The ULTIMATE (but brief) Guide to Strength Training for UltraRunners in 2022

By
Nick Hancock
11 Jan 2022
12 minutes

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

Over the past few years we’ve gotten to know much more about strength training for ultrarunners and particularly it’s benefits to the running community in general.

There have 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. So this stuff is not just a case of little old me saying “ohh i did a bit of strength training and it helped me a bit”, there is Clear cut evidence from scientific circles

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 little 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 on 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 on in races when your form is more likely to break down due to fatigue

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

The Mind!

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 as fuck! Lets take a look at some of the things that might be going through your head and break down some common myths!

Myth-busting!

  • It is really complicated – ok, if you want to get into the really scientific principles of strength training or you 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 pretty 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 wont! Without the correct rep ranges, movements, programming and diet (the biggest one), you just won’t. Plus, there is also very 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 (always ensure you get checked by a physio and prescribed by them). 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 in order 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 bollocks. In fact, it is quite detrimental to go to complete failure on both individual sets, and definitely 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 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 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!
  • But I do my “monster walks” and “stand on one leg each day” – this kind of goes into the bodyweight category. These types of things do have their place in a runner’s strength training repertoire, but they won’t get you strong past a certain point
  • Gyms are scary – there are a lot of good influencers and gym owners out there that are doing their very very 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. I may be fit as a fiddle, but I love seeing people of all sizes, shapes and walks of life inside a gym making themselves better than they were yesterday!
  • But it’s boring or I simply don’t like it! – Yeah I get it, this can be a real blocker for some people to actually get motivated to do it. Including some of the reasons above, try to attach ‘reward’ to doing a strength workout. Perhaps reward could come in the form of feeling great that you have done it, or ‘treat’ yourself with a Carb Killa chocolate protein bar afterwards or something like that!

Using Weight

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 130kg and still improving!

  • Form is a priority – this is absolutely the number one thing you should be looking to achieve. If you cannot do a light/no weight 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!
  • Squat Form
  • Warm Up properly – this is a critical step in order to avoid injury. 5-10 minutes of cardio, a selection of dynamic mobility exercises that relate to the main movements you are doing in that session, then some light or bodyweight 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 over do it! I post on my insta stories how much my lifts are but that’s to aid my accountability and display that I do indeed practice what I preach of lifting heavy, not show off… I know full well that there are people in this world that can deadlift 500kg 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 (to a certain point)
  • 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 there too as the core is such a determining factor in the success of these movements. You will, in fact, find that many of the world’s strong men and even bodybuilders do not actually train their core muscles because of the compound exercises already doing that work for those muscles
  • Warm Up properly – this is a critical step in order to avoid injury. 5-10 minutes of cardio, a selection of dynamic mobility exercises that relate to the main movements you are doing in that session, then some light or bodyweight 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 over do it! I post on my insta stories how much my lifts are but that’s to aid my accountability and display that I do indeed practice what I preach of lifting heavy, not show off… I know full well that there are people in this world that can deadlift 500kg 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 (to a certain point)
  • 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 there too as the core is such a determining factor in the success of these movements. You will, in fact, find that many of the world’s strong men and even bodybuilders do not actually train their core muscles because of the compound exercises already doing that work for those muscles

Plyometrics… Plyo-what??!!

Box jump

Plyometrics are designed to elicit power and speed! A very handy tool for ultrarunners (yes, yes, I can hear the people in the back shouting that ultrarunning is a “slow” game! Bore off! Speed work is still an integral part of ultrarunning training at all abilities and any programme that does not include speed work is wrong!)

  • Exercises to increase power – these can range from anything such as hops, explosive jumps like jump squats, to box steps and box jumps and bounds
  • Improve ground contact time – the less time our foot is in contact with the ground, the faster we will run. This is achieved by generating more power in each push off
  • Leads to improved running speed, agility and quickness – as above, this leads to better running speed, but also agility on the trails and quickness of feet, particularly useful when travelling downhill!

There are a myriad of reasons as to why plyometric training improves power output and performance – of which can be read about further in these studies, amongst many others:

An integrated strength programme should include plyometrics for runners and the total volume needed to see benefits, is surprisingly not that much!

Personally, I have found that my plyometric training has kept me away from tendon injury (I suffered badly with achilles tendonitis… I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy!) more than anything else, particularly when combined with strength work

What equipment do you “need”?

If you don’t 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 need to seek out in your commercial gyms

  • 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 right, 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 running shoes! They are too unstable for heavy loads due to all the cushioning! When we are lifting we need a really 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… or just wear a pair of Converse or go barefoot altogether!!
  • Machines are “OK” – but most of them 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

The picture of me at the top of this page is my kitted out garage!!

When should I Strength Train?

A common question that I wanted to anticiapte here. because so many ultrarunners have already big running schedules to adhere to. Timing is everything… but ultimately, 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
  • Ideally, on a hard run day – strength train on the same day as a hard run, but AFTER the hard run is ideal. This is because you want the strength work to not detract from your running (ideally 4-8 hours in-between, so if you run at 7am, strength train at 12pm or later, for example). Don’t do it on a long run day, you need to recover from your long run! If you MUST do it BEFORE because that’s what your schedule allows for, then so be it but try doing it before an easy 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!)… any one who knows me will know I HATE Run Ever Day challenges!
  • Once is good, twice is great, 3 times also great (maybe!) – 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 wasn’t 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)
  • Replace “junk” miles with strength time! – I really do wish people would stop thinking more miles are better… they aren’t, certainly not for us mere mortals with jobs, kids, lives, jobs, responsibilities, etc. I go back to an earlier quote *At some point, every runner will do strength work, either through choice or through injury”!
  • Dependant on where you are at in your training cycle, you may want to consider dropping your training. For example, in the final weeks of an ultra training block where your long runs and back to backs ramp up, 1 session per week may be enough and with reduced load/intentsity

The Good News!

3 pieces of good news here… if you are a beginner or returning after a fairly long layoff from strength work…

  • You will be very quick to benefit from strength training! When you are new, the adaptations happen rather quickly as your central nervous system learns unfamiliar movements 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’s nice to look at the reflection in the mirror and have some confidence in your body! I am well chuffed to be in this shape for a 40-year old after being heavy-smoking, overweight, depressed and miserable some years ago
  • Not bad for 40!!
  • 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 shake 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. As long as 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 sessions

  • 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 of these 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 in order to optimally lift the next set. Don’t rush this!
  • 1-3 RIR (Reps in reserve) – This goes back to my previous 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 reps back each set so as to not overdo it
  • Integrate Plyometrics – as per previous section above, these are higher reps but much more explosive and power based

Putting It All Together!

Pictured is an example of a session that I have given to one of my online ultrarunning clients (through my coaching app) after she enquired about strength training for ultrarunners

  • Starts with a compound exercise – in this case, Front squats as my client doesn’t have a squat rack in order to safely do traditional back squats
  • Notice the reps are up to 5 or 6 per set
  • Follow each strength exercise with a plyometric/power exercise – these are the jumps, step ups and Russian twists
  • On these, the reps are higher – this is to provide with as many ground contacts as is needed to improve what is known as the stretch-shortening cycle
  • This particular session was designed with just 40 mins time limit in mind. If you are in a real time pinch, you can make this even quicker by dropping your heavy set weight down a touch and “superset” the plyometric movements

In summary!

  • Change your mindset around strength training – find ways to make it a positive experience
  • More miles is NOT always better (especially for us busy non-elites)
  • Lift heavy!
  • Don’t chop and change your routine
  • Incorporate plyometrics
  • Choosing when to work out is important
  • Drop the ego
  • Get a coach!! – Yes I am slightly biased, but honestly, one of the bets 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

TO JOIN THE “PB FACTORY” VISIT MY HOME PAGE OR CLICK HERE AND FILL OUT THE COACHING ENQUIRY FORM AND LETS TURN YOU INTO A PB MACHINE!

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28394719/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27135468/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24100287/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20101012/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25921473/

https://blog.nasm.org/fitness/developing-power-in-everyday-athletes-with-plyometrics#patterns

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