Do You Really Need Strength Training for Ultrarunning?

Do You Really Need Strength Training for Ultrarunning?

The battle was won. I’d completed the longest, toughest, and hottest race of my life so far.

And everything hurt.

I was following Coach Koop’s training method at the time and expected my body to be ready to train again in three to five days. I was absolutely wrong. Dead wrong.

Once most of the pain in my body subsided, I jumped on the trails. I was slow, but I was determined.

And then my left leg flared up. The pain would decrease over time each run, but it was still cringe-worthy. It became obvious that I was injured. And yet, I was unwilling to take the time to rest.

Wildfire smoke forced me inside for training and this mitigated my injury enough to let me run IMTUF taped up. But after IMTUF, I realized my biggest training mistake this last racing season. I hadn’t incorporated strength training.

You can read about my DNF at IMTUF here, but it was injury related. And I’m now convinced strength training might have headed off my failure.

So, here’s what I’ve discovered in researching why ultrarunners out of all runners need strength training.

1. You Use More Than Your Heart When Running

Coach Koop’s book on training for ultramarathons is an excellent guide. It delves into the science of how our cardio system works. I’ve become a much faster and stronger runner because of his training methods.

But his method also discounts strength. In retrospect, I’d say his book targets those who’ve already been into ultrarunning for a while and want to improve their performance.

There is nothing wrong with this. The advice was and still is solid. And I’m going to continue using Koop’s methodology to plan my training.

But if you’ve just begun ultrarunning, you need to realize there’s more to trail running than cardio. You’re moving through uneven terrain and often at an insane pitch. You’re going to be using muscles and ligaments you’ve never dreamed existed.

You’re also breaking down muscle as you run. The longer you run, the more muscle you break down. Koop does mention this in passing. His only advice is to vary your stride and trust that the trail is uneven enough to break down different muscle tissue at different times.

As a new ultrarunner, I find this advice to be complete B.S. Yes, you are using various muscles as you navigate terrain, but which muscles you use doesn’t change often enough unless you have to climb over a bunch of dead fall. But we’re not likely going off trail or running on unkempt trails, so again, I call B.S.

2. I Obviously Can’t Run One Race a Month Yet

If you look at seasoned ultrarunners, you’ll see that some are running at least a 50k every month. I saw that and thought, “I bet I could do that.”

I’ve been training quite consistently since February 2018. I wanted to do some sort of hard effort either race or unsupported ultra every month. Schedule conflicts kept me from trying this and I’m glad.

Even after training for six months, I couldn’t have accomplished such a goal. And my two ultras this year proved this to me. Not because my body won’t ever be capable of running a race every month of the season, but that my body isn’t yet ready.

I discounted the fact it takes time to condition the body to run such distances consistently. And it takes a strong body to do so.

I shirked strength training to build cardio and I’m paying the price right now. Eventually I’ll be running more races during the season, but for now, I’ve got to accept that my body isn’t ready for that.

3. There is More Than One Way to Strengthen an Ultrarunner

If you’re like me, you dread going to the gym. The reason most ultrarunners and trail runners are out there is because they don’t take well to indoor exercise environments. They crave the wild beauty of nature.

If you’re avoiding the gym, there are other ways to strength train. Go out into the woods and carry logs short distances. Or do push up before each run.

You can do handstands against a tree. You can put more weight in your pack and hike up steep slopes or do squats.

Just because the gym is the easiest way to get strong doesn’t mean you’re stuck there. Nature has plenty of equipment you can take advantage of.

Not Everyone Needs It

If you’re sitting there scoffing right now, maybe you have incredible strength built up from another sport. You may not need to weight train.

Not every elite runner trains for strength. And they still win races. But they’ve beat their bodies for years.

If you want to avoid injury as much as possible, wisdom dictates you spend at least a little bit of time each week on strength. I’m going to incorporate strength into my training routine. Are you going to join me?

Head over to Instagram and tell me about it.

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