Developing your speed (part 5) - Learn to land softly and quietly
In the fifth of seven articles on speed development, Patrick Beith explores the use of plyometrics.
This month's speed secret is both a cue for your athletes and a foundational concept for applying plyometric training to your program: "Learn to land softly and quietly. Absorb each landing with the muscles in your legs, so you do not place extreme stress on joints, bones, ligaments and tendons." If athletes are making loud noises with their feet or landing stiffly, then they are not performing the exercise correctly. Always err on the side of caution when using plyometrics.
Of course, when done correctly, plyometrics are an excellent supplement to your speed, strength and power training program. They can improve your power levels and help increase body control since they deal with moving your body weight. I am sure you have done or had your athletes do; bounding exercises, box jumps or medicine ball throws before. The question is: how do you know whether athletes are benefiting from these activities as opposed to putting themselves at risk for injury?
Athletes always want to do the most advanced, most technical movements that they see the professional athletes doing in their training. However, because these exercises require so much power and coordination, there needs to be a careful progression in the structure of plyometric training (like all other aspects of training). It may not be glorious and exciting, but in the short and long term, learning to evolve from basic to complex movements will always reap the greatest rewards. If we jump right into single leg bounds or depth jumps, without the proper progression, then we are putting our athletes at risk for avoidable injury.
Most young athletes lack one of, all of, or a combination of the following: balance, coordination, flexibility, power, muscular strength and core strength. Think about where you, your team or your athletes have weaknesses. To benefit from plyometrics, athletes must be strong in all of the aforementioned areas. If they try to perform high-intensity plyometrics before they are ready, they will get injured.
We know of athletes, especially male athletes, trying to imitate professional athletes by insisting that they can do single-leg hurdle hops over 39" hurdles and other crazy manoeuvres only to land awkwardly and ruin their brief careers with a knee injury or the like.
As a coach, you have to look at the three ages of your athlete to determine what level of plyometric training to use with your team.
When determining the level of plyometric training to apply to your athletes, you must look at their "three ages" to make an informed decision. Those ages are their training age (how many years have they been actively training), their biological age (what is their physical maturation in years) and their chronological age (years they have been alive).
Young kids run and jump and do the equivalent of plyometrics from a young age. I would not have a 12-year-old boy doing alternate leg bounds with a 10yard run-up, but I would have them do double leg stabilization work or even double leg bounds depending on the aforementioned factors.
Another factor to look at with plyometrics is the athlete's strength to bodyweight ratio. A 16-year-old girl who weighs 125lbs but can squat 175lbs has greater relative strength than a 16-year-old boy who weighs 180lbs but squats 200lbs. Physically the boys are stronger, but their ability to control that weight at full speed might not be as great as his 'weaker' female counterpart. Again, plyometrics can increase strength, power, body control and awareness, etc. But it has to be carefully introduced to an athlete's program.
Remember, you must learn how to stabilize and absorb forces appropriately. The key is to land softly and absorb the forces created with the muscles (not the joints!). If you are landing quietly, then you are on the right path.
Box Jumps - Start with a 12-inch box. Once the soft landing is perfected, increase box height as appropriate. After jumping up and achieving triple extension (full extension of the ankles, knees and hips), land on the box (quietly) and absorb the impact by landing in a quarter to a half-squat position (not stiff-legged). Perform 3 sets of 5 repetitions
Single Leg Lateral Hops - Standing on 1 leg, jump laterally over a cone, gaining moderate height. Land on the opposite leg and absorb the impact with the muscles. Stabilize for 2 full seconds and then alternate. Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions (5 on each leg)
As a more advanced variation, perform this exercise by landing on the same leg you jump with. You may think these exercises are elementary, but I invite you to try them out with your athletes or by yourself and see how difficult it is to land softly and keep your balance!
Use these drills anywhere from 2-4 weeks, depending on your ability to land appropriately before progressing to the more advanced plyometrics. Please do not try and progress too quickly; remember, the more efficient you are at controlling and applying force, the faster and more powerful you will be!
Also, when first starting, keep the number of contacts (times the feet hit the ground) to between 40 and 60 for the entire workout. Plyometrics are taxing on the nervous system and require full recovery, so treat rest like you would for speed work.
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About the Author
Patrick Beth is a co-owner of Athletes' Acceleration, Inc, a company devoted to performance enhancement whose mission is to improve the knowledge base of motivated coaches and athletes to improve athletic performance. He is a Performance Consultant certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (CSCS), the American Council of Sports Medicine (HFI), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (PES). He is a USA Track and Field Level II Coach in the Sprints, Hurdles and Jumps.