Written by Andy Mouncey - http://www.bigandscaryrunning.com/

I want to declare my position on this from the outset: I am an accredited strength-conditioning coach, I do curiosity quite well and I also run ultras. This means I start from the position that my professional training and personal experience has given me: Strength is good


For the last few years I’ve observed, read and experimented. What you don’t have in this piece are detailed conditioning plans you can just blindly follow – it ain’t that simple and you’re not that simple either. 

What you do have is the result of all that experimentation as clear as I can make it, and a framework you can take to a conditioning specialist who can fill in the gaps for you.


Why Bother? 

  1. To get better at the chosen activity – so exercises are used which strengthen the prime working muscles used during that activity

  1. To prevent injury from doing that chosen activity – so exercises are used which strengthen the opposite muscles to those working during that activity in order to promote balance. Remember: You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe


…and because all things being equal The Strong Will Survive (Longer)


It’s about resilience: As ultrarunners we are required to operate in an upright position over an extended period of time on our feet at changing speeds over varied and challenging terrain usually carrying something on our back; to bounce back from a fall and then recover quickly so we can do it all again next week.


So hands up if you can’t see the strength requirement in that lot? 


What Strength Training Wont Do

According to Laursen et al (2005) it wont improve your VO2 max or your lactate threshold – in other words how fast you can run and how easy that feels the closer to your maximum you are. The good news is that for most of us ordinary mortals these are not limiting factors to a good ultra performance anyway – ‘cos we just don’t get anywhere near those limits. 


What Strength Training Will Do

Tidy You Up

It will improve your mechanical running economy by holding everything firm and upright so you are not wasting energy trying to control a jelly-like torso. If you’re upright then your lungs will have more space to work in and that’s just gonna make it all feel easier - never mind all the other benefits.Think ‘…Cannon From A Canoe’ and remember the posture-backpack link. 


Laursen’s study reaches this conclusion and my own experience backs this up. The more energy you have to use for the moving forward bit, all things being equal the easier and faster you will be. Once again, you can probably get away with jelly characteristics over the shorter distances but cumulatively over the big stuff..?


Power You Up 

Strength and power training – the difference between the two terms is the speed with which you can move a load – will help you get up and down the hilly stuff. No doubt. There’s a bunch of research out there, (I’ve listed some at the back of this book) and once again my own experience chimes.


Lean & Mean

You will increase the proportion of your lean tissue – that’s more muscles in your body. This is not the same as bulking up. You will lean down because muscles are fuel-hungry cells that need calories and this means your metabolic rate will ramp up – in other words you will use more calories just to sit still. There is a point beyond which I think that becomes a problem – ultras in extreme environments, for instance – and I still stand by the benefit: If you want to firm things up and lean ‘em down then the right strength training will do it for you.


What’s Wrong With Being Strong?

Nothing – except I see a lot of weak runners. 


Even without testing them I know they are weak because:

  • Posture and running mechanics are awful especially in the latter stages

  • They suffer from considerable muscle soreness

  • They are predisposed to soft tissue injuries

  • Recovery takes longer than it really should

  • They are single-speed and one direction

  • They are slow on big climbs and descents


Stop Press: Getting stronger is at least a significant ingredient in fixing all this.


Weak runners abound because most runners train by running ‘cos they like to run, (Hoffman MD, Krishnan E, 2013) and most ultrarunners train by running more ‘cos they like to run even more than everyone else. And while Hoffman and Krishnan did find that among their study group the most popoular ‘other’ activity was cycling, they also found that more than half the sample did not do consistent resistance training.  


Other reasons/excuses I’ve come across for this strength-neglect are:

  • I don’t like it so I don’t do it

  • I don’t understand it so I don’t it

  • I don’t have a gym so I don’t do it

  • I don’t want to bulk up so I don’t do it

  • I don’t have the time so I don’t do it

  • I don’t know what to do so I don’t do it

  • I don’t know how to do it so I don’t do it


Let’s deal these excuses straightaway:

  • I don’t like it…In my experience this is a smokescreen for ‘don’t understand the value of it’ or ‘can’t do it well/easily so feel like an idiot’ or ‘had a bad previous experience.’ So it’s not really about like per se

  • I don’t understand it…Fair enough. While there is a ton of information available on strength-training for sport there is very little on strength-training for ultrarunners – and again, what there is is hardly cast-iron conclusive. ‘Good job you’re reading this then

  • I don’t have a gym…You don’t need one. You might need some things that gyms are good for - like a coach or friends to workout with or a reason to do it – but these things are not confined to an indoor facility

  • I don’t want to bulk up…Have you ever tried bulking up? It’s really hard work to achieve. Really! It’s also perfectly possible to get super strong without the size: You just need to train for that outcome*

  • I don’t have the time…usually linked to ‘I don’t like it…’ Well, you don’t need to find the time for another 40 minute session – I’ll show you the time-saving bit later – and the rest is just choices about how we do spend the time we have

  • I don’t know what to do…Fair enough. Convinced of the value? Get curious or just keep reading

  • I don’t know how…Learn how (and what) from an accredited strength coach


*E.g. the svelt-like former champion track cyclist Victoria Pendleton would in her prime be able to squat twice her bodyweight and then some. At least.


Now this just running lark is all fine because it’s perfectly possible to be weak and fast and still get the results you want.

For a while and upto a point.


It’s also perfectly natural to concentrate on the primary activity – the running – till you hit a plateau or something breaks, and then change your approach: Doing something different and/or working with a coach, for example.


So if you’re at that point and/or I’ve got you curious…Part 2 of this piece really will be worth waiting for.

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