suggest one plyometric session per week during lactate training and two sessions per week during VO2max training. The workout should be done before the LT or VO2max workout takes place, in a separate training session if possible, and not on recovery days.
The plyometric workout should be sufficient in duration to develop muscular fatigue, but not so difficult that the running workout is compromised. The neurological component of the workout is as important as the muscular strength derived from exercises, so performing the exercises to exhaustion can overload the muscles for the workout to follow and performance improvement could be hindered.
Following are four beginning plyometric exercises that can be incorporated into a running program. The exercises do not all meet the true definition of a plyometric exercise (eccentric muscle contraction, inertia, concentric contraction), but because they do involve explosive muscle-contraction movements, most current training programs include them as plyometric drills. These can be performed all in one session, as one set only, as multiple (two or three) sets of each for a heavier day, or as just one or two exercises with a single set for an easy preworkout. Limit the total number of repetitions or touches to no more than eight per exercise (except for box steps, which can be done in one-minute intervals at varying speeds) and the total number of sets to no more than five per exercise.
The number of exercises performed and the number of reps or touches are dependent on many factors: The familiarity of the runner with plyometric exercises, the difficulty of the workout to be performed after the plyometric session, and the runner’s fitness. Following the exercises are some guidelines for performance.
1. Position the body in a full squat position with feet slightly apart. The thighs are horizontal to the ground with the lower back gently arched. The head is centered and the chin is slightly raised. Arms are extended in front of the body.
2. Inhale deeply while sweeping the arms backward and then quickly forward, developing momentum for the legs to explode from the full squat position at a 60-degree angle, throwing the arms above the head. Upon reaching the apex of the jump, prepare to land, and lower the body into the same body position (full squat) as when the exercise started.
3. Upon landing and reestablishing proper squat form, immediately repeat the jump.
Primary: quadriceps, gluteus maximus, gastrocnemius, soleus
Secondary: hamstrings, deltoid, rectus abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique
The frogger is a propulsive exercise that requires the athlete to explode from the start position, engaging the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Although it has a very practical application for sprinters (the improvement of the starting motion from a block), the frogger, like all plyometric exercises, can also aid the distance runner by increasing running economy by strengthening the impacted muscles, leading to less energy consumption during distance running.
A-Step Depth Jump
Use the arms to add to the speed by drawing them back before stepping off the platform and swinging them vigorously upward as the feet hit the ground. Keep the back in neutral alignment, not arched or rounded.
1. Standing on a platform, step forward using the knee action of the A motion of running from chapter 3.
2. Land on both feet and, reacting as quickly as possible, spring immediately back up into the air in a frogger-like fashion.
3. Maintain a neutral posture and a balanced, elevated chest position throughout the exercise. Do not attempt to absorb the landing on impact; rather, react as quickly and as fast as possible, even if this sacrifices height gained.
Primary: quadriceps, gluteus maximus, hamstrings
Secondary: gastrocnemius, soleus
This involves an eccentric contraction, stepping down from the box, leading into a concentric contraction, a traditional plyometric drill with the added bonus of beginning the exercise with a running-specific A step.
1. Stand with good posture facing a plyometric box or weight bench. The height of the box should not be higher than the knee.
2. Engage the quadriceps on one side, lift that foot off the ground, and place it on the bench at a 90-degree angle at the knee. Step up with the other leg in the same manner so that you are standing on the box or bench.
3. Immediately step down, reversing the pattern used to step up.
Primary: quadriceps, gluteus maximus
Secondary: hamstrings, gastrocnemius, soleus
This exercise mimics the A motion presented in chapter 3; however, it has little impact, and can be performed for significantly longer. Instead of touches, this exercise can be measured in minutes; for example, a sample workout could be 2 × 1 minute of slow step-ups followed by 2 × 1 minute of fast step-ups, followed by 2 × 1 minute of slow step-ups. Changing the speed of the step-up, the height of the platform stepped onto, and the time interval allows for variation. The exercise seems benign, but five minutes of stepping is plenty of time for a good burn of the glutes and quadriceps.
•Pause only briefly upon landing. To perform a less explosive version of this exercise, keep your feet level with each other and parallel to the floor.
1. Place three or four cones two feet apart in a straight line.
2. Stand six inches behind the first cone in a partial squat position with the arms by the sides.
3. Driving the arms, explode forward in a modified frogger, landing in a slightly deeper squat than when starting. Repeat over each cone.
Primary: gluteus maximus, quadriceps, hamstrings
Secondary: gastrocnemius, transversus abdominis
The eccentric contraction is the landing, and the concentric contraction is the takeoff. The quads extend during takeoff, and the hamstrings and glutes eccentrically contract when landing.
Lateral Cone Jump
This variation changes the muscles used to include the gluteus medius and minimus, which aid in abduction, and the adductor muscles. Perform the exercise by turning sideways at the start, so your side is facing the cones. Perform the jump with the same body position, just move sideways over the cones.