The ULTIMATE (but brief) Guide to Runners Strength Training
Over the past few years, we’ve gotten to know much more about strength training for ultra runners and particularly its benefits to the running community in general.
“Weak things are so very easy to break” – Morgan Rhodes
There has been a myriad of studies over these past few years in various journals such as the Journal of Strength and Conditioning and published on sites such as PubMed which are reputable sources of information.
A pick n mix of these studies are cited below at the bottom of the page for your reference, should you wish!
Strength Training for Ultrarunners…. AND General Health!
With this cross section of studies it’s not just about the effect on performance indicators in distance running or its effect on preventing injuries (which we most commonly hear about) but also in terms of general health such as muscular strength being a strong predictor of mortality, one of the most common reasons for the elderly to be hospitalised is through a broken bone! Increasing your strength also increases your bone density which will not only help with preventing injury now (due to running), but also later in life.
it also helps with running economy (which we refer to often as running form). If you have stronger muscles on your frame, then you will hold a better form overall, especially later in races when your form is more likely to break down due to fatigue
An area I’d like to start on first of all with regards to strength training is the “strongest” muscle in the body… which is the brain!!!
Okay it’s not a muscle, but it needs to be worked first… hear me out…what I mean by this is that we need to get our mindset right before we start to work the muscles in our body
If you are new to strength training, it can be confusing and scary! Let’s take a look at some of the things that might be going through your head and break down some common myths!
• It is really complicated – ok, if you want to get into the really scientific principles of strength training or are an advanced lifter/well trained athlete with an already-strong base in strength training, then it is, indeed, NOT that simple as you will most likely need some very specific programming to ensure that you are getting the adaptations you need. But if you are new to strength training, or you haven’t done any strength training in a while, then you do not need to over complicate things. Even a simple strength programme or simply lifting “some stuff” (with good form) is a good place to start
• But I don’t want to “bulk up” – you won’t! Without the correct rep ranges, movements, programming, and diet (the biggest one), you just won’t. Plus, there is also exceptionally good evidence to suggest that running is a significant inhibitor to muscle growth (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22002517/ Wilson et al, 2012)
• I don’t have the time – another common misconception is that you need to be bashing out massive gym sessions that take hours… you don’t! 30-40 minutes per day 2-3 times per week, for the busy people in the world is enough
• Bodyweight is enough – weight is relative to the person; I will say that first off. Also, if you are recovering from an injury then bodyweight might be the right thing as per the rehab programme your physio sets you. But to be truly strong in the very sense of the word, you need to lift heavy. This means using high weights in low rep ranges (3-6 reps) that mean you can only lift 1-3 more reps before total failure. Disclaimer: Bodyweight exercises are not useless, but specific “time-under-tension” might need to be prescribed to get maximum benefit
• You should be exhausted after a workout – those images you see of people getting totally worked to the point of exhaustion by personal trainers? The “go hard or go home” mantra… utter nonsense. In fact, it is quite detrimental to go to complete failure on both individual sets, and over the course of an entire session. You should be feeling good after a strength session, not dying!
• Mileage is more important – contentious subject here… but I disagree. At some point, your mileage is going to be too high for your body to cope and it needs to be supported by strong muscles, bones and healthy tendons. Now for some people, “too high” might be 100 miles a week and all power to them, for others it might be just 5 miles per week. Once upon a time, a great running coach once said to me “at some point, a runner will do strength training. Either through choice, or because they were forced by injury” … just think about that for a second!
• Gyms are scary – there are a lot of good influencers and gym owners out there that are doing their absolute best to change this culture. Unless you find yourself in a gritty back street gym, then you should not fear the high street gyms these days!
• But it is boring, or I simply don’t like it! – Yeah, I get it, this can be a real blocker for some people to get motivated to do it. Including the reasons above, try to attach ‘reward’ to doing a strength workout. Reward could come in the form of feeling great that you have done it, or ‘treat’ yourself with one of the many available chocolate protein bars afterwards!
As previously mentioned, using bodyweight is not enough. You need to be pushing/pulling/hinging/etc against some form of resistance and as you get stronger, that weight will increase, in many cases, dramatically.
Case in point, I went from being able to do 45-50kg back squats and am now PR’ing 140kg (I weigh 80kg!)
• Form is a priority – this is absolutely the number one thing you should be looking to achieve. If you cannot do a lightweight squat with good form, then you should not be adding weight. Get your form checked. You can do this either in your gym by asking one of the fitness Instructors there to check you out, or feel free to video your movements from the side and the front and send it to me and I will review it!
• Warm Up properly – this is a critical step to avoid injury. 5-10 minutes of a cardio, a choice of dynamic mobility exercises that relate to the main movements you are doing in that session, then some light sets can also help prepare you for the demand of the heavy working sets
• Leave the ego outside – no one cares how much you can lift, so don’t overdo it! I post on my Instagram stories how much my lifts are but that is to aid my accountability and display that I do indeed practice what I preach of lifting heavy. It is not to show off… I know full well that there are people in this world that can squat 400kg and make my 140kg look puny!
• Follow a plan (for a good period of time) – one of the biggest mistakes people make when doing strength training, is believing they need to mix it up all the time. A good strength programme will include progressive overload and to do that you need to be doing the same movements week-in-week out, for several weeks.
• Train your Core properly too! – Oh, this is a real bug bare of mine! Our core muscles are, indeed, muscles and should be treated as such. Doing a bunch of crunches or flutter kicks will NOT make them STRONG! We need to add weight and work within similar rep ranges to other muscles too. There are some exceptions to this, but ultimately not. The main point here is to add weight. I would also add, that if you are “bracing your core” properly on movements such as the squat, then you are also making your core strong too. You will, in fact, find that many of the world’s strong men/women and even bodybuilders do not actually train their core muscles because of the compound exercises already doing that work for those muscles
What equipment do you “need”?
If you do not have access to a fully equipped gym, then the below is a great start and, with the pandemic, the rise in home gyms has rocketed… the good news is that prices are coming down now! So, if a home gym is your thing (like it is mine), then these are what you need or what you should seek out in your commercial gym
• Barbells and weight plates…. This is the gold standard, and you should be looking to do most of your work with these, especially when it comes to the “BIG 5” compound movements which are the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Row and Overhead Press
• Squat rack or power cage – especially if you are working out alone as a good model will have “spotter arms” on them, which means if you start to fail mid-lift, then you have something to catch the bar!
• Dumbbells – in place of barbells, there are so many options of movements that can be done with dumbbells!
• Kettlebells – I am not a personal big user of them, but again, like dumbbells the range of options available with them is extensive
• Bands – now then… let me get back to an earlier point. You need to lift HEAVY! Bands generally do not allow you to do that, but they can provide some extra stimulus when used in the right way, mostly they can be used for prehab and rehab (see a Physio first on that one remember!) exercises
• FLAT SHOES… NOT YOUR RUNNERS!! – for the love of all that is holy… it terrifies me seeing runners in the gym doing strength work in their running shoes! They are too unstable for heavy loads due to all the cushioning! When we are lifting, we need a solid stable base and something like Vivo Barefoot are great, you can also buy plenty of lifting specific shoes from major brands such as Nike, Adidas, inov8 etc… you can even just wear a pair of Converse… or go barefoot altogether!!
• Machines are “OK” – but most are not ideal because they isolate specific muscles and are more beneficial to bodybuilders. Using free weights recruits more muscle fibres than just the main ones you are targeting and therefore means more core stability etc is needed. However, if using machines such as leg press, smith machine etc help you build some confidence in the gym, then they are a good starting place
When should I Strength Train?
A common question that I wanted to predict here. Because ultrarunners have already big running schedules to adhere to. Timing is everything… but, we all have busy AF lives so make it count when you can. Here are some guidelines from my perspective:
• Running is the priority, so that comes first – The first question here is, what is your priority? In most cases for us ultrarunners, the answer will be “our running.” Therefore, it is most ideal to do your runs first during the day and then your strength session later in the day
• Ideally, on an easy run day – Some folks will say “keep your hard days hard and easy days easy” There isn’t anything to support this statement and from experience I have found doing a hard run and lifting on the same day is extremely fatiguing. Ideally 4-8 hours in-between run and lifting, so if you run at 7am, strength train at 12pm or later, for example). Do not do it on a long run day, you need to recover from your long run!
• Ensure 1 total rest day per week – makes sure you have 1 total day off per week to recover (and enjoy life outside of running… yes, that is a thing!)
• Once per week is good, twice is great – there is some excellent evidence (Blagrove et al, 2020) that shows a significant response to athletes that train twice per week in their pre/off season or early on in training blocks. Moving to once per week to maintain. There was not much evidence showing that 3 sessions per week benefited but none that was of detriment either, so if you enjoy lifting 3 times a week, then that “could” be fine (this depends on your running load too though so tread carefully)
The Good News!
3 pieces of good news here… if you are new to strength training or returning after a layoff from strength work…
• You will be very quick to benefit from strength training! When you are new, the adaptations happen quickly as your central nervous system learns unfamiliar movement patterns and loads. You get to see the fruits of your labour quickly (back to my earlier point about “reward!”) – plus, and there is no harm in this at all, it is nice to look at the reflection in the mirror and have some confidence in your body!
• DOMS does NOT have to be a thing! – If you are waking up the next day and can barely move, then you have gone too far. You don’t have to go to failure (as mentioned earlier) to see benefits and adaptations. Sure, you will probably feel “some” soreness, but it should not be unbearable, and it most certainly should not hinder running performance (which again was our primary goal)
• You don’t need to take supplements – a common misconception is that you MUST or NEED to take supplements, especially a protein shakes or recovery drink within 20 minutes of a workout. First off, this now generally considered what is known as “bro-science” in bodybuilding circles and there are major questions as to whether the so-called Anabolic-window, even exists at all (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23360586). If you eat a diet consisting of “enough” calories (dependant on goals and where you are at in your training cycle), that is relatively high in protein, as well as carbs and fats throughout the day, then that is usually enough for good recovery
Programming Your Sessions:
Some key points to take when programming your strength training plan for running
• Prioritise the “BIG 5” compound movements – Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Press, Barbell Row and Overhead Press. These should be done at the start of the session allowing for “accessory” or less taxing movements to follow
• Keep Squats and Deadlifts Separate – both movements are very taxing on the central nervous system. Doing them both in one session is likely to cause unnecessary fatigue and hamper the rest of the session and any runs in the following days
• Low Reps, High Weights – Strength is derived from lifting heavy weights at low reps. You should be thinking 3-6 reps per set. For reference, hypertrophy (building muscle) is best stimulated at reps of 8-12 and endurance at much higher reps (oh no! I said the “e” word… remember, we don’t need endurance, we already have that! We want strength to support the endurance!)
• Long rest periods (c.2-3 mins) – yep, might sound boring just standing around for 3 minutes at a time. But to properly recover from a properly performed strength movement, you need good recovery time to optimally lift the next set. Don’t rush this!
• 1-3 RIR (Reps in reserve) – This goes back to my earlier comments on not going to failure. If you have a set of 5 to do, then you don’t want to be failing at 3 reps. In fact, you want to feel like you could have done 1-3 more reps. Remember, this is not an ego game, so train smart and keep a couple of reps back each set to not overdo it
Putting It All Together!
• Start with a compound exercise – Squats and Deadlifts are the best starters
• Set and Rep Schema – Sets no more than 2-3 and Repetitions up to 8, dependant on the exercise you are doing
• Take adequate rest in between sets – you need to rest properly! If you aren’t taken at least 3 mins between sets, then you won’t get the required adaptations. But equally…
• Get in and get out! – If you have a strength programme that lasts longer than 30-40 mins, then you are doing too much
• Change your mindset around strength training – find ways to make it a positive experience
• More miles are NOT always better (especially for us busy non-elites)
• Lift heavy!
• Don’t chop and change your routine
• Choosing when to work out is important
• Drop the ego
• Get a personal running coach!! – Yes, I am slightly biased, but honestly, one of the best things you can do is not only put it in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing, but also have someone you can have dialogue with on a regular basis to tailor your programme for your specific needs