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Plyometrics (e.g. Jumping Rope) as Cross-Training, especially for Downhill Races
Distance Running Coach
Plyometrics, also known as "jump training" or "plyos", are exercises based on having muscle exert maximum force in as short of a time as possible with the goal of increasing both speed and power. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plyometrics). Plyometrics are a powerful addition to running programs, especially programs focused on helping runners develop explosive speed. We see sprinters using these techniques regularly.
Benefits of Plyometrics.
Plyometrics help the muscles “produce more power by training the muscles to contract more quickly and forcefully from an actively pre-stretched position”. They can contribute to improved performance at distances of 10k and under. Studies have found that in recreational runners, plyometrics have helped to improve running economy in those who train and race at paces between 7:30-10:00. Studies with elites shows that plyometrics had its greatest impact on paces 5:20 or under. It seems elites already have figured out how to move efficiently at paces between 5:30-7:30 minute per mile. Since most of us here are not elite, any improvement to running economy is going to help us run better, even at longer distances. (See http://running.competitor.com/2014/02/training/the-benefits-of-plyometrics-for-runners_65392/2)
Dangers of Plyometrics.
Although the studies have shown that plyometrics can help make a runner more efficient, it is also true that simply running more mileage can improve running economy and efficiency with a much lower risk of injury. (See http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/29/finding-your-ideal-running-form/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0)
Plyometrics are explosive exercises. People have a tendency to take things to the extreme. Extremely explosive activity can contribute to muscle strains and tears. Plyometrics involve a lot of jumping up, down, and over things and the clumsy jumper (like me) can end up with injuries related to missteps during the jumping or landing. This is not what we need during marathon training. Accordingly, plyometrics done in intense ways can carry a very high injury risk.
Jumping Rope for Better Form
One of the safest and effective forms of plyometrics is Jumping Rope. Jumping rope is practically impossible to do with poor technique, therefore it is an ideal training tool. The intensity can be regulated and matched to ability and comfort level. If you slouch, use poor timing, etc, the rope catches and the exercise stops. Perform the jumping and timing at the appropriate pace and you will reap benefits of better posture, strengthening of the musculoskeletal system, improved explosive power in the legs, and improved cardiovascular system. Jumping rope is also travel friendly, doesn’t require a partner, and if done inside, eliminates variables related to weather.
Jumping rope can be done in a variety of ways. It can be performed by springing up from the calves two feet at a time, or by lifting the knees one at a time allowing more or less engagement of various muscle groups. Because jumping rope can be done one leg at time, it can allow us to work one side of the body more than the other, which can be used to correct imbalances. Running cannot isolate one side of the body in this way.
The Rule of Specificity says distance running is most improved by doing more distance running. However, this does not mean that other activities do not have value when added in a way that does take away from the time dedicated to distance running or recovering from distance running. “Although jumping rope may not seem sport specific, it is extremely posture specific. It improves the ability to maintain a long spine and actually has far less impact than sprinting or jogging.” http://performance.nd.edu/strength-conditioning/recommended-reading/self-limiting-exercise-jumping-rope/
The Rule of Specificity
Anyone who has spent time picking my brain about my training methodology knows that I define myself as a “Specificisist” (I am sure that is not a real word). I am firm believer in the Rule of Specificity, which proposes that to get better any activity, one needs to do that activity as much as possible. If you want to be a better writer, then write more. If you want to be a better actor, then act more. If you want to be a runner, then cross train more ... Wait, that isn’t right! :) If you want to be a better runner, then run more. Run as much as safely possible.
I know that people have jobs, families, and obligations and very limited amount of time per day to train. This is both due to time constraints as well as physical constraints (we get tired or injured if we train too much). When faced with 6-10 hour of time to train per week (the average amount of time I see most people can carve out for training weekly), I fill that time with “Run Training” first. The second thing I add is Recovery time (with Rest days and General Maintenance paced running). I never cut back run time or recovery time in order to add cross training because I don’t believe cross training is better than running or resting from hard running. Running is the most specific thing we can do to become better runners and resting from running is what we need to allow fitness gains to manifest. Cross-Training instead of recovering from Run Training is needed is a mistake.
But there are some exception. I do feel that cross training is more valuable than running, when a runner has trouble maxing out their training time with Run Training due to current or past injury history. Even if a runner can carve out the time, once a runner has maxed out there ability to run injury free, then the balance of training time can be filled with Cross Training and Rest/Recovery. It make no sense to run anyone into the ground.
Jumping as Preparation for Downhill Racing.
I also feel there is value to cross training when race day specifics can not be duplicated. In the case that we find ourselves preparing for DOWNHILL races (i.e. Steamtown, Run for the Red, even Mohawk Hudson, etc), we first want to get out to hills and train on them. We want to run up and downhill as much as possible. The second best thing we can do to prepare for downhill running is to do plyometrics. When time or location makes it impossible to get the amount of downhill run training needed to best prepare for a downhill race, then it is time to add in jumping rope.
Getting Started - Measuring the Rope.
“First, measure the jump rope. Stand on the rope with the left foot in the center of the body directly under the body and pull the handles of the rope up to your armpits. The handles should just graze the inside of the top of the armpits and go no higher than the top of your shoulders. Adjust the rope accordingly.
A novice should purchase a beaded rope that can be adjusted. The extra weight of the beaded rope provides more feedback for beginners. As proficiency with jumping rope increases, move to a lighter rope, which forces improvements in technique and allows the rope to be turned with greater speed.” http://performance.nd.edu/strength-conditioning/recommended-reading/self-limiting-exercise-jumping-rope/
Where to Jump Rope
“Any surface that will not damage the rope and is free of obstacles is adequate as long as it is flat and fairly hard. Wooden floors, tile floors, asphalt surfaces, and concrete surfaces have all been used. Asphalt and concrete are rough on the texture of the rope and will break down the rope at a quicker rate. Another solution is to cut a small piece of plywood, 3 or 4 feet square, and lay it over grass that has been closely mowed. The grass will hold the board slightly above the ground, providing a forgiving surface while still allowing the rope to turn,without catching on grass or other obstacles. This is a great alternative for the athlete on turf who wants to cross-train at practice.”
I have included a 10 minute YouTube Jumping Rope interval routine to follow. I think this is a great place to start as it shows a variety of different ways to jump rope and it also breaks up 10 minutes of jumping into smaller manageable sets. I recommend doing this 2-3 x per week either immediately after any workout, whenever you have time to fit this in, or as a second workout of the day, ideally after you have completed your run for the day.
Where this video advises stretching out the body in between sets, I recommend you instead march in place or pace between sets. Stretching can be traumatic enough to push tired muscle over the edge into a strain or tear. I do not advise stretching in the middle of workouts unless you are suffering from a long term chronic issue. Here is the routine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NIvRAaOdlQ
Shannon McGinn is an RRCA Certified Distance Running Coach and the owner of Creating Momentum, LLC. She is a life-long runner, becoming more involved in racing after surviving cancer. She considers herself a marathon and ultramarathon specialist, earning several USATF National Championship top 10 or better placements in the 50k and 50M distances. She has not missed a day of running since December 2011.