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Plyometric Training

Article By: Doug Todd
Director, Cross Country / Track and Field
Mt. San Antonio College

INTRODUCTION Plyometric training is vital and should be a fundamental part of training for each and every event in track and field. Plyometrics focus on the speed of the muscular contraction rather than simply the force of the contraction. This combination of contractions, speed and force, develop the one attribute all successful track and field athletes poses: power.

All track and field events require power and power can best be described as the amount of "work" done in a given time period. In other words, I may be able to move a certain load or weight a certain distance. (This is work.) To accomplish this "work" will take some "time". (An actual number of seconds let us say.) The amount of work I accomplish in relationship to the amount of time it takes me to accomplish it is an expression of "power." The faster I can accomplish my "work" the more "powerful" I am. Mathematically, we can express power as follows:


Plyometric training develops the speed of a muscular contraction and therefore enhances the power of the athlete.

It must also be remembered that while at first glance 'plyometric training' may appear to be nothing more than a prescribed set of exercises, it is much more than that. Plyometric training is a method or philosophy of training that has a specific desired outcome rather than just a set of exercises or drills.

Central to our philosophy of plyometric training is an awareness of the physiological response known as the myotatic stretch reflex. This is a protective mechanism built into the human body and designed to prevent us from stretching or elongating a muscle too quickly. When a muscle is stretched too quickly, sensing bodies within the tendons of that muscle react to this 'too fast stretch' and cause the affected muscle to contract. This is a self-protective reaction. The physician who strikes your knee with the little rubber hammer during your yearly physical provides a clear example of this protective mechanism in action. It is this mechanism that plyometric training hopes to enhance and improve.

A muscle is capable of two types of contractions. One is a shortening or concentric contraction and the other is a lengthening or eccentric contraction. These two types of contractions can best be explained by thinking of an arm curl. The act of bringing the barbell up to the chest from the starting position would be an example of a concentric contraction. During this first phase of the exercise, the actual muscle fibers would be shortening. Letting the bar back down to the starting position while under control would be an example of an eccentric contraction. In this phase of the exercise, the muscle fibers are lengthening.

If a muscle's fibers are stretched or lengthened before they are shortened or contracted it is possible to elicit a stronger, quicker more forceful concentric
contraction. It is this quicker, stronger contraction that plyometric training hopes to encourage.

When an athlete is attempting to gain strength, they must overload their muscular system by lifting progressively heavier weights. When an athlete hopes to improve the speed of their muscular contraction, they must overload their neuromuscular system since contractile speed is largely a function of nervous system efficiency. Any type of activity that hopes to improve 'speed' must by its very definition be done at full speed and must be done with full recovery between bouts. As the various specific drills and activities continue to place a greater demand on the contractile properties of the musculature, the body begins to adapt specifically to these increased demands.

When beginning a plyometric program a few factors must be taken into consideration. First and foremost is the learning curve associated with the various plyometric activities for both athlete and coach. It takes time to learn and feel comfortable with several of these drills. A large part of your training time at first will be spent teaching your athletes. Another factor to consider is the toll plyometric training can take on the athlete. The activities are demanding and for this reason, ample time must be given for the athlete to adjust to the new stress load and ample time must be given for recovery and adaptation.

Proper technique should always be emphasized and attention should be paid to the training surface as well. Plyometrics are stressful enough, an athlete should not come away from a training session 'beat up' and sore from an unforgiving training surface.

Attention should be paid to basic strength building activities first. The intensity should be low at first and then once the athlete has adapted to this load, progression can be made to the faster, quicker activities that will yield the response we are looking for.

Not injuring our athletes should be the number one concern in all areas of training but especially in this venue. All plyo training should be done in flats, on a level soft surface and under the supervision of a coach. Plyometrics are a demanding activity and rest and recovery must be scheduled into your program. They should be thought of as a part of your program.

Each athlete is different. Their development is different and they come into your program with different basic motor skills. No one program or set of drills will 'fit' all of your athletes. They will develop and progress from one level of competency to another at their own individual rates. Be aware of this, allow for this and evaluate their progress by comparing them with where they are now as opposed to last week or when they first started. Do not compare them with other athletes. Your athletes can and will make significant strides in this area with consistent and regular practice. The improvement you will see in the rhythmical nature of the plyometric drills will translate over to their specific event skills almost immediately.

Everyone understands the importance of ample recovery time between sessions but the question becomes one of evaluation. When do you allow time for recovery, how much time do you allow for recovery and what type of things can you do during a recovery cycle? These are important questions and would take much more space to answer then we have here. However, a few certain principals we can look at will serve as general guidelines in planning for recovery.

Athlete feedback is of primary importance. The athlete knows better than anyone does how they are feeling and at what level of fatigue they are operating at. Ask them, have them rate each workout session in terms of level of exertion. Experience, both yours and the athletes will help you make wise choices in this area as well. Your subjective evaluation of the athlete's performance at practice and during a competition will help you plan for rest and recovery as well. Keeping accurate notes of your athletes workload at each training session will allow you to compare today's performance with other similar workouts. One final bit of feedback can be found in the total number of athletes developing injuries. If a percentage of your athletes are showing beginning signs of injury or are in fact injured, that is a good indicator that more rest and recovery is called for.

In developing drills and exercises to increase the contractile rate of a muscle it is important to remember that the rate of contraction is of much greater concern than the degree of muscular pre-stretch. In other words, your primary concern should be of achieving a fast contraction after the initial pre-stretch of the affected muscle. The amount or degree of pre-stretch prior to the contraction is not as important as a quick, explosive dynamic post-stretch contraction. (i.e. it is more beneficial from a plyometric standpoint to do quick, shallow two-foot hops over 20 meters than slower, deeper frog hops over the same distance)

There are many specific types of plyometric drills and exercises. Furthermore, these drills can be used to help develop rhythm, speed, power and even muscular endurance. Plyometrics, used correctly and for a specific purpose, can be a tremendous asset to your individual athlete as well as to the general and specific conditioning of your entire track and field program. With a little pre thought and planning you can develop a plyometric program for your team that will 'fit' any competitive schedule that you may be operating under. They are budget friendly and easy for one person to administer to a large group. Start planning now and make this highly beneficial training modality a part of your program this season.

Doug Todd
Director, Cross Country / Track and Field
Mt. San Antonio College

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