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Strength and conditioning for ultra runners

06-Feb-18

By James Eacott

Strength and conditioning (S&C) is the use of exercise prescription specifically to improve performance in athletic competition. S&C forms the foundation of nearly every single sport, and yet it’s a vastly underestimated aspect of ultra run training.

Reasons to add S&C

  • Stronger muscles and connective tissue (tendons and ligaments) = fewer injuries.
  • Ultra running is a strength-based sport. Yes, it’s about endurance too, but we often forget what a crucial part strength plays. Who, in the last 10 miles of a 100k is slowing purely because they’re out of breath and lacking aerobic capacity? No one. On the contrary, how many struggle to run at all and are instead hunched over shuffling along because they can’t get their legs up and over the ground? Many of us.
  • As I alluded to in my How To Lose Fat Ultra Running and 7 Top Cross Training Sessions For Ultra Running articles, S&C is also key for burning fat and building lean muscle.
  • Increase in running economy.
  • Despite the above, merely introducing a new training stimulus will bring significant performance gains in a short period which is great to break a plateau in progression.

Personal experience

I started as a sceptic but, after two years of trying to run 40+ mile weeks on a frequent basis, I realised that my body just couldn’t do it. It maxed out around 30-35 miles per week because I was picking up niggles. After a second bout of plantar fasciitis, I reduced my volume from 40+ miles to 30 and added two S&C sessions per week. Hand-on-heart I cannot emphasise the changes it made to my running. I soon started running quicker with less effort and placed second overall at the Druid Ridgeway Challenge. After two years of mediocre results, I was running less yet had just nailed my best result to date. No coincidence.

Which exercises work?

Clearly the most important thing to consider when choosing exercises is to ensure they’re going to compliment your run-specific muscles and pathway movements. There’s not a lot of point embarking on a campaign to increase your biceps or deltoids. With that in mind, here are the main exercises to focus on:

Lower body Upper body Core
Squat Press ups Plank variations
Deadlift Seated row Back extensions
Cleans Lat pull down Wall sits
Kettlebell swing   Russian twists
Box / Bench steps    
Lunge variations    
Calf raises    


Single leg exercises, such as single leg squats and single leg deadlifts are a great progression from the above and are super for developing dynamic stability – crucial for runners.

As I’ll repeat throughout this article, performing exercises with correct form is crucial. YouTube has a whole host of videos on how to complete these exercises with good form, so be sure to watch those and get someone to spot you in the early days.

How to add it into your training plan

Ok, I get it. It’s really hard to add a strength session into your weekly plan when you’d rather go for a run. It feels like a waste of time when the trails are calling, but I’d urge you to change your thinking.

To begin, aim for just one session per week of 30-minutes duration. That’s it. After a few weeks, make it twice per week. Ultimately, if you can do two sessions per week of 45-minutes each, you’re smashing it.

How to structure your S&C sessions

It’s all about periodization. The body is an intelligent organism and will adapt to make these exercises easier over time. In the same way you wouldn’t run your tempo, speed and endurance sessions at the same speed and duration for years and expect to see constantly improving results, you must keep your body guessing when it comes to S&C too. To do that, roll through a cycle of Endurance, Strength and Power phases.

The Endurance phase will build muscular endurance and prepare your body for heavier weights in the Strength and Power phases. The weights you lift in the Endurance phase are relatively light (just your bodyweight may be enough), but it’s enough to allow you to complete up to 20 repetitions before it starts getting tough. This phase is all about precise movement patterns – performing the exercise with correct form and not worrying about how much you’re lifting. Lifting weights with correct form is absolutely imperative to ensure you don’t hurt yourself. If you notice your form fails on the last few reps, then the weight you’re lifting is too heavy.

The Strength phase builds on the solid foundation you’ve created in the Endurance phase. The weights get heavier and you’ll be performing 8 - 10 reps per set (but with a longer rest between each set). You’ll have ingrained good technique during the Endurance phase, so despite these weights being harder to lift, you should be doing so with great form.

The Power phase builds the explosiveness needed to run economically and tackle hills with lower perceived effort. You’ll only need to complete 4 – 6 reps per set, but this phase is all about force. Force = mass x acceleration so during this phase you’re perform the lifting phase with speed which ensuring you continue to employ excellent technique. Pushing a weight fast while lowering slow will continue to challenge your body and compliment the explosiveness of run training. After all, every single step you take running is a power move as you ‘explode’ (some of us with more vigour than others!) from the ground.

Spend 4-weeks within each phase and ensure you cease heavy lifting and power sessions at least 2-weeks before a race. Once you get to the end of a 16-week cycle, you can slot back to the Endurance or Strength phase, depending on where you are within the season.

Week Endurance W1-4 Strength W5-8 Power W9-12
1 4 x 20 reps on 90s 3 x 10 reps on 90s 4 x 6 reps on 180s
2 4 x 16 reps on 60s 4 x 10 reps on 120s 5 x 5 reps on 180s
3 3 x 16 reps on 60s 4 x 8 reps on 120s 6 x 4 reps on 180s
4 3 x 12 reps on 60s 5 x 8 reps on 120s 4 x 4 reps on 180s


S&C FAQ FYI

Won’t I bulk up? No! This is such a worry for many, particularly women, but I promise you won’t! In all likelihood, you’ll shed a little fat so will become leaner and thus may look more toned, but you will not bulk up! While run training, it’s very difficult to bulk up. You’d need to be lifting extremely heavy weights on a daily basis whilst also making a serious dent in the poultry aisle at Tesco.

Is it normal to be this stiff? Yes. The first few sessions may leave your body in pieces, and you may have to tackle stairs backwards (just like that post-ultra state). Bear with it, it’s just your muscles being torn from this unusual stress, but they’ll repair much stronger.

Do I have to go the gym? No, certainly not in the early days. Kettlebells and resistance bands work extremely well. You’ll only need the gym when you come to lifting weights heavier than your bodyweight.

What about plyometrics? Plyometrics – skipping, hopping, jumping etc – are a form of power exercise and very good for ultra running. You can incorporate this into any phase during your S&C periodization.

What do I need to eat? Carbs aren’t as necessary for S&C sessions, because you’re not working at a high intensity. It’s more important to ensure you consume a post-workout shake or food in a ratio of 2:1 carbs:protein.

RUNULTRA_Strength-and-conditioning-article

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