We’ve all marveled at those runners who appear to be floating across the pavement in one fluid motion. While there are many factors that play into beautiful and efficient running form, reactive strength is chief among them. Optimal reactive strength allows you to fully take advantage of the elastic properties of your tendons, ligaments and muscles, giving your body the opportunity to store energy when you strike the ground and then apply it to the process of pushing off the ground. The worse your reactive strength, the more likely you’ll be a “plodder.” The better it is, the less time you’ll spend on the ground, as you spring forward with each quick step.
“Developing speed strength in runners—sometimes known as reactive or plyometric strength—helps a runner become faster, lighter on his feet, and more explosive and powerful,” explains Karen Meadows, a USA Triathlon- and USA Track and Field-certified coach based in Panama City Beach, Fla. “Explosive exercises help the legs function as stiffer springs upon ground contact, thereby increasing running economy.”
While there is still a place for traditional strength training, plyometric drills that build strength through specific movements help develop a more efficient running stride. By teaching the muscles to forcefully lengthen and contract repeatedly, you’ll get more bang for your buck upon each foot strike.
Since plyometric drills that build reactive strength often involve quick movements and increased loading on the joints and muscles, it’s important to work them into your training gradually. “Runners new to plyometrics should consider starting off with some basic running drills, like skipping, bounding and hopping,” suggests Meadows. “These are relatively low-impact exercises that are a good introduction to other plyometric drills.”
Once you’ve got the basics down, Meadows recommends trying the following exercises. Start with 2–3 sets of 15 repetitions of each move and increase the number of sets as you master each exercise.
Lunge forward with your right foot and lower your body down until your left knee almost touches the ground. Explosively push off the ground and switch legs midair, landing with your left leg forward. Continue repeating from one side to the other.
Start in a standing position, squat down, place your hands on the ground, and immediately jump your feet back into plank position. Do one push-up before hopping your feet back to your hands and jumping up toward the sky in one explosive movement.
With your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms extended out in front of you, lower your body down into a squat position with your butt slightly lower than your knees. Then proceed to jump up as quickly and as high as you can, landing on your feet softly with your knees somewhat bent.
Stand on a stair or box that is about 6–8 inches off the ground. Hop off and as you land on the ground, slightly bend your knees and bounce back up on the stair or box. Get into a rhythm of hopping on and off the platform. As you get stronger, you can increase the height you are jumping.