Building a plyometrics program for distance runners

Dr Yuri Verkhoshansky (L), the "Father of plyometrics"
Usually, training techniques in distance running are ahead of the science.  A lot of things most runners and coaches would consider core elements of a training program, like high mileage, short repeats for speed, or long runs aren't supported by a solid body of science.  And that's okay! Some things, like proper long-term development, just aren't well-suited for a laboratory study.  What's really perplexing, though, is when training lags behind the science.  One area where this is true is explosive strength training, and plyometrics exercises in particular. 
"Plyometrics" is a term that was applied to explosive jumping exercises developed originally by the Soviets.  The actual root of the word means, in Greek (plio / plythein + metric), "to increase the measurement."   Today, "plyometrics," or "plyos" for short, is often taken to refer to pretty much any body weight jumping exercise, but historically it referred to a very specific kind of jump training. 
True plyometric training takes advantage of a muscle process called the stretch-shortening cycle, which (without getting too bogged down in details) allows your muscles and tendons to temporarily store energy from impact for a fraction of a second, then release it to help rebound off the ground.  This is what allows you to jump higher after doing a "windup" instead of jumping from a dead stop.  The stretch-shortening cycle plays a major role in running economy in distance runners, as the greater the percentage of impact energy you can return, the less "new" energy you need to expend each step.  The critical thing to remember about the stretch-shortening cycle is that it is time-dependent: unlike a spring, it can't store energy indefinitely.  The stretch-shortening cycle works best when your contact time with the ground is limited to a few tenths of a second, so slow or medium-speed jumps (or jumps which don't involve an impact immediately prior to takeoff)  aren't truly plyometric.
Additionally, plyometric training is designed to get maximum force and energy return out of your muscles.  As such, each plyometric exercises in a plyo training regimen needs to be done fresh.  This means plyometrics are not a conditioning tool; doing many plyometric jumps in succession without taking adequate rest undermines your ability to return the maximal amount of energy possible, and thus hampers the training effect.  There is no such thing as "plyometric circuit training" (though certainly similar exercises can be used in circuit training).
The lack of plyometrics programs for distance runners
Getting back to our initial point, plyometric training is a well-documented way to improve running economy and performance in distance runners.  This has been documented in recreational runners (~10 miles per week, no performance data)1, moderately trained competitive runners (35-50 miles per week, 3km PRs of 9:22-10:17)2 and highly trained elite runners (60-90 miles per week, 3km PRs near 8:30).3  The fact that plyometric training has been demonstrated as an effective training method even in high level runners would make you think that it'd be quite popular.  Unfortunately, that's not the case.
I don't doubt that many top runners and coaches employ plyometric training, but this practice hasn't percolated down to the distance running rank-and-file.  This might be intentional, or it might just be that high level coaches are too busy to bother with publishing their entire strength and conditioning programs.  There's certainly no shortage of brief articles or blog posts extolling the virtues of plyometrics, but these conclude with bland recommendations like adding a few squat jumps to your weekly routine.  Full plyometrics training programs designed for distance runners are sorely lacking.  After having researched plyometrics in-depth and not finding anything in the way of quality plyometrics programs for distance runners, I decided to construct my own.

Resources for plyometrics programming
Fortunately, there is a wealth of information on guidelines for constructing a plyometrics program.  I found High Powered Plyometrics by James Radcliffe and Robert Farentinos and Plyometrics by Donald Chu and Gregory Myer to be quite useful at describing various exercises and discussing overall principles like specificity and progression in volume and intensity.  These both provide examples of full plyometrics programs, but are designed for jumpers, hurdlers, or basketball players.  The scientific research also provided some good examples of proven exercises, and Steve Magness' The Science of Running also provided some key insights on "specifying" plyometrics for distance runners.  But it took coming across storied track trainer Dan Pfaff's article Guidelines for the Implementation of Plyometric Training for me to be able to fully flesh out a program.
Programming considerations
A well-thought-out plyometrics program needs to take several factors into consideration.  First, it needs to be progressive, both in terms of overall volume and in terms of exercise intensity.  Tracking volume can be accomplished by counting contactsper daily routine, which just means the number of times your feet hit the ground.  Doing 2x10 rocket jumps, for example is 20 contacts.  Don't forget that a single-leg exercise, like single-leg hops, should be counted twice, as you'll be doing it on both legs.  Dan Pfaff recommends tracking bounding distance and depth jump contacts as well.  Bounding distance can be measured in meters.  Since bounding is prescribed in meters, not repeats, I count one meter of bounding as one plyometric contact.  This is probably an overestimation.  Plyometric intensity—the amount of impact shock in a given exercise—is a more subjective matter, but it's easy to see that a straight-kneed pogo jump is less shock-intensive than a depth jump.  So, we need to progress not just in total contact volume but in exercise intensity.  We can't start with depth jumps and bounding on day one. 
Second, the exercises need to be specificfor distance running.  This means that things like clap push-ups are out—that's a given.  But as Steve Magness points out, it also means we should toss out huge impacts, like depth jumps from very high boxes.  Instead, we should consider single leg exercises as more running-specific than double-legged ones.  So for example, instead of progressing from low box depth jumps to high box depth jumps, we should progress from low box depth jumps to low box single leg depth jumps.  In terms of specificity, our "core" exercises should be bounding and skipping variants, as these are most similar to actual running.
Third is facility access.  There are some great plyometric exercises, like stair bounding or uphill skipping, that might not be feasible depending on your particular circumstances.  Because the runners I coach (including myself) live in Minnesota, I needed a plyometric program that would be doable inside during the winter.  This means anything requiring stadium steps or hills is out.  
Finally—and this is more of a life philosophy than anything—is simplicity.  Some programs I came across in books on plyometrics had several similar exercises.  In many cases I elected to use a larger number of sets of a single more comprehensive exercise instead of fewer sets of more exercises.

The 16- and 12-week plyometrics programs for distance runners
By following these considerations, and the guidelines set out in the resources listed above, I came up with the following plyometrics programs.  There are two variants, a 12-week and a 16-week program.  The 16-week program is more gradual, and is probably the better choice if you have the time.  Often, though, we don't have a full 16 weeks before we start up with important races again, hence the somewhat more aggressive 12-week program.  Each week's routine is designed to be 2-3 times per week, unless noted otherwise.  Distance runners can usually handle larger workloads of any type of workout, but their muscular power is not as good as a sprinter's or a jumper's.  As such, I aimed for a medium number of contacts (peak of 300) and bounding distance (up to 200m) but with a lower level of depth jump contacts (peak of 27).  A sprinter might want to do lower overall contacts, about as much bounding, but slightly more depth jumping.  Dan Pfaff cautions that depth jump contacts should not exceed 50 per session, even in top athletes.
As mentioned earlier, it's best to do plyometrics fresh—in an ideal world, you'd do the plyometrics routine as a secondary training session several hours after your main workout of the day, but if you're coaching a high school team, this might not always be possible.  It's probably better to do plyos on easy days instead of on workout days.  Some coaches argue in favor of making "hard days hard," but the plain truth is that you are not going to be able to get the right level of effort in a plyo session immediately after doing a challenging workout or a long run.
16 week plyometrics program for distance runners
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12 week plyometrics program for distance runners
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These are also available as printable PDFs at the links below.

I have also included some notes on recovery and execution.  As for selecting an appropriate box height for depth jumps and box leaps, the training literature recommends using a height which is high enough to allow you to surpass your ground-level vertical leap if you instead do your initial countermovement jump from the box.  Keeping in mind Steve Magness' recommendations, My instincts tell me that it isn't necessary for distance runners to do depth jumps off boxes taller than 18."  It's probably better to be on the low side.  For "low box" depth jumps, these should probably be no more than 12 or 16".
You'll note that some of the exercises in this program are not strictly "true plyometrics."  The box leap-up, for example, does not involve an impact that precedes it, and as such doesn't stimulate the stretch-shortening cycle.  This is because its function is really just as a precursor for the depth jump.
One surprising thing I found is that, though scientific papers are quite cavalier about depth jumps, Dan Pfaff is extremely caution, recommending that even experienced athletes only do them once per week, and never during competition weeks.  I've followed these recommendations when making these schedules. 
Once you've reached the end of your plyometrics program (which should ideally happen just before you begin to compete in important races, you can maintain your explosive strength by doing the "maintenance" routine once per week, excluding the depth jumps if you have a race that week.
This program comes with no promises or guarantees.  I'm sharing it mainly to illustrate how I went about developing this program in hopes that it might assist you in planning out a plyometrics routine for yourself or for your team.  The program would probably work well for sprinters, too, though you might want to do the box exercises off slightly higher steps to account for the greater explosive demands of a sprint race.  If you want to try out my program or use it for your team, feel free! I will be trying it out on myself this winter, so if all goes well I'll report back on my results in the spring!
Exercise glossary
These exercises really ought to be illustrated with video, but these text explanations will have to do until I get around to making one.  In all exercises, remember that the emphasis is on a quick, explosive jump off the ground.  Minimizing ground contact by using your explosive strength to your greatest ability should be your top priority.  This should be obvious, but single-leg exercises should be done twice; once with each leg. 
Pogo - Hopping vertically with locked, straight knees, using calves for rebounding off the ground
Rocket jump- Jumping vertically using knee flexion/extension to rebound from the ground.  Like jumping to touch the rim of a basketball hoop.
Scissor Jump - SR (single repetition) - beginning in a full lunge, leap into the air and swap leg position, moving from a left-leg-forward lunge to a right-leg-forward lunge.  Rest on ground between reps.
Scissor Jump - MR (multiple repetition) - as above, but instead, immediately rebound off the ground to swap leg positions again, continuously.
Side hop- Hopping on both legs laterally, over a small object like a cone - hop from the left side to the right side, back to the left side, etc.
Lateral bound - Similar to side hop, but taking off on one leg - landing and taking off from your left leg while on the left side of the cone, and your right leg while on the right side.
Double leg hop progression - Leaping forward with both legs together over several small obstacles, like cones. 
Single leg hop progression - As above, but leaping, landing, and rebounding on a single leg (the same one).
Bench step-ups - Standing in front of an 18-24" box, leap up to the top of the box by driving off the ground with one foot, stepping onto the box first with the other foot.  Once both feet are on top of the box, step down gently. 
Box leap up- Standing in front of an 18-24" box, leap up to the top of the box by driving off the ground with both feet.  Step down gently. 
Double leg low box rebound - Standing on top of an 8-18" box, drop off the box and immediately rebound off the ground back to the top of the box.  If you can't rebound quick enough (~0.2 seconds), move to a lower box!
Single leg low box rebound - Standing on top of a 6-12" box on one leg, drop off the box, landing on that same leg and rebounding immediately back to the top of the box. If you can't rebound quick enough, move to a lower box!
Fast skipping - Skip forward, focusing on extremely rapid leg movements and very minimal ground contact time.
Ankle bounding - Bound forward with your knees mostly locked (it's not actually possible to do this with them fully locked), using your ankles and calves to generate most of your vertical and horizontal motion.
Bounding- Bound forward using maximal muscle power to maximize height and more importantly, minimize ground contact time.
High skipping - Skip forward, using maximal muscle power to maximize height and minimize ground contact time.
Single leg bounding w/ cycle - Bound forward on a single leg, doing one "cycling" motion (kicking heel back to butt, bringing knee forward again, as if running) in the air with the leg that you are bounding on. 
Depth jumps- Standing on the top of a 12-24" box (see note on determining proper height), drop down and immediately leap up as high as you can, landing on the ground again.  If your vertical leap on a depth jump cannot beat your flat-ground vertical leap, use a lower box!
Single leg low depth jumps - As above, but use a much lower box (6-18", though 18 is rather high) and leap & land using a single leg.  If your vertical leap on a depth jump cannot beat your flat-ground single-leg vertical leap, use a lower box!
1.         Turner, A. M.; Owings, M.; Schwane, J. A., Improvement in Running Economy After 6 Weeks of Plyometric Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2003, 17 (1), 60-67.
2.         Spurrs, R. W.; Murphy, A. J.; Watsford, M. L., The effect of plyometric training on distance running performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology 2003, 89 (1), 1-7.
3.         Saunders, P. U.; Telford, R. D.; Pyne, D. B.; Peltola, E. M.; Cunningham, R. B.; Gore, C. J.; Hawley, J. A., Short-term Plyometric Training Improves Running Economy in Highly Trained Middle and Long Distance Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2006,20 (4), 947-954.

About the Author

John J Davis, PhD

I have been coaching runners and writing about training and injuries for over ten years. I've helped total novices, NXN-qualifying high schoolers, elite-field competitors at major marathons, and runners everywhere in between. I have a Ph.D. in Human Performance, and I do scientific research focused on the biomechanics of overuse injuries in runners. I published my first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, in 2013.

9 thoughts on “Building a plyometrics program for distance runners”

  1. Hey John,

    I am having trouble comprehending the Bench step-ups as you describe them. Would you possibly be able to link me to a video of them?


  2. Hi John,

    Where, if anywhere, does jump rope fit in plyos for distance runners?

    Talking from my current experience trying to come back from long term injury, I feel it is helping me re-establish my "spring" / posterior chain stiffness after doing months of long slow marathon-style training and improving the proprioception of my feet striking the ground softly. Good technique i.e. jumping 1" or less off the ground makes it surprisingly low impact. You can easily work lateral plane of movement as well. Turns out it's quite good fun too!

    Boxing and soccer are two sports that appear to highly value rope jumping, I'm interested why running doesn't appear to?

  3. Hello John,

    The recoveries seem very long. If I take week one and apply the shortest duration given, the recoveries will add up to 17 minutes. Is this correctly understood?

    Best regards,

    • Yes, the recoveries are very long! The research on plyometrics so far has emphasized going into the jumps very fresh and ready to produce maximum power (and minimum ground contact), so programs typically use a lot of recovery. A new review paper comparing lifting to plyometrics for distance runners came out this December that I'm working my way through--currently on the weight lifting part, but hopefully I'll be able to update this post with the latest info, especially on whether long recoveries really are necessary.

  4. Thanks for the awesome write up. I just started to get into ultra running on the trails. I just completed my first marathon with 5200ft of ascent and descent. I realized I needed ploys to supplement with my lifting and running in my programing. I look forward to using your 12 week template for my next race.

    • Definitely shoes - the forces involved with plyometrics are very large, so you want some protection on your feet. You also want to do most plyometrics on a reasonably resilient surface, so shoes help in that regard too (very hard to do bounding barefoot on a basketball court!) There are some other lower-impact "foot drills" for foot and ankle strength that I think are beneficial to do barefoot, though.


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