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What is the Ideal Weight Training Program for Ultrarunners?

Posted by on Feb 13, 2012 | 21 Comments

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:

  1. Make our bodies more resilient to damage from running 50-100 miles,
  2. Increase balance to facilitate trail running over technical terrain,
  3. Increase proprioception to prevent injuries from hyperextension,
  4. Decrease recovery time after the race.
  5. 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?

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21 Comments

  1. Matt
    February 18, 2012

    I’m just starting in the realm of ultrarunning, and I’m in a dilemma of how to deal with crosstraining. I’m allergic to gyms (cough cough, sneeze), mainly because I hate working out inside, not going anywhere, and paying for it. I’ve also hated doing things like pushups, but am ok with other general bodyweight exercises. I’m an avid rock climber and can’t/won’t give that up, so I’m gonna use it as one part of my crosstraining, and I think I might get back to Parkour as well with a focus on leg-powered movements, which I’ve gotten away from in the last year, but did it for the previous five. It worked wonders for explosive strength and power, and the diversity of movement works the whole body without adding bulk.

    Have any of you tried MovNat stuff? It seems like the slosh tube idea could be similar to the “carrying weird shaped objects in different ways” notion in MovNat.

    Love the discussion here! It gives me a ton of ideas. Keep up the good work.

    • Jason
      February 18, 2012

      Matt, check out the latest post (video). Many of the movements we do are MoveNat-like.

  2. Alex
    February 14, 2012

    I think it’s best to simply keep in mind what muscles we want to strengthen, and why. How we go about doing it doesn’t matter much. That is, most any program will work, so long as you’re consistent in following it. So pick one you’ll do, and do it.

  3. L3vi
    February 14, 2012

    ” You’re as good as your weakest link ” The lack of upper body and core fitness, poor joint stability can be a limiting factor in ultra running. Especially true for the core part. Weak core muscles can even decrease, breathing ability(fact), due to diaphragm overuse…

    I am travelling a lot, so gym is out of question. I love all the jungle gym routines. If there is a bar, or a playground, I can train well all my body.

    Otherwise I always have my TRX with myself, as I can fix it indoors or out easily. At home, or If I am able to travel with it, I am using kettlebells. Hardstyle. I can train all my body including core, upper/lower body, cardio-pullmonary system too. There are even measurable VO2max workouts with kettlebells. Turkish getups, swings, snatches, shoulder/push presses, cleans ……

    My choices are: TRX & Kettlebells
    Anyone is using powerbreathe ? Hihly recommend !!!

  4. Gregor
    February 14, 2012

    Sorry, my english is not very good.

    More ideas with minimal and portable equipment (no weights needed:

    -Nordic Walking. Upper body strength endurance while you walk (If you push hard the poles against the ground is terrific on the upper back, shoulders, triceps, trapezius and lats. Chest and core are worked too).
    -Maff (slow) runs combined with Nordic Walking breaks (Jeff Galloway style).
    -TRX or homemade Suspension training straps (bodyweight exercises). It can be done indoor, outdoor. Indoor you may need a pull up bar. The best pull up bar is power-bar.co.uk. This can be folded and stored as convenience. You can hang your homemade trx on this bar to do dips or ring training (assisted with your legs if you would rather). Homemade suspension straps made of pvc handles and climbing loops and ropes. You can do everything on this.
    -Functional pulling or pushing outdoors: Run pushing your baby stroller. Deadlift your child, squats carriying your child.
    This is what i´m doing now and some yoga movements but I don´t run ultras.

  5. Brian G
    February 13, 2012

    Brad and EdH,

    I put this comment on MGBG’s site in one of his recent blogs regarding cross training. Maybe you’ll find it useful:

    For complete newbies, http://www.exrx.net might be a good resource for training program development and exercise selection. Check out their Beginner’s Page. They have a very broad range of exercises with written instructions and mini-videos of demos.

    But they don’t have any pre-set training plans for runners, so you do have to figure some of that out yourself.

    • EdH
      February 13, 2012

      Thanks BrianG. I’ll bookmark it and review tonight.

  6. Brad
    February 13, 2012

    I love Pete’s stuff and I’ve done it a few times. My big problem is I fractured my radius (elbow)in Dec. The bone is healed but the tendons and ligaments still complain.

    This pretty much rules out crossfit or Kemme stuff or just about anything I can find due to right elbow strength. I’m hesitant to do pushups or pullups though I can chop wood fairly well.

    Anyone have any suggestions. I understand that none of you are Physicians, etc.

    thanks,
    brad

  7. EdH
    February 13, 2012

    So what are some good crossfit examples? I don’t belong to a gym, and won’t sign up for one. I *HATE* doing things like situps and pullups, though if I can find a routine, I can force myself through it.

    I’d rather run 2 hrs than spend 20 minutes doing stuff on the bowflex, though I know I need to do something besides running. Links and suggestions please!

  8. Rob Y
    February 13, 2012

    I’m in the camp of “no weight training.” Every one of your points (#1-#5) can be achieved through lot’s of time on the feet, healthy diet full of foods/drinks to aid in recovery, deep tissue massage, sauna etc… This has been the paradigm that I, my wife and a ton of other successful ultrarunners I know all use; have used throughout their careers without hardly ever stepping foot in a gym or lifting a weight. Variety counts; speed work, tempo runs, hills (lot’s off them), long slow distance, longer faster distance, etc… All keep the body guessing, on it’s toes. Trail running, especially on very technical routes or even pure XC (through the woods) all builds balance and all that prioproceptive stuff also requires a lot of body movement; off camber surfaces etc… IDK, I consider myself a pretty healthy guy, have accomplished a lot in the world of running, from short to extremely long (multi-day) distances and all w/o ever visiting a gym or lifting a weight. Simply a lot of hard work, time on the feet, a varied routine of speed and long slow distance and lots and lots of miles through many years. Simple! :)

    • Erik
      February 13, 2012

      Yah, it’s hard to see why an ultra runner would want any muscle mass and hence weight that wasn’t specifically dedicated to running. I traveled up and down Africa, the Middle East, and Europe on a bike and just cycling was all I needed, and I kept getting better even towards the end of two years of constant riding. Of course competitive ultramarathons are a different animal, but it seems like the principle would be the same.

  9. Pete Kemme
    February 13, 2012

    I 100 percent agree with Brian. Sounds about right!

  10. Brian G
    February 13, 2012

    So what are the common elements we’re talking about here? I think the following list contains things to focus on or look for in any exercise method:

    – compound movements (those where 2 or more joints are actively engaged and moving, like squats and pushups)

    – exercises which require a lot of core stability and strength (overhead barbell squats, one-arm dumbbell squats, Turkish Getups)

    – exercises which require a lot of whole body stability with your body between the weight and the ground (slosh tube squats, slosh tube overhead presses)

    – unilateral exercises (pistol squats, one-arm pushups, split squats)

    – a wide variety of exercises such that none are repeated for at least several workouts

    – routines that require you to put in a lot of effort (no slow bicep curls with 2.5 lb dumbbells)

    – routines that do not ever expect you to exercise on an unstable platform (e.g., bosu ball) with any additional weight (that’s just asking for trouble)

    – routines that utilize all of the above with different parameters (weight, reps, sets, rest in between sets) among different workouts to hit a variety of energy pathways

    If you have enough weight training and exercise experience you could probably make up your own routines following a lot of the above.

    Oh, and of course don’t forget a helluva lot of running!

    • Buzz
      February 14, 2012

      Isn’t this called crossfit + running?

  11. Rebecca @ Runner with an Appetite
    February 13, 2012

    Good stuff. Going to have to try out Kemme’s fitness. I’ve been trying to incorporate free weights into my regimin, but his stuff looks intriguing!

  12. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    February 13, 2012

    I’m doing CF Football workouts right now. Lots of heavy weight with low reps. My endurance is staying the same, and my strength is going through the roof. The only thing for me has been getting the right amount of rest to prevent heavy legs. In my experience so far, running on heavy legs from lifting hard will get you injured in a hurry.

    So far this beats out any other HIIT workout by a mile for me. I have a friend who is doing CFFB and strongman stuff for ultras. I can give you his contact info if you’re interested.

  13. Buzz
    February 13, 2012

    I’m working through Wendlers 5/3/1 now, I’ll let you know if it works. It’s a slow building low rep, low volume program with some assitance work. The only additional conditioning is sprints and prowler pushes which I think will help well with hill climbing strength.

    So far my body feels ten times better than when I did crossfit met-cons and I’m remarkably stronger now. Plus I can run more frequently and longer. Actually I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to CF metcons.

    • Jason
      February 13, 2012

      Buzz, what lifts do you do as part of that? It seems somewhat similar to what Christian is doing right now. I VERY briefly experimented with this basic idea, but abandoned it when we canceled our gym membership.

      • Buzz
        February 13, 2012

        It’s pretty simple but yeah you need weights. Squats, deads, bench and press + assistance work like front squats, good mornings, weighted lunges, dips, pull-ups, chin-ups, rows, etc…

        You basically do your 531 reps with the main lift and the asistance can be any set x rep you want, well kind of. I’m tinkering with doing 2 excercises with 3sets x 20reps now to help build endurance more than size.

        Christian CFFB is cool but I found it was too focused on short distances and heavy metcons. Which I didn’t feel worked well for me while running longer distances?

        I do have to admit though getting rid of the timing element of a workout and just pushing hard, but not balls to the wall, was probably a better decision than stopping met-cons.

  14. Jason
    February 13, 2012

    My plan for Big Horn 100 in June:

    – February and March: Lots of Maff runs (6-25 miles), Kemme Fitness workouts three times per week. Speed work once per week.

    – April and May: One Maff long run/week, KF five times per week, speed work three times per week.

    Based on previous plans and toying around with heart rate, this should provide the best of both worlds.

  15. mark lofquist
    February 13, 2012

    when i saw Lee Saxby teach the overhead squat as a tool to show balance, core and leg strength i figurrr’ed I was on to something with crossfitting. I’m a runner who crossfits (not vice versa). My first observation after introducing crossfit that I was recovered from an ultra in hours, not weeks :). Then in hindsight I noticed, wait… I don’t need to visit chiropractor, or PT anymore. So even normal response to running was a pleasant surprise to me.

    Just like MAF training is good base-building training, crossfit type work outs give anaerobic fitness to hit other metabllic pathways. I dub it ‘giving us some 800m fitness’ and use it in endurance events. strong core to maintain god posture, strong thighs to attack an incline and not ‘blow up’ with a max HR.

    I’m a “modified CF/CFE’er” long runs, deadlifts, etc all have their place. ((also CFE’s recovery WOD is money!))