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As a coach, one of the soap boxes I often stand upon and shout from is about the importance of strength training for runners. I truly believe that resistance training -whether body weight or with strength training equipment – is absolutely vital for injury prevention and success for all runners. Naturally, one of the questions I’m often asked is “but how do you balance ultramarathon and strength training?” It’s a great question. Between the added time commitment and increased stress of training for an ultra, it can almost seem impossible to figure out how to balance the two.
Believe me, I get it.
Story time (isn’t it always story time around here?): During the summer of 2012 I filmed a series of commercials/promotional videos for a trail running shoe company. In one of them, the very first voice over (my voice) says something along the lines of “I never was a fan of lifting cast iron weights, or tugging against man made steel contraptions.” (click here to see the video). It wasn’t untrue: back then, I really wasn’t a fan of the gym. What little strength training I did involved jumping around in the woods (I was a burpee queen!).
These days, however, I’m a legitimate gym rat. I love the high of a good lift almost (but not quite) as much as the high of a good run. I love hitting new strength PR’s. I love the gym atmosphere. I love looking in the mirror and actually seeing visible physical gains. Vain? Yes…but the honest truth. I have found both physical and emotional strength in a regular weight lifting routine, and I can’t imagine my life without it.
But I also love training for ridiculously long distance races. And the truth is, balancing both can be difficult, especially as your running mileage increases during a training cycle. If I – a woman who essentially makes her own schedule and works part time IN A GYM – has trouble balancing running and strength training, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for those who have even more limited schedules.
So how DO you balance training for an ultramarathon and strength training? Here are a few tips that have helped me over the last few years.
Keep Your “A” Goal In Mind
I think one of the most frequently used exercise science terms you’ll find on this very blog is the “principle of specificity”. This principle states that the adaptation of the body or change in physical fitness is specific to the type of training undertaken. In other words, your training needs to be specific to your goal in order to succeed. An Olympic gymnast may be incredibly fit, but that doesn’t mean he/she has the specific fitness to successfully run a 50 miler.
I like to point this principle out often because there is a common misunderstanding that fitness is fitness, it should all count, right? Well to an extent, it does: from a health perspective, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you move your body – it just matters that you move it. But from a training perspective, you have to train specific stressors that mimic your end goal. In short, if you want to train to run far – you have to run far in training. Period.
So, all of this to address the question: can you focus on building strength, hypertrophy, AND ultramarathon training all at the same time? I hate absolutes, so I’m not going to say no, it’s impossible. However, I will remind you that strength training and running are both stressors to the body. Ultramarathon training is often an extreme stressor. Being able to contribute 100% focus to both could become physically exhausting and incredibly time consuming.
Further, the taxing nature of both forms of training may actually inhibit one another. Both long distance running and strength training will cause microscopic tears in muscle tissue, will deplete muscle glycogen levels (essentially: stored energy), and may cause delayed onset muscle soreness. So, for example: if you ran a 20 mile training run and your legs are tired, you may have a hard time hitting the gym the next morning and performing the weights/sets/reps you had planned because your body is trying to recover from your run. Or vice versa: if you had a heavy lift in the morning, you may struggle hitting your speed work goals in the afternoon because your body is depleted of it’s energy.
Therefore, you may find that you need to shift your focus to your “A” goal, cutting back a bit on the “B” goal. Remember that an ultramarathon training cycle or a strength training cycle do not last forever. There will be time to shift your goals in the future and change focus.
Make Your Lifting Complimentary
Make the time spent in the gym count towards your ultramarathon goals, rather than taking away from them. In other words, if constantly striving to hit one rep max PR’s on Olympic lifts is leaving you too sore to complete your long runs, then perhaps it’s time to focus on lower weights / higher reps for a few cycles.
On the other hand, if you aren’t a huge fan of strength training, do not think that you have to spend hours in the weight room. Rather, make what time you do spend strength training count towards your ultra.
I 100% advocate continuing to strength train all major muscle groups, per the physical activity guidelines for healthy adults from the Centers for Disease Control (Adults should do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week).
Beyond that, focus on exercises that will help you remain injury free during ultramarathon training, as well as help you feel stronger as you work your way towards the finish line. Focus on core strength, hip strength, and lower leg/ankle stability. These exercises do not have to be exhausting, time consuming, or incredibly stressful, but rather are done with purpose towards your end goal.
Plan For an Inverse Shift in Training Volume
Simply put: as running volume builds and you approach peak training for your ultramarathon, expect the amount of time you spend strength training to decrease. In fact, during the last week of taper before a big race, I recommend that my runners do not strength train at all. As mentioned earlier, this won’t last forever. Understand these ebbs and flows come naturally with having specific fitness / athletic goals.
Some is Better than None
Can’t get into the gym 3-4 times a week like you did before ultra training began? That’s fine. Instead, keep in mind that SOMETHING is always better than nothing. Even if your strength training routine has gone from hour long gym sessions five times a week to 20 minutes of bodyweight work in your living room twice a week, you will still benefit from taking the time to incorporate some strength training, rather than getting frustrated you can’t keep up with what you once did, and quitting all together. Some strength training is always better than none.
Nutrition & Recovery
As mentioned already, it’s important to remember that while good for you, strength training is an additional stressor to your body. As such, it’s important to do everything in your power to promote adequate recovery. Focusing on proper nutrition, hydration, and recovery times not just from running, but from lifting, will be essential in ensuring that you can continue to balance a regular strength and running routine.
Heather’s personal tips:
While everyone has personal preferences when it comes to training styles, here’s what I’ve found works well for me when it comes to balancing strength and ultra training:
– I do my heavy lower body strength training day on Monday, giving me 3 full days of recovery before tackling my longest runs over Friday and Saturday. Lighter lower body focus (think: injury prevention type moves) is done on Wednesday, again giving the body 48 hours to recover before the longest runs.
– I prefer to lift BEFORE running. Running often leaves me feeling tired all over, which can lead to slopping lifting form, or simply not being able to hit my desired weights and reps. Whereas if my back and biceps are fatigued from a good lift, it’s not going to affect my run.
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– I take one day a week completely, 100% off. No running, no strength training, not even any active recovery. Rest ONLY.
– THINK BIG PICTURE! Some weeks I’m able to complete 4-5 strength training workouts on top of my running with no problem. Other weeks? I’m lucky if I get one strength session in. Instead of beating myself up about that, I try to look at the big picture: over the course of a month, am I regularly incorporating strength training? If the answer is yes, then I give myself some grace, and pick back up where I left off the next week. Balance and adaptability is imperative when tackling something like an ultramarathon. Remember, training doesn’t have to be 100% perfect to be successful.
In the end, figuring out how to balance ultramarathon and strength training may take a little trial and error. My biggest piece of advice is to truly listen to your body: it will tell you when you are doing too much.