Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Plyometrics and Form

Plyometrics
While resting my injured hamstring and calf over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I spent the better part of my Sunday pulling some old books on plyometrics off the shelf and thumbing through them.  I began to wonder, once I was able to run again, what types of exercises I could add to break up the monotony and contribute to building speed.

The first book, Donald A. Chu's "Explosive Power & Strength" was a good recap of the theory behind plyometrics, and an overview of many resistance exercises.  As a bodybuilder for 20+ years it's pretty difficult for me to come across some "new" resistance exercise, even if it's old school (though John Alvino does come up with some interesting stuff from time to time).  But it's nice to see a quick review of a lot of exercises in one place.  Without getting into the running and jumping elements, I was reminded about how building strength can serve to protect the muscle from injury.  Admittedly, this is an area that I've been neglecting lately but decided it might be time to re-introduce this element back intro my training.  It is also a good introduction to some of the running, bounding and jumping exercises which are common to almost any book on plyometrics.

The other book I thumbed through was Tudor O. Bompa's "Power Training for Sport".  This is a good reference for the person that wants to use plyometrics as the shortest road possible to building power.  It dives into the cycling and recovery periods and optimal points at which to hit the muscle again in the recovery (compensation) period, and also what is the appropriate levels of stress based on athletic ability of the practitioner (beginner to advanced athlete).  The salient point I took away was that power is built over years, so a long-term view is important.  As a beginner I cannot look ahead to the spring racing season and say that I'll do plyos through the winter and bust out in the spring.  What I can look forward to is the best improvements I can get by applying the optimal training strategy through plyometrics.  When you exercise with plyos you're training your nervous system, muscles and  tendons for the delivery (and stresses) of explosive power.

Playing with Form
When running in recovery mode from an injury, it's important to pay attention to what your body is telling you.  I've found that using an easy (slow) run is a good time to explore some variety and make some corrections to my running form.  By trying something new or different, chances are my injured body part is going to tell me sooner than later that the something different I'm doing is not what it needs.  If I contrast that with something it likes (feels good), I find that out sooner too.

So today I played around with 3 different forms during my recovery run:  high knees, butt kicks and running low.

High knees, where the upward travel of the knee is exaggerated up to your hip-height, I practiced as an explosion of the toe strike and it was revealing.  Even when fatigued, it generated a lot of power through my quads.  My key note here was that raising the knee doesn't necessarily tax the hamstring, though the follow through on the power into accelerated travel does.  The goal of this exercise is to minimize the amount of time the ball of your foot stays on the ground.

Butt Kicks, or bringing your heels up to "strike" your glutes in stride, is an exaggeration of the back kick.  Again, the goal is to minimize the time the foot is on the ground.  This movement was expectedly bothersome to my hamstring injury.  I noted that I probably need to play around with the push-off part of my stride to get the right amount of forward propulsion with less hamstring and more calf effort.

Low Running, or dropping about 2" deeper in the stride, moves some stress off the hamstring and onto the glute and quadracep.  This technically is not "plyometric",  but  by far was the most telling of the exaggerations.  I was trying to find a way to get my quadraceps more into the stride to take some stress off the hamstring.  By running low and keeping my shoulder height constant, the tension clearly moves from hamstring in the "tall" running position (advocated by Jeff Galloway) to the glute, quadracep and knee.  This affected my stride in 3 ways:  first, it elongates it, which is 1 key ingredient for more speed; second it moves the center of gravity lower, so overall stability feels improved; third, my hips feel "tucked" under me, which aligns the spine better and makes it more difficult to bend (fall) forward during the run.

Conclusion
While waiting out an injury there's a lot of anticipation of getting back out and enjoying the run again.  That is valuable time that can be leveraged to reflect on what may have caused the injury (if unknown) as well as how things are going overall, and how you might want to change things going forward.  Taking action by looking at your overall fitness and how it might be improved (resistance training), viewing the run from a different perspective (what can plyometrics do for me), and thinking about some variations you can apply once you're running again can be insightful and refreshing.

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