In my last post on weight training, I was purposely vague in order to stimulate discussion, though it was implied the question was geared toward runners. Now we’ll look at a very specific case- weight training for ultrarunning.
Our goals for weight training are specific. We want to:
- Make our bodies more resilient to damage from running 50-100 miles,
- Increase balance to facilitate trail running over technical terrain,
- Increase proprioception to prevent injuries from hyperextension,
- Decrease recovery time after the race.
- Avoid gaining excessive weight (greater weight = more energy required to cover a given distance).
With these five goals in mind, what is the ideal training program? Over the last nine years or so, I’ve experimented with quite a few different exercises and volumes. This is the result of my experimentation in chronological order:
- Traditional “body building” plan. I used free weights and weight machines exercising muscles in isolation, alternating muscle groups from day-to-day six days a week. This plan was the least effective of all the plans I tried with the exception of the next. It produced the greatest muscle mass, but did very little for all five of the above criteria.
- No weight training at all. This was an unmitigated disaster. I could barely finish a trail marathon with this “plan.”
- High rep/ low weight training. This plan used the same basic exercises from the first condition. It also did not work well. It didn’t seem to increase muscle mass quite as much, but may have been a function of slightly decreased volume.
- Crossfit/Crossfit Endurance. This plan was spectacular, though the lack of long runs doomed me in a 100 miler. It accomplished all of the five criteria and made me significantly faster. A major drawback was overtrainiing/injury. This was a demanding program that usually required around an hour or more of working out at a very high intensity every day.
- Modified CF/CFE. This idea took several of the basic workouts from both Crossfit and Crossfit Endurance, reduced the frequency of workouts (down to about four per week), and included long runs. This plan was superior to the CF/CFE-only plan and got me through my first 100 miler.
- John DeVries version of Crossfit. John used Crossfit exercises, but did his own programming. I combined John’s workouts with my own version of the workouts from the previous year, along with long runs.
- Pete Kemme’s workouts. Pete’s workouts combine of of the high intensity interval training of the CF workouts, but adds even more variety, balance, and dynamic movement with less danger of overtraining and/or injury. His workouts are inspired by combining several workout philosophies from a variety of disciplines with imaginative equipment (slosh tube, anyone?). Pete’s workouts were also more scalable than CF/CFE. When we started we could make them easier. As we advanced, we could make them much tougher than CF/CFE. The result is a perfect combination of all five criteria from above. Shelly and I currently use versions of Pete’s workouts about three times per week as part of our regular training routine.
So how can effectiveness be measured? I use a subjective measure of performance during a race, feeling after a race, and recovery time. No weight training at all resulted in a poor performance and a long, painful recovery. “Body building’ weight training was marginally better, but still sort of sucked. Crossfit and Crossfit Endurance worked well… up to about 40 miles. The lack of long runs did not prepare my body for the experience of running at least 50 miles. The modified programs, including my own, John’s and Pete’s plans, all resulted in far superior performances and recovery.
For Pete’s program, I actually have a little bit of objective data. This is the program I used to prepare for Western States. After the run, my CPK level (used to measure the extent of muscle damage) was around 19,000. This was shockingly low considering I only averaged about 20 miles of running per week in the months leading up to the race (the highest was close to 200,000, “normal” levels in anyone off the street is about 100-200).
So the question- what IS the ideal weight training program for ultrarunners? Based on my lengthy experimentation, Pete’s Functional Fitness program netted the best results based on my five criteria above.
Other ultrarunners- what do you do in the realm of weight training? What about non-ultra distance runners? What weight training do you use?