Muscle Tension and Restoring “Pop” to Your Running

Over the summer, I’ve been filling in as the track coach for my team’s track workouts.  Every now and again, I have been adding in plyometrics, which I think are pretty essential for distance running.  I usually get some skeptical looks (particularly from the Ironman crowd) so I thought I would explain my thinking and also talk about my views about how to use plyometrics to get free speed in your running.

Apart from their bread and butter workouts (e.g. tempo runs, long runs, etc), endurance athletes typically think of just two factors in their cross-training: strength and flexibility.  This makes sense because staying strong moves muscles more powerfully and being flexible allows us to reach further and cover more ground.  But research shows that most of the energy that we put into each running stride actually comes from elastic energy and not from concentric contractions of the muscles.  This finding makes a lot of intuitive sense when you think about it– each foot strike takes place in a fraction of a second and it just isn’t possible to get much of a strong “push” in any particular direction in such a short time period.  You certainly can’t get a good full concentric contraction like you do when you’re doing slower, more controlled movements like squats at the gym or even when you’re stomping up a hill on a bicycle.  Instead, in running, your muscles and tendons act like springs– tensing up and storing energy that is returned in each running stride.

Now for the bad news.  All that strength and flexibility training you’ve been doing doesn’t help– and may actually hurt– your elastic energy return!  First, let’s talk about the strength side of the equation.  If your legs are acting like springs, then they are simultaneously tightening while resisting being lengthened.  This is almost the exact definition of an eccentric contraction rather than a concentric contraction like we do in typical strength training.  Second, on the flexibility side of the equation, getting all flexible and loose may mean that your muscles will have a tougher time actually maintaining the tightness needed (yes, you read that right, tightness needed) for running at your potential.  If this sounds like heresy, don’t just take my word for it.  There are much brighter people than me who have been talking about the same thing.  For instance, Steve Magness has some pretty fantastic ideas on the topic.  Another interesting read in this subject is Canute’s Efficient Running Site, particularly as it relates to running surfaces and footwear.

If you think back, you’ve probably experienced the odd phenomenon of feeling “flat” in your running even though your legs are otherwise feeling well-rested and free from soreness.  This happens to me every time I have a massage as my legs get transformed into a relaxed puddle of goo.  The next day, if I hopped on a bike, I could hammer a lot harder and feel on top of the world because my legs are fresher.  But if I went running instead, I would feel slow as molasses.  You can also get this same feeling from running too much distance or even wearing a pair of shoes with a marshmallow-soft midsole.

Restoring the “pop” to your legs means restoring muscle tension.  You can restore this tension by doing things like strides, running drills, and plyometrics.  Steve Magness probably does the best job at delineating what increases or decreases muscles tension for running, both in the blog post referenced above and in his fantastic new book, The Science of Running.  Philip Skiba’s Triathlete’s Guide to Training with Power also does a great job of discussing this topic.  While not discussing drills and plyometrics specifically in terms of muscle tension, probably the most comprehensive set of running drills I know of are collected in The BK Method, which is available both a DVD and a book, Running: Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology in Practice.  All of these resources are incredible and should be on every runner’s bookshelf.  I’ll be reviewing them in upcoming posts.  By the way, if you think your leg springiness is fine, I challenge you to get the BK Method DVD and compare yourself against the runners in the videos– I can guarantee that you will be shocked at how much free speed you’re leaving on the table.

So what exercise do I like to do?  Well, I like to keep it simple most of the year and not go too deep into plyometrics.  For me, box jumps are the way to go.  Now when most people think about box jumps, they usually think of crazy cross fit examples of guys jumping over five feet high.  This is NOT what I like to do.  Instead, I try to keep my knees fairly straight, kinda of like this sample at the BK Method site and thus keep the landing at or below knee height.  Unlike the example in this video, however, I like to do a little “pre-hop”– a little hop, touching down on the forefoot, and (while keeping the ankles and knees stiff) springing strongly upward.  I don’t think of it as a “push”– instead, it’s more like an instant reaction that “pops” me up on top of the step.  If I get a chance at the track, I may amend this post with a video example.

And how do I like to use these box jumps?  I use them in a lot of different ways.  Sometimes, on easy runs, I’ll do 3-4 box jumps on a bench after I’ve run a few miles.  Done this way, they are so easy and low stress that it’s a nice way to add a little neuromuscular “speed work” in a recovery run.  This use of box jumps is really the most versatile way to add them in.  Afterwards, I may jog a little while and then toss in an easy stride.  Voilà, free speed out of a recovery run!  I sometimes also like to do them as part of my tortuous speed-endurance workout, à la Renato Canova and Steve Magness.  Both of these topics are for future posts.

Before I end this post, I need to clarify one point– I don’t mean to suggest that I disapprove of regular strength work or flexibility training.  Flexibility and strength sessions ARE absolutely essential to your training and racing!  They make you faster, stronger, and less susceptible to injuries.  But, alone, flexibility and strength training are not the golden ticket to getting free speed in your running– they need to work alongside an appreciation for the role that some muscle tension has in running mechanics.

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