Why Strength Training Won’t Make You a Faster Ultramarathon Runner
By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
Last week, I wrote a teaser article overviewing the most controversial topics in ultramarathon training. If you want a refresher (and the Cliff’s notes version of this blog) go check it out here. This week, I will tackle why you should (or should not) strength train as part of your ultramarathon routine.
Strength training is a big umbrella
One of the confounding aspects of discussing strength training is the oversimplification of the term ‘strength training’. Way back in the day when all you had in a gym was iron, iron to hold up all the iron, and athletes lifting the iron in ridiculous quantities, an athlete’s goal was simply to lift more weight and thus improve their strength. In this sense, athletes were classically training for (improved) strength, and thus the term ‘strength training’ was coined. Nowadays, ‘strength training’ has come to mean any exercise done, with or without weights, in any set and rep combination. This can be done with copious amount of iron, body weight, various machines and other contraptions, and even brightly colored tubes and bands.
The fact that all of these different combinations are still considered ‘strength training’ does not do anyone any favors. While almost any of the aforementioned workouts will improve strength, some will be more focused on coordination, stability, balance, and a host of other outcomes. In my humble opinion, to lump planks in with plyometrics with the same overarching title is a disservice to athletes. But I digress.
To strike a balance between accuracy and simplification, I will present ‘strength training’ in two primary contexts for an ultrarunner based on their chief performance outcome: strength training to improve running economy, and strength training to prevent injuries.
Strength training for Improved Running Economy
Running economy (defined as the amount of oxygen you consume at a given pace) has long been lauded as one of the key performance metrics for endurance running (the other variables being VO2max and the percent of VO2max you can sustain). Simply put, if you utilize less oxygen at a given speed, that speed is more sustainable. A host of variables contribute to running economy, including body weight, shoe weight and properties (Nike Vaporfly, anyone?), fuel utilization, and muscular and tendon stiffness. Strength training, particularly when lifting heavy or explosively, has long been shown to improve running economy by about 2-4%.
How strength training improves Running Economy
Before you jump right into a strength training routine to improve your running economy, it is important to understand how strength training can improve running economy, how we measure it, and what the applications are in an ultrarunning setting.
Biomechanists refer to runners as a ‘spring mass system’ where your legs are springs and your body is a mass propelled by those springs. As we all realize, part of the energy you need to run is provided by active muscular contraction. But, part of the energy needed to run is essentially free. As your muscles and tendons are stretched during the gait cycle, they harness elastic energy (like a rubber band when stretched) and return this energy, free of metabolic charge to the user. Strength training improves running economy primarily by improving the elastic energy return of your muscles and tendons. Think of your muscles and tendons becoming stronger, thicker rubber bands that snap back harder and faster when stretched. Strength training may also improve how effectively you push against the ground to propel yourself forward by better coordinating your neuromuscular system.
In the lab, the way we measure this is to put a runner at a given speed on a treadmill and measure the rate of oxygen consumed. The lower the rate of oxygen consumption, the better the runner’s economy and theoretically the better the runner will perform across a variety of distances. The chosen speed is difficult, but below a runner’s lactate threshold so that the runner is at a steady state of oxygen consumption. The speed used to study Running Economy is important, as it is only moderately hard (typically 70-80% of VO2max, an intensity one could hold for 2 or 3 hours) but far harder than an ultramarathon, in most studies, and in most ultrarunning cases.
How and why would you strength train to improve Running Economy
Strength training to improve running economy has to be hard. Think lifting heavy weights for few repetitions (for example, 5 sets of 5 squats, done almost to failure), doing plyometric exercises (either with bodyweight or weights), or Olympic style lifts. Strength training in this context should be done 2-3 times per week and maintained throughout the course of a season. This type of lifting improves the spring stiffness of your legs, gives you a boost of free energy, and therefore reduces the amount of oxygen you need at a given speed (or at least the speed tested in the laboratory).
My take on strength training to improve running economy for Ultrarunners
Despite all of the seemingly positive reasons to incorporate strength training as a means in order to improve running economy, I rarely incorporate it for ultrarunners (bring out the rotten tomatoes and eggs and give them a whirl in my direction). Before you roll your eyes too hard, follow along with the rationales below.
Strength training to improve running economy is hard
In order to get much out of your time in the gym, you are going to have to push yourself (once again, heavy weights, explosive work or plyometric work). Your body can only handle so much stress. And, if you add in stress from jumping around and pushing up heavy weights, you will have to take some stress away somewhere else, namely in the form of lower running volume, less intensity and/or reduced frequency of training. So, you’re literally trading one adaptation for another (the adaptation you get from running more vs. what you get in the weight room). While some studies will point out that this tradeoff is worth it, I find that from a practical standpoint, the reduction in run volume/intensity/frequency is not worth it.
To illustrate my point, I always use an example of how to properly incorporate a strength training routine within a week of training. In most cases when we choose to utilize a strength training program with an athlete, we incorporate the lifting session on the evening after a hard workout. This prioritizes the run work over the lifting by giving as much space as possible until the next hard workout. For example, if you have two hard workouts during the week, you would do one of them on Tuesday morning, lift Tuesday evening and then do the second hard running workout on Friday with the lifting session that same evening. In this sense, strength training is shoehorned into the program to interfere as little as possible with the more meaningful run work.
I’m not convinced that the improvements in running economy are meaningful in an ultramarathon setting
I have serious doubts that much elastic energy return will show up at the relatively slow speeds maintained during ultrarunning competitions. Ultrarunning is done at speeds far below where most running economy studies are done, and even slower than where most training occurs. And during walking (affectionally referred to as power hiking) or downhill running (where all the free energy is given by gravity). I fully admit that this is not thoroughly researched, but my stance is a ‘makes sense’ rationale based on the biomechanics involved and the intensity necessary during an ultramarathon.
Furthermore, ultrarunners compete at a relatively low aerobic intensity, far below the intensities used in most running economy studies. An improvement of ~2% in running economy when you are only running at 50-70% of your VO2max (typical for most ultrarunning scenarios) simply is not that meaningful because the intensity is more than sustainable in the first place. In other words, improving your running economy such that you are running at 54% of your VO2max vs 56% of your VO2max really does not mean that much. Add to that the fact that just the simple act of run training (particularly at high intensities) improves running economy, and the argument to improve running economy with strength training tends to break down further.
Strength training for reduced injury risk
Strength training to reduce injury risk can come in two different flavors: the hard lifting mentioned above, and what I call ‘strength training in a physical therapy setting’. With the former, strength training reduces injury risk by literally strengthening the muscles, tendons and ligaments, thus making them more resilient to the day-to-day pounding all runners experience.
Strength training in a physical therapy setting is a completely different setup. Strength training in a physical therapy setting consists of small, controlled, and very specific movements to address specific strengths and weaknesses. Exercises like clamshells, controlled squats (perhaps on an unstable surface like a dyna disc or bosu ball), and monster walks are common. The relative physical costs of these exercises are low (i.e. they are easy or at least not hard) and they can be done 2-5 times per week.
My take on ultrarunners using strength training to reduce injury risk
As with the research that strength training improves running economy, strength training to mitigate injury risk is compelling. If you simply take this well done meta-study (citation TKTK), athletes who strength train experience a 43% reduction in injury risk. That’s a meaningful amount. If there were a magic potion that reduced injury by this amount, I’d have all of my athletes take it. But training has no magic shortcuts.
There is, however, another solution to mitigate injury. One that is far more effective, takes no additional time, requires no equipment or training and is actually an ergogenic aid. That solution is rest. Athletes who rest fewer than two days per week have over a 5-fold risk of an overuse injury. That is massive compared to a 43% reduction in injury risk with a strength training program. While taking two days off is not in everyone’s training program, my point is that in terms of effectiveness for reducing injury, rest is the sharper knife.
Here is the lynchpin in my argument: Adding strength training is antithetical to resting. The heavy and explosive strength training needed to reinforce muscles, tendons, ligaments and bony tissue is not rest. You’d be surprised how many athletes think of their lifting days as ‘rest days’ simply because they are not running. They are not rest days. Lifting is work. And, when comparing the relative injury risk-mitigating strategies, it is clear to me that resting is the more effective solution.
I will leave some room for ‘strength training in a physical therapy setting’ to be effective and done at a relatively low energy cost. While not rest, when done correctly these types of exercises can be simple, easy, and extremely targeted toward identified weaknesses a runner might have. Before you go and buy a set of exercise bands, see a qualified physical therapist and get some guidance.
Why else might ultrarunners want to strength train?
There are a wealth of other reasons you might want to strength train. Strength training for overall health, increased bone density, and specific functional purposes like picking your kids up, making you feel good, and enjoying the community are all valid reasons for tossing up some iron. Though not frequently, I do have my athletes strength train. I also personally hit the gym during certain periods. It’s OK as long as you are realistic about what you can and cannot accomplish, and you are clear about your goals. Before I have my athletes hit the gym, I check the following boxes:
- What are your goals for strength training? If it’s performance out on the trails, the program goes through a whole lot more scrutiny. If it’s one of the other goals mentioned above, that’s great! Just realize it does come at a compromise (which could be large or small).
- Are you already getting enough rest? If so, great! Reduce some run volume and then add strength training. If not, then rest will make a bigger impact and will need to be prioritized before initiating a strength training program.
- Do it right. Get some professional instruction, particularly if you want to lift heavy or explosively.
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I’ve been running ultramarathons for years up until the pandemic, which coincided with my right foot needing surgery twice for a bunion/hallux rigidus condition. The foot can no longer take several 20-ish mile runs during a training cycle. I started going to the gym over the past year, working on increasing weight on all of the leg, arm, back, chest exercises (I’m up to a max lift 110 lb bench press – I’m only 5’1″ and weigh 122 lbs).
I just signed up for a 50K in a month and have only done 1 17 mile training run, a couple of 13 mile runs and B2B 10 mile runs this weekend. Time will tell but I really do believe that my time for this 50K, which I’ve run many times before, is not going to be much different than the years I spent God knows how many days in a training cycle doing long runs. I may eat my words but I don’t think so. I’ve noticed a tremendous effect on my running from all the weight training I’ve been doing over the past 9 mos. I think the fitness will transfer to the 50K. And I will not be breaking down my foot in training before I can even make it to the desired race. So maybe if you’re trying to win or place in an ultra, your training needs to consist of super high mileage. Otherwise, meh.
Jason, you seem to forget two or three important aspects: 1. power hiking 2. downhill running 3. navigating on rocks/roots
All these aspects require high capacity (strength and power) and low % of operating that capacity (economy). Better muscles give you better lactate buffering, better shock absorption, just way more economy on the uphills, downhills and technical terrain.
How many athletes that follow these recommendations above have won competitions like UTMB, Tor des Geants, Hardrock, Diagonale des Fous, or competitions with similar elevation? Not to mention the more technical ones like Pirin Ultra.
I find strength training does not equate to speed. But it preserves my joints and biomechanics when times get rough. I ran 30 miles and 9,000 vertical yesterday in Colorado’s high country. I’m 49 and the strength training made me feel like when I started to breakdown…it never got worse after about mile training. Being strong is not for speed, but to enhance endurance – so the wheels don’t fall as fast or as distinctly
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I haven’t started strength training, but intend to. Yea, I totally get the one-for-one tradeoff with mileage volume capacity that it creates. I had a similar tradeoff with bike commuting as I ramped up my running training two years ago and ultimately decided to forgo the bike commuting. But as I get older (late 30s), and watching Jeff Browning’s longevity and his adherance to strength training as a key component of staying at the top of his game into his late 40s, I think its worth it. A training partner and I are planning to start weekly gym sessions to get in this strength training this summer as I gear up for my first 100 miler at Pine to Palm. Gotta fight harder to keep muscle mass as we get older and can’t take it for granted.
Given you definition. It has been my understanding that stabilizing muscles and smaller muscles (core, hip flexors) are very often the weak points in longer races and rest is not adequate to keep them in balance with major muscles. While technically it may not make you run faster, I do believe you will be able to maintain speed longer
Love reading your work Jason. Many valid points. Age is an added layer of complexity. If my athlete is upper 40’s or older (or prone to overuse injury), I find strength training + lower run volume = happier, more resilient runner. And eccentric training? Here in S. Africa the Grucox bike (http://www.grucox.com/) is widely used by ultramarathon runners- particularly mountain runners.
What dictates endurance performance is Maximal Oxygen Consumption (VO2 Max), Lactate Threshold and Movement Efficiency. So from a performance prospective what you do in the weight-room will help improve your movement efficiency. This benefits performance and injury prevention. How can we run faster but not work as hard? That is efficiency. A runner who can move faster at a lower energy cost has a distinct advantage in the endurance world and the longer the endurance event the better that advantage comes.
The goal of a proper strength training program for endurance athletes is to improve strength to body-weight ratio and improve movement efficiency. Strength training same with an additional run should not replace rest.
You are confusing efficiency with economy.
Efficiency= power produced/power needed. It is typically not used in running because of the difficulty with running power.
Economy= O2/min at given speed
You can read more on V=FVO2max/Cr here- https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6699/5d7becac8e72576c6e9a828a6315982c16b7.pdf
I am 67, run five days a week and am competing in five races this year.
I’m not fast and I don’t lift but my I will pit my speed and upper body fitness against any other any other 65+ year old I know! 🙂
I have been the oldest finisher in both races I finished this year! My one DNF was a 50K with 7K of altitude gain. I bonked at 20 miles and 4,500 ft of gain. I sat in the aid, waiting for a ride back, with three 30-something males who all had ripped upper bodies but knees and ankles that hadn’t made it.
I’ve spent the last 15 minutes reading this article to my wife and both of us laughing out loud!
Thanks, Koop, for keeping it real! Oh, and making me laugh at the same time!
(Kudos to my CTS coach, Corrine Malcolm, for laughing at my bad jokes and keeping me interested and on the road! I look forward to seeing how much interval “stress” she’s decided I need this week! LOL)
I don’t understand why you spent 15 minutes laughing at this article given everything else you said in this comment, all I understood was you run 5x a week, don’t strength train and once bonked in a race ?
I agree it may not help you be a faster runner only running will do that. I like the way look and feel with strength training.
There are many variables involved regarding the value of strength training: amount of time available to train, type of running that is the focus (e.g. fast, runnable ultras versus mountain races), injury history, age, etc. In my n=1 experience, strength training has given me durability as a master’s runner (now mid-50s). Heavier weights fall/winter, shifting toward maintenance spring/summer; never at the expense of running. When the snow finally melts and I can put my feet back onto mountain trails, I find that my legs have a better strength foundation for transitioning back to uphill/downhill running that running alone does not provide. Importantly, my body is also better prepared for the extra work of mountain running.
Furthermore, for master’s athletes particularly there is a critical need to lift weights in order to maintain muscle mass. This alone is a pretty strong argument for strength training.