Eccentric training is a term that sounds complicated, but it’s really not—if you’ve ever tortured yourself with an exorbitant amount of hill runs, you’ve done a form of it. Eccentric training is simply capitalizing on the eccentric action of muscles, which occurs when tension is applied to a muscle as it lengthens. Consider your quads as you run downhill—they’re absorbing the weight of your body as they lengthen in order to control your descent. Without your quads working eccentrically on a downhill, you would quickly wind up with a mouth full of dirt/asphalt.
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Why Add Eccentric Training?
To put it simply, eccentric training will make you a more injury resistant and efficient runner. Remember those hills I talked about earlier? As many runners know from experience, hills can leave you with a nasty case of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the kind that makes sitting on the toilet a monumental and painful challenge. Eccentric training can help protect your muscles from the effects of DOMS via the repeated bout effect, which is an adaptation caused by a single bout of eccentric training that protects your muscles against damage from subsequent bouts.
All runners know flexibility is important; however, too much flexibility can be a detriment to your running performance simply for the fact that it has the potential to decrease musculotendinous stiffness, a quality critical for efficient transfer of energy. Eccentric training can help increase range of motion while maintaining and improving strength as well as increasing both dynamic and passive stiffness of the working muscles and tendons, thereby increasing running efficiency.
Lastly, running, particularly sprinting, requires significant work by the hamstring muscles, putting them at risk for injury. The strength and flexibility gains observed in eccentric training may reduce your risk of hamstring injury. A recent study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that an eccentric hamstring training program positively addressed different factors of hamstring strain injuries, by increasing eccentric and concentric strength, improving hamstring-to-quadriceps ratio (which also reduces your risk of knee injury), and increasing flexibility, ultimately reducing the subjects’ risk of hamstring injury.
How to Add Eccentric Training
If you’re sold on the potential benefits of eccentric training, it’s time to talk about implementation. To get the most out of an eccentric training program, it’s best to actually plan out specific training time, which may deter some of you since training time is hard to come by. The good news is, because eccentric training causes a decent amount of muscle damage (a good thing in moderation) you only need to do it once per week, twice maximum if you’re an overachiever. Another plus is the energy costs associated with eccentric training are relatively low, which means it won’t interfere with your running like traditional strength training can.
Adding eccentric training can be as simple as adding a few extra hill descents into your current running routine. However, to get the full beneficial effect, it’s smart to hit all of the leg muscles, especially the hamstrings. Eccentric training can be performed using true eccentric exercises like Nordic hamstring extensions in which there is no concentric phase (when the muscle shortens under tension) or you can opt for traditional resistance exercises with an exaggerated eccentric phase. Exercises such as the hamstring curl, straight-leg deadlift, good morning, squat and calf raise can be used by shortening the concentric phase to one second and extending the eccentric phase to at least three seconds. For example, during a straight-leg deadlift lower down as slowly as possible until you feel a mild stretch in your hamstrings then quickly return to standing.
Working eccentric training into your current training program is relatively easy and inexpensive in terms of energy demands. Begin conservatively to avoid excessive muscle soreness. Choose two to three exercises per session, completing one to two sets of five to 10 repetitions with lighter weights. Gradually increase volume and weight as your tolerance and strength improves.