5 Strength Training Myths for Trail Runners (and the Truth Behind Them)
Bulking up? Only lifting heavy? Avoiding soreness? How is your strength routine (0r lack thereof) holding your trail running back.
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While strength training has gained popularity and respect in the trail running community, many gaps still exist that prevent trail runners from picking up the weights or leave us wondering how to incorporate this element into our training.
If you’ve been resisting strength training for any reason or are curious about its benefits, you’ll be picking up the weights after reading this article that debunks common myths about strength training for runners.
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Myth 1: Lifting weights will put on too much muscle.
While you don’t have to deadlift 300 pounds to have success on the trails, we benefit from having muscles to power our legs up and down mountains, over rocks or other obstacles, and around sharp turns. The truth is, it’s tough to put on much muscle mass as trail runners when we’re spending 10 percent or less of our time on strength and the large majority on running. Any extra muscle gained from lifting, particularly in the off-season will likely benefit you as you transition into that next half marathon, 50k, or 100-mile race.
Professional trail and ultrarunners prove this point, such as Sally McRae, Jeff Browning, Hannah Allgood, and Dylan Bowman, all of whom have attributed much of their success and longevity in the sport to strength training. In recent Women’s Running and Outside Magazine articles, McRae has shared that her strength routine involves a wide variety of movements involving a mix of dumbbells and medicine balls to bands and bodyweight or “functional exercises” for running> Meanwhile, Browning and Bowman work with coaches in the gym regularly, lifting barbells, kettlebells and doing agility drills in a group setting.
Allgood, who is also a physical therapist (DPT, PT), shares a bit more behind her routine, highlighting band work, bodyweight exercises and lifting lighter weights throughout the season, incorporating these two to three times per week. She says that these exercises have “allowed me to not only analyze what is wrong with my own running gait, but has also allowed me the ability to know how to address whatever issue may appear as a ‘niggle’ and mitigate injury risk. It has been vital to my health as a runner to be able to recognize any early injury signs and apply the exercises or techniques to keep me healthy throughout the years.”
Diving back into the “too much muscle” fear, it’s important to note that trails require strong muscles to conquer the variable terrain. The reality is, our bodies are all different – some of us are naturally more muscular than others, no matter how many miles we run or how much weight we lift. Some of us put on muscle more easily than others. There is no “ideal body” for a runner. (And really, how much is “too much” muscle?).
See Our Full Guide to Strength Training For Trail Runners
Myth 2: To run fast, all you need to do is keep running.
While long-time coaches and runners have pointed to the rule of specificity when discussing training, stating that you should run more if you want to get better at running, the idea that all you need to do is run is outdated and certainly doesn’t mean strength or other cross-training is irrelevant. Many studies suggest that runners who strength train show fewer signs of injury and often report ease in ascending and descending hills as well as improved efficiency in their stride, which ultimately translates to more efficient running economy.
Movements in the running gait involve powering your legs off the ground, climbing uphill, and sometimes carrying packs, with repetition after repetition that can break our bodies down if we aren’t careful. Strength helps combat this by isolating specific movements in our running gait.
Running is the most significant thing that will drive performance; however, having general fitness across the board will improve your versatility, says exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and running coach Dr. Alyssa Olenick. Enhanced functional strength and core strength will improve lateral stability and agility, allowing for more control on the small, dynamic and sometimes awkward movements necessary for running over technical terrain.
“Especially with trail running, you are bringing in this component of having to power up hills, do high step-ups, encounter variable terrain… having a body that is physically prepared for that and more resilient, along with stability and muscle strength will help you endure on top of cardiovascular performance.”
You can apply the specificity training into your own strength routine by selecting exercises that encourage proper running form such as step-ups, lunges, planks, and even rows to help with upper-body running posture. Olenick also suggests adding plyometric training into your resistance training regimen, especially for bone health and aging athletes. One example is the 3-Minute Mountain Legs Routine.
Myth 3: You need to lift several times per week to see benefits.
As a coach, I encounter many runners who ask, “if I can’t strength train 3-4 times per week for an hour each, is it even worth it?” My answer: (1) absolutely; and (2) you don’t need to strength train that much to see benefits.
While aiming for 2-3 times per week for 30-60 minutes is a nice idea, many of us find this is difficult to do year-round, especially as the season picks up. Admittedly, even as a strength coach, there are times when I fall off the wagon and fit one session in a week for a mere 20-30 minutes, but I always remind myself it’s still worth doing.
Allgood shares a similar sentiment, incorporating her strength into two days per week in-season on hard workout and long run days (following the run) for just 2-3 sets of each exercise for 15-20 repetitions or time-based. This allows her to maintain strength, while not taxing her body to the point that her running suffers. As races approach, she backs off from strength 1-2 weeks prior to each event to maximize her taper and emphasize recovery for race day.
During the off-season, Allgood increases the weight and duration to 3-4 days per week, 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions focused on muscular hypertrophy or 1-5 sets of 1-5 reps for muscular strength.
“Because it is the off-season, having less overall running volume helps with these strength gains without jeopardizing my fitness,” she says. “The greatest benefit that I found over the last few years with the various types of strength training is that it has kept me on the trails being able to run training block over training block leading to small gains over time whether that be injury risk reduction, improving my running economy, improving my VO2max, or improving race day performance.”
Whether you find shorter, more frequent sessions are preferable or 1-2 longer sessions per week, strength is more about consistency over time, which often means fitting it into your schedule where you can. One day is better than none, and if you need proof in the pudding, some studies suggest that just one day per week of strength training is still beneficial compared to three, even for those who are more experienced in the gym (Journal of Strength and Conditioning).
So, even if you’ve fallen off the strength wagon, there is no better time to get back on and incorporate it where you can. A little goes a long way.
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Myth 4: Strength training will leave you too sore and injure you or impair your performance.
Some say they don’t strength train because it makes them too sore to run the next day, impairing their performance or even injuring themselves from a strained muscle. The key here is consistency. Just like as our first few weeks of running after time off make us a bit sore, strength training also takes a couple of weeks to adapt to. When you’re first starting out, consider a “de-load” week from running and be sure to give yourself extra recovery time afterwards as you adjust to the new loads you’re adding into your training mix. (Did someone say trail mix?)
It’s also about where you fit strength into your schedule–right before a hard workout or long run is usually not the best time, as it creates additional fatigue. Instead, doing a session spaced after a workout or on your easy day could better fit your schedule (and potential soreness). It may take some trial and error, experimenting with where strength fits into your schedule best, without impairing your quality workouts or long runs.
Recognize that sore muscles alone don’t typically lead to injury. Dr. Olenick mentions that it’s not necessarily heavy lifting that makes you sore, it is your volume (number of sets and repetitions, or amount of strength training). Another tip: prime your muscles through a proper warm-up, incorporate consistent doses of strength work, and ideally, ensure at least 48 hours of recovery in between strength sessions (running is OK in between and not as affected by DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Long story short, the benefits far outweigh the cons.
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Myth 5: Endurance athletes or long-distance runners shouldn’t lift heavy–or, they should only lift heavy.
When it comes to strength training for trail runners, one of the biggest points of controversy is how heavy runners should lift. We’ve seen some professional athletes share themselves deadlifting 2-3x their bodyweight or posting their pull-up count publicly, challenging the notion that runners aren’t meant to lift heavy–and perhaps making us wonder if we need to up the weights in our own strength training.
Olenick says that many runners have the misconception that they need to lift light and/or with a lot of reps to mimic their running, or they don’t want to lift too much because they are worried they will get bulky. She nixes this myth, encouraging runners to load their lifts to at least a 7 or 8 out of 10 effort… meaning, if you did as many repetitions as you could to failure, you feel like you could do another 2-3 reps at the end of a set of 10. She notes that most people underload themselves and miss out on the benefits that heavier lifting can offer.
If you like lifting heavy weights, you’re in luck–the scientific principle of overload states that we need to continually challenge ourselves or overload our muscles in order to make strength gains. Lifting the same set of weights each session is like running at the same pace every training run and expecting results. Be sure to challenge yourself with both new exercises and increase the load as you get stronger.
On the contrary, don’t let a lack of dumbbells or access to a gym stop you. You can accomplish a lot with bodyweight and band work, especially when starting out. Consider starting with a series of step-ups, lunges or split squats, glute bridges, calf raises, push-ups, planks, and pull-ups or inverted rows, which can be accomplished at-home or even on a playground. Pick a handful of these and progress from there.
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Although it comes with its own set of myths that need busting, strength training is a valuable and often overlooked aspect of a trail runner’s weekly regimen. Both professional athletes, running coaches and physical therapists, as well as a host of research studies have helped debunk myths that strength training isn’t for runners.
Now that we’ve set the record straight: strength training will improve, rather than impair performance; lift heavy and add variety to see benefits; and my personal favorite, a little goes a long way. We’re on the road to reaping the many benefits that strength can offer. If you haven’t gotten started, it’s about dang time (as Lizzo would say).
Need an introductory strength plan specific for runners? Check out our 8-week strength plan for runners.