Improve Your Running Performance with Explosive Strength Training

By Rick Morris

You can run faster with explosive strength training. Endurance training does a great job at making you a better distance runner. It improves your VO2 max, raises your lactate turn point, builds your cardiovascular endurance, enhances your muscles ability to store glycogen and makes you more efficient at burning fat for fuel. But there are some very important phases of running that endurance training needs help to accomplish – running power and running economy.

Your running economy is a measure of how efficiently you run. If you are able to run further and faster using less energy your running economy is higher. Running power is a term that describes your ability to produce power when you are running at close to maximal aerobic capacity.

Distance running requires a high level of aerobic capacity or VO2 max. VO2 max is a measure of how much oxygen your body is able to process. Theoretically a higher VO2 max translates into superior running performance. It is true that a higher VO2 max gives you a greater potential for running performance, but there is a much more accurate gauge of your running potential – vVO2 max (velocity at VO2 max). vVO2 max takes your running economy and running power into consideration as well as your VO2 max. Running economy and running power are important because they allow you to run “easier” – using less energy. If two identical athletes with the same VO2 max levels were to complete against each other, the runner with higher levels of running economy and running power will win because they are able to run more efficiently. Think of it in terms of a soap box derby. Take two identical soap box cars. They are both the same in weight and design. The wheels and axel of one of the cars is fully greased, oiled and moving smoothly. The same components of the second car are dry, rusty and sticky. Even though both cars had the same potential, the first car will win because it is able to glide more smoothly and efficiently.

So how do you “grease your wheels” and improve your running economy? High intensity running is always a good way to improve your running efficiency, but there is something else you can to that will send both your running economy and running power through the roof – explosive strength training.

Explosive strength training or “plyometrics” are high intensity, explosive exercises using either your body weight or light to moderate weights. Plyometrics improve your economy and power by improving the stretch-reflex response of your muscles, increasing the elasticity of your muscles and raising the neuromuscular ability of your muscles and central nervous system.

A study conducted at the Research Institute for Olympic Sports in Finland looked at the impact of explosive strength training on 5K running time. (Leena Paavolainen, Keijo Hakkinen, Ismo Hamalainen, Ari Nummela, Heikki Rusko, KIHU-Research Institute for Olympic Sports and Neuromuscular Research Center and Department of Biology of Physical Activity, University of Jyvaskyla. )

The researches recruited 22 elite male cross country runners. One group of 10 (control group) replaced 3% of their endurance training hours with explosive strength training. The other group of 12 (experimental group) replaced 32% of their endurance training time with explosive strength training workouts. The explosive strength training sessions lasted between 15 and 90 minutes. The explosive workouts were composed of various sprint and plyometric jumping drills.

Before the start of the study the 5K times, running economy and Vmart (velocity reached during a maximal aerobic running test) of the two groups were nearly identical. After 9 weeks of training the control group showed no significant improvement in any test results while the experimental group showed significant improvement in 5K performance, running economy and Vmart.

The researchers concluded that endurance training combined with explosive strength training will improve running performance due to positive neuromuscular changes that results in greater running economy and running power.