It's well known that plyometric exercises—fast, explosive movements that involve jumping, sprinting, and quick direction changes—can improve skills like speed, vertical jump, and muscle power. Walk into any CrossFit box or high-intensity interval fitness class and you're bound to see athletes doing “plyos.” But endurance athletes, whose efforts might be described more as a long, slow burn, will get a huge benefit from doing them, too, says exercise scientist Rick Richey, a master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
In addition to their other performance benefits, plyometrics also help improve flexibility and the body's ability to react to impact. "And if anyone needs to react to impact, it's probably endurance athletes," says Richey. "Think about how many times a runner's feet hit the ground—it may not be hard, but it's continuous, for hours at a time."
People tend to think of plyometrics as power moves, explains Richey. "But there's also a stability component and a strength-building component that helps you decelerate and land softly, and have better control over your body. Instead of thinking in terms of how much force you can produce on the way up, think about how well you can reduce force on the way down."
Doing plyometrics also makes muscle fibers stronger and more flexible by stretching them prior to contraction. (Take your quads, for example: Your muscles stretch as you bed your knees, then contract as you jump. Do this repeatedly and those muscles get stronger with every contraction.) This can help athletes of all types avoid injury, and may even increase endurance.
"Research shows a correlation between plyometric training and movement economy—meaning that you exert a little less energy at your highest intensity," says Richey. "And if you can exert less energy at the same intensity, and that allows you to produce the same force and speed for a longer period of time, you're definitely doing yourself a favor."
Plus, even ultra-endurance athletes who compete in the longest, slowest events can appreciate a fast finish-line push. Plyos build the fast-twitch muscle fibers you'll need to end your race strong—and maybe shave a few seconds off your time.
The key, says Richey, is to think of plyo exercises like an egg toss: The main objective isn't how high or how far you throw the egg, it's about how softly you can catch it. Keep that in mind as you add a few sets of these workouts to your weekly routine.
Squat jump stabilization
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, and sink down into your heels as you sit back into a squat. Shift your weight forward and push off with your toes as you jump into the air, straightening your legs.
Land as softly as you can, returning immediately to squat position. Work your way up to repeating squat jumps, doing 10 reps as fast as you can maintain controlled, consistent form.
Stand in front of a 12- to 24-inch box and bend both knees, than spring upward and forward, onto the box, with both feet at the same time. Swing your arms down and back for momentum. Land lightly on your feet with knees bent.
Do not jump off the box—at least not at first, says Richey; it's much harder on your bones and joints than jumping up. (When you land on the box, you're only coming from an inch or two above. When you jump back down to the floor, you're coming from however high the box is, and then some.) Stick to jumping up and stepping down, he says, or gradually work your way up by jumping off lower surfaces first.
Bottom line: Adding plyometric moves to your weekly routine can help you protect against injury, stay light on your feet, and finish faster—and it may also help make you a more efficient athlete. Proceed with caution, though: land softly, progress gradually, and talk to a doctor or personal trainer first if you have any type of joint pain or injury.