Strength training for UltraRunners

November 7, 2022
Nick Hancock

“Weak things are so very easy to break” – Morgan Rhodes


Introduction: What do we know about Strength Training for Ultrarunners (or any runner for that matter!)?

Ultrarunners are increasingly turning to strength training to improve their performances. And it’s no wonder why: research (PMID’s for some studies are cited at the bottom of this article) has shown that strength training can have several benefits for ultrarunners, including increased speed, improved VO2 Max, and the all-important reduced risk of injury. In fact, one study showed that strength training can help improve running economy by as much as 8 percent. This means that ultrarunners who incorporate strength training into their training can run at the same pace with less perceived effort. In addition to improved performance, strength training can also help reduce the risk of injuries common in ultrarunning, such a stress fractures and Achilles tendonitis. By strengthening the muscles and connective tissues around these areas, ultrarunners can minimize their chances of getting injured, not only on race day, but keeping you healthy during training too, which means you can train more which leads to improved performance in itself!


Coach Nick in his Home Garage Gym! A real and lifelong investment


Let’s dive into how you can adopt strength training into your training schedule…


The Mind!

An area I’d like to start on first of all with regards to strength training is that we need to get our mindset right before gettingunder a barbell. If you are new to strength training, it can be confusing andscary! Let’s break down some common myths:

  • It is really complicated – if you are     an advanced lifter 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 (it takes years to reach this stage though!). 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.
  • 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 a significant number of miles per week is     a significant inhibitor to muscle growth
  • 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 session 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 using some sort of resistance     mechanism. This means using higher weights in low rep ranges (3-6 reps).
  • You should be     exhausted after a workout –The     “go hard or go home” mantra… utter nonsense. In fact, it is quite     detrimental to go to complete failure on your reps.
  • Gyms are     scary – there are a     lot of good influencers and fitness pros out there that are doing their absolute     best to change this culture and you should not fear the gyms these days!
  • But it is boring –I get it, this can be a real blocker for some people to get     motivated to do it. 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!

Using Weight

As previously mentioned, using bodyweight is (usually)not enough. You need to be pushing/pulling/hinging/etc against some form ofresistance and as you get stronger, that weight will increase, in many cases, dramatically.

Case in point, I went from being able to do 45-50kgback squats and am now PR’ing 140kg (I weigh 80kg!)

  • Form is a     priority –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! Good form is priority!
  • 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! – Our     core muscles are, indeed, muscles and should be treated as such. Stop doing     a bunch of crunches or that clickbait “7-Minute Abs Blast for Runners”  video you found on YouTube, they will NOT make the core STRONG! If you     are “bracing your core” properly on movements such as the squat,    then you are also making your core strong too. If you want to target the     core specifically, then planks and dead bug variations are much more     appropriate


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/Kettlebells – in place of barbells, there are so many options of     movements that can be done with these!
  • 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
  • FLAT SHOES!! – 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 or     go barefoot altogether!!

When should I Strength Train?

Timing is everything… but, we all have busy 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 – make     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 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.


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     benefit from strength training very quickly - When you are new, the adaptations happen quickly as your     central nervous system learns unfamiliar movement patterns and loads.
  • DOMS does NOT     have to be a thing! – If you are     waking up the next day and can barely move, then you have done too much. 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 or hinder running performance
  • You don’t need     to take supplements – a common misconception is that you MUST or NEED to take supplements. If you eat a healthy diet consisting of “enough” calories (dependent on goals and where you are at in your training cycle), that is moderate in protein, as well as carbs and fats throughout the day, then that is usually enough

Programming Your Sessions:

Some key points to take when programming your sessions

Putting It All Together!

  • Start with a compound exercise – Squats and Deadlifts are the best starters, but I recommend keeping these two movements to separate days as doing them in the same session can be quite fatiguing
  • Set and Rep Schema – Strength is derived from lifting heavy weights at low reps. You should be thinking 3-6 reps per set with heavy weights and not high amounts of reps (circa 12+) with low weights. Us runners already have good muscular endurance from running, doing low weights high reps in the gym does not emulate muscular endurance enough to be of benefit to us!
  • Take adequate rest in between sets (circa 3 minutes) – yep, might sound boring just standing around for 3 minutes at a time. But to recover from a properly performed strength movement, you need     good recovery time to optimally lift the next set and get adaptations.     Don’t rush this!
  • Get in and get out! – If you have a strength programme that lasts longer than 30-40 mins, then you are probably doing too much and the returns diminishing
  • 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.

In summary!

  • Change your mindset around strength training – find ways to make it a positive experience
  • Lift heavy!
  • Don’t chop and change your routine
  • Choosing when to work out is important
  • Drop the ego and ensure excellent form to avoid injury in the weight room!
  • Get a 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


And to note… if you are already injured, see a physio and/or consult a doctor before undertaking a strength programme!


By Nick Hancock of Maximum Mileage Coaching.

Nick is a UESCA Qualified Ultrarunning Coach, UKA licensed and has coached many people to successful ultramarathon races such as Race To The Stones, Endure24, Chiltern Wonderland, Wendover Woods and many more

For coaching enquiries, blog and resources visit

Instagram: @runwithnick

PMID: 22002517

PMID: 28394719

PMID: 27135468

PMID: 24100287

PMID: 20101012

PMID: 25921473


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