Strength training for Ultra Runners
Ultra runners are increasingly turning to strength training to improve their performances. And it’s no wonder why: research (PMIDs 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 for ultra trail runners can help improve running economy by as much as 8 per cent. This means that ultra runners 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 ultra running, such as stress fractures and Achilles tendonitis. By strengthening the muscles and connective tissues around these areas, ultra runners can minimise their chances of getting injured, not only on race day but by keeping you healthy during training too, which means you can train more which leads to improved performance in itself!
“Weak things are so very easy to break” – Morgan Rhodes
Let’s dive into how you can adopt strength training into your training schedule…
The Runners Mind!
An area I’d like to start on first of all with regards to strength training for runners is that we need to get our mindset right before getting under a barbell. If you are new to strength training, it can be confusing and scary! 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 overcomplicate 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 of 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 a ‘reward’ to do a strength workout. A 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 Weights for running
As previously mentioned, using body weight is (usually)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 45-50 kg back 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 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 a 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 strength 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 for 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 to see 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 is 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 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 running and lifting, so if you run at 7 am, strength train at 12 pm 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 Strength Sessions:
When it comes to strength training for ultra runners, properly programming your strength sessions is key to enhance your performance and minimise the risk of injuries. Integrating strength exercises into your training regimen can provide significant benefits, especially when combined with interval training for ultra marathons. To effectively program your strength sessions, focus on exercises that target the specific muscle groups used in endurance running, such as the core, glutes, hips, and legs. Incorporate a variety of exercises that promote stability, mobility, and power, including squats, lunges, planks, and single-leg exercises. Aim for a balanced routine that addresses both upper and lower body strength. Remember to progressively increase the intensity and challenge of your strength sessions over time to continually improve your strength and endurance. By integrating well-planned strength training sessions you can enhance your overall performance and resilience as an ultra runner.
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 of 3-6 reps per set with heavy weights and not high amounts of reps (circa 12+) with low weights. We runners already have good muscular endurance from running, doing low weights and 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.
- 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 a 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!
Author: Nick Hancock is a UESCA Certified Ultrarunning coach and UK Athletics Coach in Running Fitness (CiRF) and has coached many busy professionals and parents to achieve finishes, top-10s and podiums in events such as London Marathon, Manchester Marathon, Amsterdam Marathon, UTMB, UTS, Centurion events, Endure24, Backyards and many more. Host of the Maximum Mileage Running Podcast and author of the Ultimate Cookbook for Runners
He can be found on Instagram @runwithnick