Pickleball May be the Perfect Training Compliment to Running

Pickleball running

Runners are notoriously unathletic. The goal of our sport is to optimize movement on a singular plane, repeating the same motion with maximum efficiency. The very nature of distance running means other athletic skills are never developed. 

A well-balanced training plan should include more than just running. Running-specific strength work – which can include dynamic core exercises, ballistic drills, movement plane work, and more – helps to keep runners healthy while optimizing their stride. Interestingly, there’s a sport that checks a lot of these boxes, and chances are, you’re only a quick drive away from trying it for the first time. 

The Cult of Pickleball 

Pickleball is growing at a rapid rate. Often described as a mix of tennis and ping pong, pickleball is taking over towns across America, with thousands of new players picking up a racket for the first time every week. 

Once you’ve played pickleball for the first time, it’s easy to see why the sport is so popular. In addition to being a good workout, pickleball is tons of fun, with people of all ages able to play using a variety of styles. 

Many runners have already made pickleball a part of their routine. On Strava, you may even see athletes entering pickleball sessions into their workout feeds. While nothing can be a direct replacement for old-fashioned mileage, pickleball is an excellent add on to a running training plan as it works movement planes and energy systems that aren’t touched in our sport. 

The Three Movement Planes and Running

There are three planes of motion humans are capable of following: 

  1. The sagittal plane, which involves forward and backwards motion. Examples: Backpedaling, walking, pushups.
  2. The frontal plane, which involves side-to-side motion. Examples: Basketball shuffles, side leg raises, jumping jacks.
  3. The transverse plane, which involves a twisting motion. Examples: Chopping wood, cable rotations, passing items from left to right in a line of people. 

While running incorporates all three planes of motion, the sport heavily overemphasizes the sagittal plane, which can lead to athletic imbalances. Varying your running surfaces can be an effective tool in correcting these imbalances. But to truly reach your potential as an athlete, you need to incorporate exercises that specifically target the frontal and transverse planes. Interestingly, pickleball inherently works these planes in a way that fits seamlessly into a training program. 

Why Pickleball Works for Runners 

In the average pickleball game, you naturally move in every single direction: forwards, backwards, diagonally, and side to side. When hitting the ball, you twist each way, forcing your body to generate power from odd angles. For runners, this means you’re covering ground in all the ways you wouldn’t during a typical run. 

A large number of running injuries are caused by joint inflexibility and strength imbalances that stem from only moving on the sagittal plane. In pickleball, you’re forced to move frequently on the frontal and transverse planes, which can help develop your hip abductors and adductors, transversus abdominis, obliques, and more. You’ll also move backwards, which is the side of the sagittal plane you don’t cover while running. This direction requires more involvement from your hamstrings and glutes, which are criminally underworked muscle groups in most distance training programs. 

Fast Feet and Explosive Movements

Veteran runners, particularly those focused on the marathon, will see their explosiveness off the ground erode year by year. The human body is incredibly adaptable – sometimes to a fault – so focusing exclusively on aerobic training means your body can forget how to accelerate and generate power. Pickleball can help with this imbalance, as it requires fast, sudden movements on nearly every point. 

While you won’t ever need to dart diagonally backwards in a race, there’s plenty of value in being able to turn your fast-twitch muscles on and off at will. East African runners are famous for putting in surges mid-race that their competitors simply can’t cover. (This ability stems largely from hill bursts mid run, which is a workout runners who train with See You At The Finish will often have on their training plans.). If you only train at consistent speeds, you’ll struggle with steep elevation changes and accelerations at important points throughout your races. 

What’s more, pickleball inherently works ground reaction time, which is one of the major ways you can improve stride efficiency. The longer your feet stay on the ground with each step, the longer it takes your body to propel itself forward towards the finish line. The twitchy, sudden movements needed to track down a shot in pickleball can improve neural firing at your lowest extremities. 

Pickleball vs. Other Cross Training for Runners 

Cross training is an invaluable tool for runners, but it should never detract from your actual running workouts. Playing basketball and even tennis can eat into your mileage because both sports require a fair amount of running. Pickleball, however, has such a small court that your running-specific movement is inherently limited to only a few steps at a time. That means you can play without worrying about saving your legs for your usual mileage. 

Compared to all forms of cross training, pickleball is unique because its benefits are primarily related to dynamic strength and mobility with only minimal cardiovascular crossover. You can certainly get your heart rate up by playing a game of pickleball, but the sport’s start-and-stop nature means you won’t get the same aerobic development as you would swimming, cycling, or using a cross training machine. If you incorporate pickleball into your current training regimen, you should do so strategically with targeted goals in mind for your overall development. 

Continue to Strength Train 

As an add-on to running, you could do a lot worse than just playing pickleball. But the sport is not a magic bullet that can take the place of running-specific strength exercises which help maximize your stride efficiency and prevent common injuries. To reach your potential, you should incorporate a wide variety of exercises in addition to your bread-and-butter running workouts. If you’re interested in learning more about developing a well-balanced, personalized training plan, check out more free articles here or see your coaching plan options here. Your best races are right around the corner.