In recent years, there has been a growing trend among ultra runners to incorporate strength training into their running training plans. Research has demonstrated the benefits of strength training for ultra runners who face unique physical challenges in conquering extreme distances. So let’s get delving into the world of strength training for ultra runners.
Strength training for ultra runners has been shown to offer numerous advantages. They include improving speed and VO2 Max (a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen an individual can utilize during intense exercise). Also, most importantly, a decreased susceptibility to injury. One study even revealed that strength training can result in an improvement of up to 8 percent in running economy. This translates to ultra runners being able to maintain their desired pace with less perceived effort. This can be invaluable in a sport that demands such high levels of endurance, especially at the end of a race when our form suffers due to fatigue.
In addition to the positive impact on performance, strength training serves as a preventive measure against common injuries. These include stress fractures and Achilles tendonitis (an injury I am all too familiar with!). By focusing on strengthening the muscles and connective tissues surrounding these vulnerable areas, ultra runners can substantially reduce their risk of sustaining injuries during training and on race day. This not only contributes to their overall health but also allows them to maintain a consistent training schedule, which in turn, leads to further improvements in performance.
The world of strength training for ultra runners encompasses a vast array of exercises and techniques. These range from traditional weightlifting and resistance training to more specialized routines targeting specific muscle groups and addressing biomechanical imbalances. When implemented strategically, these forms of strength training can work to optimise the performance of ultra runners, allowing them to push their limits and reach new personal bests.
Dispelling Myths and Adopting the Right Mindset
Before delving into the world of strength training for ultra runners, it is crucial to address the mental aspect of this process. Strength training can be intimidating and confusing. To set the stage for success, let us debunk some prevalent myths and misconceptions surrounding strength training:
- Complexity. While strength training can be intricate for advanced lifters who require specific programming, beginners need not be overwhelmed. If you are new to strength training or haven’t practiced it in a while, simplicity is key.
- Fear of “bulking up”. With the appropriate rep ranges, movements, programming, and diet, you won’t inadvertently bulk up. Furthermore, research suggests that running a considerable number of miles per week significantly inhibits muscle growth.
- Time constraints. Contrary to popular belief, lengthy gym sessions aren’t necessary for effective strength training. A mere 30-40 minutes per session can suffice.
- Bodyweight strength training is enough. While bodyweight exercises can be beneficial, especially during injury recovery, true strength typically requires resistance training. This means utilizing higher weights with low rep ranges. Doing bodyweight alone with the view to building strength is not sufficient and just adds more fatigue to the running you have been doing.
- Exhaustion as a benchmark. The “go hard or go home” mentality is misguided. In fact, pushing oneself to complete failure during reps can be counterproductive.
- Gym intimidation. Many fitness professionals are working to create a more inclusive and welcoming gym culture. In fact, many of “those big dudes in the free weights area” may actually be able to help ensure you are using equipment correctly. They are not inherently bad people!
- Boredom: It is understandable that some individuals may find strength training monotonous. To overcome this, try associating a ‘reward’ with completing a strength workout. This could be the satisfaction of accomplishment or indulging in a delicious chocolate protein bar afterward.
What is Resistance Training?!
As a UESCA qualified Ultra running coach, I can attest to the importance of incorporating resistance training into your workout routine. Relying solely on bodyweight exercises is often insufficient for building true strength. Those clickbait titles in certain running magazines are NOT going to build strength and are a waste of your time. Instead, engaging in resistance training with progressively increasing weights can significantly enhance your capabilities.
For instance, my personal experience includes progressing from 45-50kg back squats to a personal record of 140kg (while weighing 80kg). Whilst my lifting PR’s have gone up, so has my running improved. Some examples are:
- I don’t feel as fatigued in ultra marathon races in certain areas like hip flexors and glutes.
- My Achilles tendonitis has never returned.
- I have gotten much stronger on inclines and uphill running where muscular power plays more of a role.
- I have continued to get faster at shorter distances. Even now into my 40’s I am achieving PB’s at 5km up to 50km!
Optimise your strength training
To optimize your strength training, keep the following principles and strategies in mind:
Prioritize form: Before adding weight to your exercises, ensure that your form is impeccable. Seek guidance from fitness instructors at your gym or share videos of your movements (captured from side and front angles) with me for evaluation.
Warm-up effectively: To prevent injuries, allocate 5-10 minutes for cardio, perform dynamic mobility exercises relevant to your main workout movements, and complete light sets as part of your warm-up routine.
Check your ego at the door: Don’t let pride dictate your workouts. It’s far more important to maintain proper form than to lift excessive weights.
Adhere to a consistent plan: Many individuals mistakenly believe that strength training requires constant variation. A successful strength program incorporates progressive overload, which entails repeating the same movements week after week for several weeks.
Train your core correctly: Your core muscles require targeted strengthening, but popular exercises like crunches or “7-Minute Abs Blast for Runners” videos aren’t the answer. Instead, focus on proper core bracing during exercises like squats, and consider incorporating planks and dead bug variations for specific core work.
By adhering to these principles and strategies, you’ll be well on your way to integrating effective resistance training into your ultra running preparation. As you continue to develop and refine your strength training regimen, remember to consult with professionals and seek guidance to ensure your approach aligns with your unique goals, fitness level, and personal circumstances.
Essential Equipment for an Effective Strength Training Setup
If you are looking to build a home gym or seeking the right equipment in a commercial gym for your strength training needs, the following items are essential for a solid setup:
Barbells and weight plates: Consider these the gold standard for strength training. They are particularly useful for the “BIG 5” compound movements: Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Row, and Overhead Press.
Squat rack or power cage: These are especially important if you’re working out alone, as a quality model will feature “spotter arms” to catch the bar if you struggle during a lift.
Dumbbells/Kettlebells: While barbells are the primary choice for many exercises, dumbbells and kettlebells offer a versatile alternative, with numerous movement options.
Resistance bands: Though they don’t typically allow for heavy lifting, resistance bands can provide additional stimulus when used correctly. They are particularly helpful for prehab and rehab exercises.
Flat shoes: Wearing the right footwear is crucial for stability during strength training. Running shoes, with their cushioning, are not suitable for heavy lifting. Opt for flat shoes like Vivo Barefoot or consider going barefoot for a stable base.
As the popularity of home gyms surged during the pandemic, equipment prices went through the roof, but have again now become more affordable. So if you have space at home, this can be an excellent option. Whether you’re building your own workout space or utilizing a commercial gym, these essential items will ensure you have the tools to effectively integrate strength training into your ultra marathon training plans
Optimising Strength Training Schedules for Ultra runners: Timing, Frequency, and Recovery
The timing and frequency of your strength training can significantly impact your overall performance as an ultra runner. While everyone’s schedule and priorities differ, the following guidelines can help you strike the right balance:
Prioritize running: As ultra runners, running should be your primary focus (obvs!). If possible, complete your runs earlier in the day, followed by your strength training sessions later in the day. Ideally leave a gap of 6-8 hours in between sessions
Aim for easy run days: Contrary to the adage “keep your hard days hard and easy days easy,” I have found through my experience of coaching busy people that combining a hard interval or speed type session on the same day as strength training as well as busy jobs, kids etc, is just too much intensity in one day. Schedule your strength training on easy run days, ideally with a 6-8 hour gap between the run and lifting (e.g., run at 7 am and strength train at 12 pm or later). Refrain from strength training on long run days to allow for proper recovery.
Take one complete rest day per week: Dedicate at least one day per week to rest and recovery, giving yourself time to recharge and enjoy life outside of running… yes, apparently that’s a thing?!
Aim for one to two strength sessions per week: Studies suggest that training twice per week during the pre/off-season or early training blocks yields significant benefits for athletes. Later on, you can reduce the frequency to once per week to maintain your gains if you feel you need to, but this isn’t essential to do so as long as the volume and intensity is managed correctly.
The Upsides of Strength Training for Newcomers or Those Returning After a Break:
Rapid benefits: When you’re new to strength training or resuming after a hiatus, you’ll likely experience quick adaptations as your central nervous system adjusts to new movement patterns and loads.
Minimal DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness): Properly managed strength training should not result in debilitating soreness the next day. While some discomfort is normal, it shouldn’t hinder your running performance.
No need for supplements: A common misconception is that supplements are essential for strength training. However, a balanced diet with sufficient calories, moderate protein, and appropriate amounts of carbs and fats is typically adequate to support your training needs.
By adhering to these guidelines, you can effectively incorporate strength training into your ultrarunning regimen, ultimately enhancing your performance and reducing the risk of injury.
Integrating Strength Training for Ultra runners: Effective and Efficient Workouts
Incorporating strength training into your ultra running regimen involves a few key principles that we have discussed above. Here’s a suggested gym-based routine that lasts 30-40 minutes, with low reps for “compound” movements and slightly higher reps for “accessory” exercises:
Begin with a compound movement: Start your session with either squats or deadlifts. These are the most effective foundational exercises, but it’s best to perform them on separate days to avoid excessive fatigue.
Follow a low-rep, high-weight approach: Aim for 3-6 reps per set with heavy weights, rather than high reps (12+) with lighter weights. As runners, we already possess substantial muscular endurance from our regular training; low-weight, high-rep exercises provide limited benefits.
Allow sufficient rest between sets: Although it might seem tedious, resting for approximately 3 minutes between sets is crucial for optimal recovery and performance in subsequent sets. Do not rush the process!
Keep workouts brief: A strength training session lasting longer than 30-40 minutes may yield diminishing returns. Focus on efficiency and quality over quantity.
Maintain 1-3 reps in reserve (RIR): Refrain from pushing yourself to failure during your sets. If your set requires 5 reps, for instance, you should feel as though you could have completed 1-3 additional reps.
Example Strength Routine for Ultra runners:
Warm-up: 5-10 minutes of light cardio (elliptical or bike) and dynamic mobility work.
Main compound exercise (choose one per session):
- Squats: 2 sets of 5 reps
- Bench press: 2 sets of 6 reps
- Bulgarian split squats: 3 sets of 8 reps
- Overhead press: 2 sets of 6 reps
- Plank variations: 3 sets of 30-60 seconds
- Deadlifts: 2 sets of 5 reps
- Bent-over rows: 2 sets of 6 reps
- Single Leg Deadlifts : 2 sets of 8 reps on each leg
- Single-leg glute bridge: 3 sets of 8 reps
- Dead bug variations: 3 sets of 8 reps
By adhering to these principles and incorporating this example routine, you can efficiently and effectively integrate strength training into your ultra running schedule, ultimately enhancing performance and reducing injury risk.
“Storen, O., Helgerud, J., Stoa, E. M., & Hoff, J. (2008).” (“Concurrent Training: Using Cardio to Optimize Muscle Growth”) Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 40(6), 1087-1092. [PMID: 18460996]
Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Santos-Concejero, J., & Grivas, G. V. (2016). “Effects of strength training on running economy in highly trained runners: a systematic review with meta-analysis of controlled trials.” (“Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained …”) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(8), 2361-2368. [PMID: 26849748]
Taipale, R. S., Mikkola, J., Nummela, A., Vesterinen, V., Capostagno, B., Walker, S., … & Häkkinen, K. (2013). (“Zitate – iat.uni-leipzig.de”) Strength training in endurance runners. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 34(7), 586-594. [PMID: 23371854]
For coaching enquiries, blog and resources visit 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