PT on the Net Research

Ultra Endurance Training


Question:

I need a specific strength training workout for an ultra runner. She runs two or three 24 hour races a year.

Answer:

There are a few key principles to adhere to when constructing a strength training program for ultra-endurance athletes. Because they require such physical stamina and endurance, the following points should be applied:

  1. Core strength. This is by far one of the most important factors of success in 24 hour+ racing. Proper running position for any distance endurance run requires incredible core strength in order to properly hold the upper body in a five to 10 degree forward lean. Core strengthening specifically targeting the abdominals, lower back, hip flexors and hamstrings as a whole should be implemented as often as possible while still adhering to the principle of periodization and proper recovery.
  2. Train movements, not muscles. Ultra-endurance running will require a concerted effort of the entire musculoskeletal system working in balance to provide locomotion and proper biomechanics. Take the focus off of training specific muscles (unless it is during the base training cycle) and move to the multi-joint exercises that will help to improve running locomotion. A good rule of thumb is to learn the biomechanics of running in order to properly prescribe strength training. Exercises such as walking lunges with a "butt kick" with an upper body twist (spinal rotation) with light weight, will train the athlete to use running specific muscles while improving balance and side to side movements - elements which are often encountered in off-road ultra races. In addition, lower body exercises should be coupled as much as possible with upper body exercises. For example, balance board squats with a light weight military press will serve to "connect" the upper and lower body while improving balance and proprioception – again, all skills needed in off-road ultras.
  3. Train balance movements. Maneuvering over rocks, through streams and up mountains requires a large amount of fine motor skills, so incorporate balance training (Bosu, balance boards, physio-ball) whenever possible with strength training exercises. Using the physio-ball as a stabilizing bench is a popular choice as is performing standing strength training exercises on one leg.
  4. Stretch. This is a key component in ultra racing because of the varying terrain. Running on the road is nothing compared to the obstacles faced when running off-road ultras. The more flexible the athlete is, the easier it is to navigate the terrain and the improved running economy. Focus on the leg muscles (hamstrings, gluteals, quadriceps, IT band, calves, Achilles, plantar foot) as well as the lower back, chest, shoulders and neck. I like to call stretching "flexibility training" since it should be included in all training (strength training and aerobic) that is done.
  5. Periodize. I eluded to it earlier but a smart aerobic and anaerobic periodization program should be implemented so the strength training complements and does not impair the aerobic training. There will be certain times of the year for ultra athletes that strength training will focus on specific muscle strengthening and not movements, but it will be a very small portion of the year. Many experts believe that strength training should not continue during race season but it is best to include a maintenance cycle where body weight exercises with running biomechanics be the focus. Having said this, an active recovery period following each ultra should be implemented. One or two weeks is sufficient, during which time strength training should be reduced to body weight exercises.