What Is Contrast Training – and Can It Make You a Faster Runner?

Add this speed-builder to your bag of training tricks.

If you’re looking to leave last year’s PB in the dust, chances are you’ve already thought of the usual go-to training methods – tempo runsplyometricshill repeats and interval training).Well, there’s another speed-boosting method you should keep on your radar. Not only is it time-efficient, but also hardly makes a dent in your weekly mileage.

Enter: contrast training.

Contrast training is an exercise method that can enhance your neuromuscular efficiency, or the ability of your nervous system to communicate quickly and effectively with the muscles you use during a run.

This effect is achieved by first priming the fast-twitch muscle fibres with a few reps of a heavy lift. Then, while the muscles and nervous system are still fired up and ready to go, you hit them with an explosive movement that follows the same movement pattern (think: deadlifts paired with kettlebell swings, shoulder presses paired with dumbbell snatches, squats paired with vertical jumps).

According to Dr Mike Young, strength and speed coach and director of performance and research for Athletic Lab, the “how” behind contrast training is post-activation potentiation, a short-term phenomenon in which a muscle is capable of producing greater force once it’s been stimulated.

“Contrast training allows us to ‘hack’ the body to produce more force, and to create force faster at a lower energetic cost,” Young says.

For runners, improving neuromuscular efficiency via contrast training leads to greater running economy, or how well your body utilises oxygen to to sustain a given effort. “This has huge implications for the pace a runner will be able to run at before experiencing fatigue,” Young says.

Ready to give contrast training a try? Incorporate one of the following exercise pairs into your resistance training routine. (Video demonstrations provided from Athletic Lab are shown above.) To achieve the desired effect, you’ll want to tackle them when you’re fresh. It’s important to get sufficient rest in between exercises and sets so you can keep the quality of movement and effort as high as possible, Young says. It’s also critical to keep the total volume and repetitions low to reduce the likelihood of injury and excessive fatigue.

Stick to 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps for both movements in the exercise pairing. Rest one to two minutes in between exercises and two to three minutes in between sets. For the sprints, Young suggests 3 to 5 sets of 20 to 40 meters for both resisted and unresisted variations. Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sprint reps and 3 to 4 minutes between sets. Just keep in mind: if you go for a longer sprint, you’ll need to take a longer recovery in between reps and sets.

One word of caution:i you have little to no recent experience (i.e. within the last six months) with heavy, multi-joint strength movements or explosive plyometric exercises, you’ll want to give your body time to adapt to moves like squats, lunges and presses before jumping into an advanced exercise method like contrast training, Young says.

1. Pair: Dumbbell Squat + Tuck Jumps

Dumbbell Squat

Stand tall with feet hip-width apart and grip a dumbbell at chest. Hinge at the hips to send butt back and lower into a squat, keeping chest lifted. Drive through heels to push back to standing. Keep torso upright and knees in-line with toes throughout the movement. Repeat for reps.

Bodyweight Tuck Jumps

Stand tall with feet hip-width apart. Bend slightly at the waist and knees to jump up explosively as you bring knees in toward chest. Swing arms to help you jump higher. Land softly and repeat for reps.

2. Pair: Walking Lunges + Jumping Lunges

Walking Lunges

Stand tall and hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides. Take a big step forward with right foot and drop left knee to floor to lunge. Press into right heel to bring left foot forward. Next, take a big step forward with left foot. Continue alternating for reps.

Bodyweight Jumping Lunges

Begin in a lunge position with right thigh parallel to floor. Jump up explosively and switch legs midair so left leg comes forward. Land softly and repeat for reps.

3. Pair: Step-Ups + Jumping Step-Ups

Step Ups

Hold a dumbbell in each hand by sides or in a racked position at shoulders. Plant right foot on a box or bench. (Note: the height of the box or bench will depend on your current level of strength and flexibility.) Lean forward slightly, and press through planted right heel to lift body until right leg is straight. Bring left knee toward your waist to bend 90 degrees. Lower your raised foot back down to the floor, then the planted foot. Repeat for reps.

Jumping Step-Ups 

Stand tall to the right of a sturdy box or bench. (Note: the height of the box or bench will depend on your current level of strength and flexibility.) Laterally step left foot to plant it on the box or bench. Lean forward slightly, and press through planted heel to jump up explosively, switching legs midair so right foot lands on the other side of the box or bench. Repeat for reps.

4. Dumbbell Chest Press + Medicine Ball Chest Pass

Dumbbell Chest Press

Begin seated at the edge of a bench with a dumbbell resting on each knee. Carefully lean back until your back is flat against the bench, arms bent, and dumbbells at chest. From there, press dumbbells straight up over chest. Then, lower the weights with control until elbows dip just below the height of the bench. Pause at the bottom for one count, then press the weights overhead. Keep arms close to your body and feet planted on the floor throughout the movement. Repeat for reps.

Medicine Ball Chest Pass

Grab a partner. Begin lying on the floor with your legs extended and arms stretched toward the ceiling; your partner stands a few inches away from the top of your head holding the medicine ball. Have your partner toss the medicine ball to your outstretched hands. Catch the medicine ball softly and bend arms to bring it to your chest. Brace abs and push through your chest to throw the medicine ball back up to your partner. Repeat for reps. (If you don’t have a partner, stand facing a wall.)

5. Pair: Resisted Sprints + Unresisted Sprints

Resisted Sprints

Grab a partner. Loop a resistance band around your hips and give the ends to your partner to hold. As you sprint, your partner trails behind gripping the ends of the band to create constant tension. Follow the same form cues outlined for unresisted sprints below.

Unresisted Sprints 

Begin in a staggered stance with the front knee and back knee bent about 30 and 45 degrees respectively. Hinge forward at the waist bringing your chest close to parallel with the ground. Position the arms in a split position such that your rear-leg side arm is in front and your front-leg side arm is behind your body. Initiate the sprint by pushing off as hard as possible. Focus on driving the knees in front of the body. As you sprint, drive the elbows backward to create momentum. Move your arms through an exaggerated swing motion with your hands reaching as high as your chin and as far back as your butt.

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