Strength training for ultra runners is often overlooked, for a multitude of reasons. For one, training for an ultra marathon requires a great deal of time. With long runs or doubles taking up 3+ hours, it’s difficult to find time for any additional workouts.
In addition, most first time ultra runners are so consumed by trying to meet the mileage goals that they fail to incorporate anything not on the plan. However, strength training for ultra runners is arguably even more important than it is for regular road runners.
Do ultra runners need to strength train?
Absolutely – strength training for ultra runners is incredibly beneficial. The style and structure of an ultrarunning strength workout will vary for each individual runner, but committing to even just a few minutes of exercises each week will pay off in dividends.
Training runs should always be the priority for any ultra runner, but adding in a few short strength workouts in addition to training runs each week has a variety of benefits.
Strength training helps prevent injury, improve stability for the uneven terrain, enhances balance, increases running performance and decreases fatigue over time. Since most ultra marathons take place on the trails, strength training is crucial for avoiding injuries from falls and other mishaps on the course.
What should ultra runners do for strength training?
For beginners, any type of strength training while ultra training is better than nothing. However, as you begin to train for faster finish times, harder courses or longer ultras, they type of strength training you do can greatly impact your performance.
Ultra runners typically benefit most from resistance training using weights or gym equipment. Bodyweight exercises can be a good starting point, or good options when you’re short on time, but should not be the only type of strength work during training.
Free weights, balance equipment, resistance bands, and gym machines are all great options for strength exercises.
Benefits of Strength Training for Ultra Runners
There are so many benefits of strength training for ultra runners. In addition to helping improve running economy and performance, it also can boost mental strength and stability on the trails. Here are some of the biggest advantages of including strength training in your ultra running plan.
- Helps improve speed
- Potential to increase VO2 max
- Decreases the risk of injury
- Improves balance and stability
- Can improve mental stamina
- Increases running economy and performance
- Helps delay fatigue onset during running
Strength training provides the same benefits for road runners as ultra runners, but is even more critical for ultra runners as most courses take place on the trails. Trails involve uneven terrain, which leaves runners more susceptible to injuries from falls, sprains, twists, etc. Strength workouts help improve running stamina, balance and stability – all critical elements for surviving the trails.
Best Strength Training Exercises for Ultra Runners
In general, the greater the resistance, the greater the benefit of the exercise. This means that the heavier the weight or tighter the band, the more of a challenge it will be for your body. Whenever you are working with high resistance, decrease the number of repetitions and focus on form.
In all strength training exercises for ultra runners, the focus should be on form and quality of the rep as opposed to quantity. If you’re working with weights or gym equipment, stick to lower reps. When working with bodyweight exercises, higher repetitions can help provide similar benefits.
Check out the most beneficial strength training exercises for ultrarunners.
This exercise in incredibly beneficial for ultra runners in all forms: split squats, squat press, sumo squat, leg press, Bosu squats, and single leg squat. Not only do squats target and strengthen the main running muscles, but they encourage full body balance and mobility.
Step ups are a great way to isolate each leg and further improve balance, stability and strength. This strength training exercise can easily be completed at home on a bench or stair, or at the gym with added weights and resistance bands.
Once of the key exercises in any strength training workout for ultra runners is the lunge. Forward lunge, backward lunge, jump lunge, split squats, Bosu lunge and weighted lunges all help strengthen the glutes and hamstrings to prevent imbalance and inactive muscles on the run.
A simple and effective way to strengthen the hips, glutes and outer leg muscles are clamshells. This exercise is a great way to help prevent Iliotibial Band Syndrome, as well as strengthen the glutes and hips to provide stability and balance on the trails.
Glute bridges are a strength training exercise that can easily be modified to accommodate all fitness levels. Single leg bridges, weighted bridges, bridge marches, bridge with pulses, and bridges with a resistance band are all effective ways to strengthen and activate the glutes.
The back is a commonly neglected muscle group for runners and athletes of all kinds, but it provides key strength during a run. Deadlifts can easily be modified to fit your current fitness level, and help strengthen the back to prevent fatigue and encourage optimal running form during a run.
Another area that is frequently skipped in strength training for ultra runners is the upper body. However, the upper body provides stability, balance and strength when powering up a hill, fatigued during a run, or navigating uneven terrain. The overhead press supports strong shoulders and arms to improve running power and stability throughout a urn.
A row can be completed using a machine at the gym, with free weights, a resistance band or using one or both arms. It can be completed in a seated position or standing, and is easy to incorporate without worrying about fatigue before a run. The row helps strength the upper body and back to encourage proper running form, especially once fatigue sets in.
Some of the best strength training exercises for ultra runners are those that involve twisting and functional movements. Russian twists are a great exercise for balance and well as core strength, both of which are key for maintaining posture and preventing injury on the trails.
Another quick, simple strength exercise that’s packed with benefits for ultrarunners is bird dog. This exercise primarily encourages balance and stability, but can also provide targeted strengthening with added weights. This exercise is an effective way to discover muscle imbalances and help strengthen individual muscles through isolation.
Integrating Strength Training for Ultra Runners
Perhaps the most challenging part about strength training for ultra runners is not the strength training itself – but rather, finding time to do it. Ultra training is quite a commitment in and of itself. Between the long runs, speed workouts, hill training and doubles, simply finding time to run can be quite a challenge.
The thought of adding regular strength training workouts on top of all the running usually seems daunting. However, it is entirely possible to train for an ultra while maintaining consistent strength training. Here are some tips for success.
Optimize strength training workouts
In order to get the biggest bang for your buck with strength training, you’ll need to optimize your workouts. Most ultra runners don’t have much time for extra workouts, so being intentional is key. Prioritize form and the quality of exercise over quantity.
Focusing on form will not only provide maximum strength benefits, but it will also help prevent injury. Training intentionally means that you’ll likely do fewer repetitions or less exercises in each workout, but each exercise will provide optimal benefits.
Although strength training for ultra runners is certainly beneficial, running is still the priority. Be sure that you have enough time to complete all of your scheduled training runs before considering adding in supplement strength workouts.
Running is the priority when training for an ultra marathon, so you’ll need to be strategic about how and when you’ll be able to incorporate strength training. Never skip a training run to add a strength workout.
Plan your training schedule intentionally
Training for an ultra requires a very high running mileage each week. Successfully adding strength training to the mix involves intentional planning. With limited opportunities to “wing it” or add on a strength session when it’s convenient, ultra runners have to be very creative with their planning.
Try adding some short strength workouts before or after easy runs, on a cross training day, or at the end of a hard workout. Try to avoid any strength sessions before a long run or key workout. If it gets challenging to find a large chunk of time, try splitting the strength training up into a few shorter workouts spread throughout the week.
Keep one rest day each week
One of the biggest temptations when it comes to fitting in strength training for ultra runners is to use the rest day to squeeze in strength that may have been missed during the week. However, doing so puts runners at greater risk for injury, overtraining and burnout.
Maintaining one complete or active rest day each week is crucial for your body when training for an ultra. This rest day provides your body with time it needs to recover and rebuild from all of the running and strength training. Prioritize the rest day and always stick with it, regardless of any workouts that you may have missed throughout the week.
Incorporating strength training with ultra running is a heavy load. Ultra training by itself requires a lot of physical effort, and adding strength workouts in the mix requires even more. When you first begin incorporating strength training, you’ll want to start small.
Resist the temptation to really go big right from the start – no matter how fit you may feel. Start small and listen to your body and how it responds. Start with light weights, low repetitions, or just one strength workout each week. Once you’re experiencing minimal soreness with no effects on your running, you can begin to increase the intensity or frequency.
Vary your strength workouts
One of the best things about strength training for ultra runners is that you don’t have to target every single area of the body in each workout. Try mixing up your strength sessions between legs, upper body, core and back over the course of a few weeks.
Isolating one specific muscle group or area of the body helps keep strength workouts short and intentional. Incorporating a few short and varied strength workouts each week will prevent overtraining and soreness from interfering with your running.
Listen to your body
Last, but certainly not least, is to listen to your body. The high mileage required to train for an ultra is intense – so when you add strength training on top of it, you’ll want to start small and listen to your body’s response.
If you notice any long-term fatigue, lack of motivation, soreness or pain, it might be time to scale back the strength workouts. If your body is sending you signs of burnout, re-evaluate whether or not your strength training is still beneficial in this season.
Strength training for ultra runners has many benefits and is a great way to ensure you reach race day in optimal health. While it might sound daunting at first, starting small is all it takes to see the positive effects on your training.