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Tactical Strength Training Tips for Trail Runners

Michael Tappel is a 27-year-old trail runner living in Seattle, WA. Michael is newer to running and has shown potential to be highly competitive, having won or podiumed at PNW races like White River 50m, Mt. Hood 50m and Sun Mountain 50k. He is an All In Trail athlete coached by Joe McConaughy (Instagram) (Strava)

Michael has experienced a variety of injuries in the last two years. This article is Part 2 in a two-part set of posts on strength training as a trail runner. In this article, he provides more specific tips on how to establish a strength routine. (Read Part 1)

Should runners strength train?

If someone asked you why you love being a trail runner or fastpacker, you’d probably mention the long days of flowy singletrack, epic mountain views, or refreshing dips in alpine lakes. You probably wouldn’t say: sweating in a muggy gym, pushing heavy objects around, or waiting for a free stairmaster.

But before you dismiss these less-pleasant indoor activities entirely, consider that regular strength training is the best way to make sure that your body is resilient enough to enjoy those epic mountain days. In truth, every ultra runner should complement their running with strength and mobility training. Check out my previous post to read how strength training has helped me overcome injuries to become a healthier and more consistent runner.

It’s true — building a gym habit doesn’t come naturally for most runners. In fact, the gym lacks many of the things we runners love about our sport:

  • There’s no natural beauty to occupy our senses
  • It often requires a commute; no “going from the door”
  • It can feel more individualized and less communal
  • It’s confusing – what am I supposed to do with these weights?
  • You don’t get to post a cool route on Strava afterward
Strength training can keep you healthy and strong to enjoy those mountain views

Dialing in a strength routine and plan

If you’re feeling a lack of motivation around strength training, you’re not alone. Here are some tips to help you overcome inertia and start developing a habit:

  • Embrace starting from 0: If you’re new to strength training, you’re about to make the most rapid progress you’ll ever make. Enjoy it!
  • Lean on educational resources: You won’t know how to do every exercise to start, and that’s OK. Bring an instructional book or watch YouTube videos at the gym. It’s not weird!
  • Craft a plan: Write up a workout plan at home beforehand so that once you get to the gym, you can just execute the plan rather than wasting mental energy trying to decide what to do next
  • Train together: Make regular plans with a friend, or try joining a workout class for extra accountability and motivation
  • Be patient: It might not be fun when you start out. Like running, the first few sessions might leave you sore, tired, and feeling incompetent. Research shows it takes ~2 months to build a habit. 

When it comes to actually performing the workout, it’s important to treat it like you would a running workout:

  • Wear proper shoes: Leave those cushy Hokas at home! You’ll want to wear stable shoes with minimal “give.” Even street shoes with minimal drop (e.g., Converse) are great.
  • Warm up your muscles: Perform bodyweight exercises and dynamic stretches before you do anything more strenuous. E.g., do some bodyweight squats before you hit the squat rack
  • Focus on form: When you’re learning new exercises, spend several weeks focused on nailing the movement patterns and mechanics before you add significant weight
  • Rotate your workouts: Just as you would vary your running workouts among tempo, intervals, and hills; vary your lifting workouts among core, lower body, upper body (or “push” and “pull”)

Developing fitness takes time. And cultivating a healthy, resilient body is equally as important to those long runs.

Specific Exercises for Runners

OK, now that we’ve set some guidelines for how to approach an entry into strength training, let’s dive into some specific muscle groups and exercises that will give you the most bang for your buck as a runner.

Running is a high-impact sport. Every time you stride, you load each leg with 2-3x your body weight — for a 150lb runner, that equates to 300-450 pounds of force on every step! Now repeat that tens of thousands of times over a period of hours, and it starts to become clear that runners need each of their legs to be able to singlehandedly (single-leg-edly?) withstand and dissipate a lot of force. To that end, single-leg exercises are one of the best ways to build that stamina and correct any lateral imbalances (it’s natural for runners to favor one leg over another). 

Running isn’t just about your legs. In order to get the most power and efficiency from your stride, you’ll want train your core and trunk to coordinate and stabilize the movements in your lower body. Think of your core and hip muscles as the “drive chain” of running — if they aren’t strong, then you won’t be able to safely fire on all cylinders. 

Hang this photo up in your gym so you remember why you are lifting in the first place!

Lifting for the Long Term

Once you’ve built the habit, you’re ready to start incorporating it into your long-term goals as a runner or fastpacker. Strength is good for its own sake, but you also want to make sure it’s helping you

  • Progression is important. Similar to running, you should build weight or reps over time. A standard strength training routine adds a few pounds of repetitions each week, and lasts 6-10 weeks before rotating to different routines.
  • Periodize your strength training! Strength stresses the body, and you want the ‘heavy lifting’ to occur during your offseason or in the early/middle phases of a training block. Also, make sure to back off lifting 2-5 weeks from your event so that your body is well-rested.
  • Track your progress. Isn’t it fun to look at running data on Strava from 5 years ago? The same can be said about lifting. Monitoring weight and reps over time helps you understand how your strength changes over time. Also, tracking keeps you honest with how many gym sessions you actually do.

To summarize, regular strength work for runners is like maintenance on a vehicle. Sure, you can drive your vehicle without replacing your brakes or rotating your tires, but unless you take proper care of your car’s parts, sooner or later it will break down. So, don’t wait until you’re injured to build strength into your routine. 

If you’re new to strength training, start small and work your way upward: just as running a 50-miler requires a slow buildup over time, you should start with a few simple bodyweight exercises and build from there. If you have limited time to devote to strength training, then focus on a few compound exercises that offer the most running-specific benefits (deadlift, squat, step-ups). If you’re struggling to find motivation to train, find ways to make it fun: fun playlists, workout classes, and post-workout treats are all great incentives. And finally, trust that the process will work out in your favor: one day you’ll go on a run where your running feels stronger and more effortless than before.

Postscript: Michael has had a great 2023 trail running year setting the Grand Loop FKT and the course record on the Mt Si Hill Climb. Connect with him via Instagram and Strava

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