How To Build Strength to Improve Your Trail Running

Written by Hillary Osborne for the Fall 2020 issue of our Trail Times newsletter. Hillary is a NSCA certified personal trainer and strength coach with Lifelong Endurance. She is a Colorado resident and ultrarunner who runs for The Adrenalin Project

Running is the best, right? You can spend hours grooving on that smooth single track. Don’t mind the commute to trailheads. You’ll even grind up that lovely, quad-burning, lung-sucking vert for the rewarding views at the summit. But, when it comes to spending a minute on strength, you’d just rather not. It can be overwhelming to know what exercises are best, or which equipment to use. Plus, how do you fit anything more into your already time-crunched training schedule.

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming. Adding just a little bit of strength work can go a long way to enhance performance and insure longevity in the sport. Strength training can increase your force production rate, meaning each step holds more power, which translates to quicker turnover and more distance traveled with each stride, so you run faster. Strength training also teaches your body to recruit more muscle fibers for your activity, which makes you fatigue resistant and stronger. Strength training also takes runners out of a linear plane of motion. Running is a front to back movement, done in the sagittal plane. This limited movement pattern neglects the muscles that stabilize our body laterally (side to side). Running itself is not a strengthening activity. So, when hip, knee, or foot problems arise they can be the result of neglected comprehensive strength and an overload to one specific muscle group.

Let’s all be well-rounded athletes and do all that we can to stay in this sport throughout our life while performing at our best. Here are a few tips to add strength training to your running program.

Strength

Keep the volume low
When adding strength training to your running routine, a little can go a long way. A lot of benefits can come from 30-40 minute sessions two times per week. The idea is to provide enough stimuli to the body that you see the benefits and adaptations, but not leave you exhausted for your track workout or your long run. Strength training should be complementary to your running, not competing with your running.

Bracket your workouts
A simple and quick way to add strength work can be to include a band routine as your warm up for a moderate to easy run, then do a few rounds of core exercises after your run. Spend 10-15 minutes on the band work and core work and you have yourself a 20-30 minute strength routine without much more additional effort. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits suggests anchoring a new habit to an old habit as a way to make a desired behavior stick. Running is the consistent, established habit. By adding a new behavior to the running you already do, will help to reinforce the change you’d like to make. Here is a quick band routine:

  • Choose a band resistance that has your muscles burning by the end
  • Lateral Walks: 15-20 yards both directions
  • Skater Walks: 15-20 yards forward and backward
  • Hamstring Kickback: 15 each leg
  • Hip Abduction Plus Banded Jumping Jacks: 10 each leg, then 10 jumping jacks
  • Squat Pulse Out: 15 each side

Immediately after your run, finish with a comprehensive core routine:

  • Deadbug: 15 each side
  • Bridge (or Single Leg Bridge for more advanced work): 20, or 15 per leg
  • Bridge Hold With a March: 15 marches per leg
  • Windshield Wipers: 15 per side
  • Side Plank: 30-45 seconds each side
  • Plank Shoulder Taps: 15 per side
Strength

Focus on what matters
Your time is limited and precious. When you do spend time on strength, focus on the types of movements that will give you the most improvements to your running. Trail runners can benefit most from single leg exercises, anti-rotation core exercise, and plyometrics. Single leg exercises should be top priority since running requires you to always be on one leg. Great examples are single leg deadlift, lateral lunge, pistol squat, and back elevated single leg bridge.

Anti-rotation exercises are great for runners because they challenge your core in a way that mimics running. During your stride the thoracic spine (the rib cage), and the lumbar spine (the pelvis), rotate opposite of each other. Your core needs to stabilize that counter rotation in order to run most efficiently. Great exercises for this type of stabilization include; dumbbell twists and ball-bridge twists.

The third component to targeted strength training is plyometric exercises. Running is a plyometric activity in which each leg acts as a spring to propel you forward. The muscles of the calf store energy in the stance phase and quickly release that energy when you push off. Plyometrics enhance this spring action. The more elastic energy you have, the less you have to muscle your way through your run. Great examples are: pogo jumps, single leg pogos, box jumps, and lateral jumps.

Start with bodyweight
If you are new to strength training, bodyweight exercises are an excellent way to learn a movement, build tissue tolerance, and improve muscular endurance. It is extremely important to master the basics before adding load to your routine. Foundational movement patterns include; squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, and carry. 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions are a great place to start while getting familiar with these movements.

Strength

Do running first and keep like efforts together
One of the most common questions from a runner wanting to add strength into their training is, “When should I do it?” It is best to complete a strength session on a moderate or hard running day. This keeps your overall workload at moderate to hard. Pairing strength with a rest day, negates the purpose of rest. Likewise, by putting it with an easy day, you have now made that day more challenging. Think of it in terms of overall work and match likeness in effort. It is also best to complete your run as the first training session of the day, then strength second. Adaptation in running is the primary goal, so it is best to tackle a running workout first when your energy systems are fresh.

By focusing on these strength training tips, you will be on your way to becoming a well-rounded runner who stays healthy and performs at your best.

[Editor’s Note: are you looking for even more strength training ideas to improve your trail running? Consider Six Easy Strength Training Exercises for Faster Mountain Running, 10 Minute Core and Strength Routine for Trail Runners or Tayte Pollmann’s In-Home Strength Routine for Trail Runners.]

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