Why Every Runner Should Be Doing Eccentric Exercises
Strong legs are crucial to running, which means strength training is essential to your weekly workout routine. And how you spend your time in the gym determines the results you see on the run. By just slightly tweaking the exercises you do off road, you may be able to get more out of each move, spend less time in the weight room, and see your performance improve. Enter: eccentric exercises.
“There are three types of muscle contraction: eccentric, concentric, and isometric,” explains Jelani Clyburn, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and performance coach.
Imagine you’re doing a squat: As you sink into the squat, your quadriceps lengthen—that’s an eccentric contraction. An isometric contraction occurs when you hold a static position at the bottom. And as you drive through your feet to stand back up, your quads shorten—that’s a concentric contraction.
These contractions don’t just occur during lifting; they’re also present throughout the gait cycle. When your foot hits the ground and your leg absorbs the force of that contact, slowing your body down ever so slightly, your leg muscles contract eccentrically, says Jack Hackett, an exercise physiologist and running coach. As your body shifts forward into the push-off, that causes concentric activity in the muscles.
So how does doing eccentric exercise make you stronger on the run? And how do you train eccentrically? Here’s everything you need to know about training that eccentric action and why it can be so beneficial to runners.
Why do runners need to do eccentric exercises?
Eccentric training can be so crucial for runners, because nothing trashes your legs quite like downhill running—and that involves the eccentric action. Any kind of eccentric contraction will cause microtears in the muscle (even if you’re running on flat ground), likely making you feel sore after a run. But if eccentric contractions act as a sort of braking mechanism, “the more declines or the steeper the declines you run, the more exaggerated this process will be,” says Hackett. In fact, downhill running induces lower limb muscle damage for up to several days after exercise, a 2020 scientific review published in Sports Medicine found.
“Downhill workouts are so potent and hard on your body, it’s easy to overdo it and risk injury,” says Hackett. The good news: Downhill stressors don’t require that much reinforcement. If you’re training for a specific race with lots of downhills, you’d benefit from one downhill workout a week, with a week off every three to four weeks, says Hackett. A downhill run workout counts as eccentric training.
What eccentric exercises work best for runners?
Eccentric training isn’t just about freewheeling downhill though. Spending time in the weight room can pay off big on the road—and it’s easy to incorporate an eccentric focus into any strength training workout. “During an eccentric exercise, you want to focus on the lengthening phase of the muscle, as opposed to the shortening (concentric) phase,” says Clyburn. Take an eccentric bench press, for example: You’d sloooowly move the barbell down toward the chest for three to five seconds, then explosively push it back up.
For runners, the best eccentric exercises include single-leg moves, because they target imbalances and more closely resemble the demands of running, says Hackett. For example, in an eccentric rear foot elevated split squat, you’ll lower slowly to the bottom of the lunge position, then quickly drive back up to start.
Hamstrings are another area to target, says Clyburn—especially since hamstring strains are one of the most common running injuries. Making Nordic curls or Romanian deadlifts eccentrically focused can be beneficial, because they build strength in the posterior chain muscles that are most active during deceleration or your foot strike.
And because running is essentially a series of leaps from one foot to the next, requiring the production and absorption of force in a short amount of time, plyometrics can be another way to train eccentrically with just your body weight. “Plyometrics work the stretch-shortening cycle, or the act of muscle lengthening followed immediately by an explosive shortening of the muscle,” says Clyburn. “This can help runners become more explosive with each step.” Plyometrics are inherently eccentric, so you don’t necessarily have to slow down that lowering phase.
The next time you hit the gym, try these eccentric exercise examples. Start with bodyweight only, then add in some weights when you’re feeling strong:
- Eccentric Deadlift: Stand with feet hip-width apart. With just a slight bend in the knees, hinge at the hips, sending the butt straight back, and lowering slowly on a count of three to five. Keep back flat and shoulders packed down. Drive through feet to quickly stand back up. Repeat.
- Eccentric Squat: Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Send butt down and back, lowering into a squat position on a count of three to five. Drive through feet to quickly stand back up. Repeat.
- Eccentric Split Squat: Stand with feet staggered, right foot behind the left with right heel lifted and feet hip-width apart. Slowly lower down into a lunge position on a count of three to five. Both knees should bend 90 degrees and back knee should hover just off the floor. Drive through feet to quickly stand back up. Repeat. Then switch sides.
How do you incorporate eccentric exercises into workouts?
Outside of downhill running, it’s pretty easy to sneak eccentric strength training into your typical gym routine by simply slowing down the lengthening portion of key exercises. But keep in mind the fact that eccentric exercises are more intense than concentric exercises, says Clyburn, “and eccentric training should be followed by at least 48 hours of recovery before training that muscle group again,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean you can’t go for a run the day after eccentric squats or deadlifts, but you should decrease the intensity of the run in order to avoid the possibility of overtraining.”
Also, just like with any running program, a good rule of thumb is to work on increasing your weight and range of motion for three weeks, then take a down or de-load week to give your body more recovery time. You can’t make gains if you never stop to let your body adapt!
What other benefits will you gain from eccentric training?
Eccentric training was actually found to be better at building both muscle size and strength than concentric training, according to research published in 2014 in the Journal of Applied Physiology. For starters, this means you can make gains in less time. And eccentric training specifically benefits runners by increasing the size of fast-twitch muscle fibres, says Clyburn. While slow-twitch muscle fibers are key for endurance activities, “fast-twitch muscle fibres are pivotal in activities that require producing a lot of force in a short amount of time,” he explains—like that finishing kick in a distance race or some sprint intervals.
Eccentric training was also found to be an effective way to improve lower limb flexibility in a 2014 review of relevant scientific literature published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. “Running fast is a combination of stride rate and stride length,” says Clyburn. “With increased mobility in the hip, for example, runners can improve on the stride length aspect of the equation and produce more force horizontally, as opposed to vertically, allowing them to move forward faster.”
Finally, eccentric training strengthens your body’s connective tissue, research published in 2016 in the Journal of Applied Physiology found. Considering that “most running injuries are overuse injuries—and many of those are tendon loading injuries—eccentric work can help increase the density and cross sectional area of the tendon, which means it’s less likely to suffer these types of injuries,” says Hackett. Injury prevention and potentially faster times? Sign us up for eccentric exercise.