Strength Training Planning Guidelines for Trail Runners

With the popularization of the concepts of sports science, everyone is able to learn the importance of strength training for runners from various training books and online platforms. Especially for endurance athletes who consume protein and break down muscles, correct guidelines for strength training can help maintain muscle mass, improve athletic performance, and reduce the occurrence of sports injuries. The strength training that we care about is functionally-oriented. Trail running has a considerably large impact on muscles, connective tissues, and bones from different directions. Therefore, these types of runners need more training that can them to stabilize the body, turn, and balance. So, the planning guidelines of strength training are still a bit different from those of long-distance running. This article will give a complete introduction and share several training exercises as a reference. First of all, there are several important concepts and premises that we want you to understand:

1. Strengthening of athletic ability in trail running events

We will not go into a deep discussion on structural problems (such as standing posture), muscle activation techniques (such as Redcord), and muscle balance problems. We’re not saying that these trainings or problems are not important; these are very important! And they are very foundational.

If our standing posture is unbalanced (for example, upper cross syndrome), combined with weight-bearing or high-impact training, the spine will definitely be damaged. These training contents related to rehabilitation and physical therapy are very important and extensive knowledge, so I won’t be introducing too much of it here (otherwise there will be no end to this).

2. Do we have to bear weights?

As our exercise intensity increases, progressively increasing strength training with weights is the key to improving our muscle and nerve connections, strength and bone strength!

With the premise of not pursuing athletic performance, for runners who simply want to experience nature with low-intensity running and walking, freehand training, along with training using resistance bands of different pound-ratings, are also good ways to help reduce sports injuries.

3. Does strength training need to be periodic?

Periodization is an indicator of scientific training. Its purpose is to help the body gradually become stronger to adjust to the target event. It’s just like building a house, there’s logic and order. Regarding the periodization of strength training, different cliques will have some different training designs.

The training method I advocate is to start from the anatomical adaptation phase. This is where we let the body start adapting to the model of strength training from coordinated and low-weight stimulation.

Next, we arrive at specialized training, from hypertrophy phase, maximum strength phase, power endurance phase, to finally adjusting and getting ready for competition.

In order to plan the periodization strength training of trail running, one can follow the model of long-distance running training. It’s just that trail running will have an emphasis on different parts of strength training because of different types of competitions.

For example, preparing for vertical kilometer (VK), then it is suitable to put some sled (tire)-pulling sprints / stride running exercises, heavy interval training on spinning bikes, single-leg jumps with weights, and other exercises in line with uphill running movement and load training within the muscle training plan. However, to prepare for a downhill race, then more eccentric quadriceps training need to be done.

4. Typical trail race

What is a typical trail race? We will not be distinguishing this by distance, and the total uphill to downhill ratio should be approximately 1:1. The trail races that I will be calling typical are the ones where the trail section accounts for more than 85% of the entire track.

Then, what is an atypical race?

For example, the aforementioned VK race, downhill race, tower running, and desert trail running are the different training models that I think should be distinguished.

In addition to help clarify some questions, the above five points actually also lay the foundation for the content of the “planning guidelines,” especially since the concepts of periodicity and functionality will be the focus below.

Strength Training Planning Guidelines of Trail Runners (Periodization)


1. Anatomical Adaption Phase

For runners who have had no strength training experience or athletes who have stopped training for a period of time, this is the first phase to enter the strength training periodization. Through starting with low-load, high-stability, and high-coordinated training, this allows the body to adapt to the exercise mode of strength training, increase muscle mass, and activate small muscle groups and deep muscle groups.

This stage is like the preparation period in long-distance running training, preparing for the high-intensity and massive training that will be coming next. If you don’t have any foundation for strength training, we recommend this adaptation phase to be 4-6 weeks, because in addition to muscle stimulation, another important point is that strength training also helps the adaptation of connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, osteocytes, etc.), but it takes longer for the connective tissue to adapt.

That’s why we recommend for beginners to be in this phase for 6 weeks, training 2 to 3 times per week. If you already do weight-training regularly once a week, it’s okay to even skip this anatomical adaptation phase. The training suitable for this phase is:


(1) Single-Leg Stand (Eyes Open/Eyes Closed)

This is a good basic training for the lower limbs. Especially for people with chronic illnesses in the ankle, standing on one foot helps to improve the stability of proprioception and of many small muscle groups from the sole to the calf.


(2) Single-Leg Squats

Why do we do one-leg training? There are two main reasons. First, running is a sport where the body is supported by single-leg rotation. Second, training the legs separately is helpful for balancing the muscle strength of the two feet. The exercise mode of one-leg squat is similar to running. One leg is supporting, while the other one is in the back. There are many variations of this training. Adding the resistance band, you can also train the upper limbs at the same time. This is even more helpful in the improvement of coordination and overall strength.

Basic Version:

Adding the resistance band:

Advanced Version (power endurance phase, carry out only after you have basic training)


(3) Yoga Bridge Pose

Generally, people are used to training the body parts that they are able to see, such as the pectoral muscles, abdominal muscles, and quadriceps muscles. They often neglect the training of the areas they are unable to see, such as the back and hamstring muscle groups. This causes an imbalance of muscle strength and even structural problems.

Bridge training can help us to move our center of gravity (the hip joint) forward when running, and not fall to the back. With elements such as leg lifts and unstable devices, the intensity can be increased, for the training to be closer to the demands of trail running.

This video shares various variations of bridge training, which are great training for runners!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9j_DU_4KXs

(4) Resistance Band – Leg Curls

In the previous section, we mentioned that the strength of the hamstring muscles of the average person is usually much weaker than that of the quadriceps without special training. It is a very convenient and good method to use the resistance band to train the contraction of the hamstring muscles. This training seems simple.

If your back contraction strength is insufficient, it is easy for your knee to compensate and move towards the torso during training. When executing this training, we must fix the position of the knee as much as possible to stimulate the hamstring muscle group that we want to train.

 (5) Resistance Band – Anti-Rotational Core Training

The focuses of the runners’ core training are on anti-rotation and helping stabilize the core when running. Trail runners running in unstable environments need to constantly balance their torso, so the core strength is very important! The following video link introduces anti-rotational strength training. You can also include stretching in different directions, such as in a 45-degree angle, which will make it more in line with the situation of trail running:


2. Specialized Training for Trail Running (Increase Weight)

The increase in weight will have an immediate increase in the human body’s load and pressure. In terms of the level of breathing techniques (boosting internal pressure) and movement requirements, freehand training is incomparable. Therefore, this article is a guideline for you. If you are not sure of how to train, make sure to find a professional coach to help you do precise guidance and planning.

After the basic training in the anatomical adaptation phase, we can start developing in the direction of increasing the weight. First, we must first measure the maximum ability (1RM) of some training movements.

The 1RM test is the first step in weight training. It is very important. Without the 1RM data, there is no way to plan the subsequent amount of weight and training. The most important thing for the strength training of trail / long-distance runners is to improve the ability of nerves to recruit muscle fibers (fast-twitch muscles).

The second is hypertrophy. From the logic of training, it will mainly be based on the training of maximum muscle strength (above 85%), and 2 to 3 minutes of rest will be given between sets to ensure the quality of each training.

Before the maximum strength phase, we increase the bearing of weight by entering the 2 to 3-week “hypertrophy phase” (for example: 15RM / 10 times / 4 ~ 6 sets) to let the body adapt to the pressure of weight training after the anatomical adaptation phase. During this phase, I believe that fixed equipment training can be used as an auxiliary.

Such training fixes the track and some joint angles, which help us strengthen the strength of specific parts of the body. Of course, correspondingly, there is no way to train the whole body coordination and no ability to help the body to adapt to specific sports, so we only recommend it as auxiliary training (or cross-training when athletes are injured).

Regarding the hypertrophy phase and the maximum strength phase, that training I recommend which are suitable for trail runners include:


(1) Single-Leg Squats with Kettlebell

Back squats require a lot in terms of the movement and action of the one being trained. If improperly operated, it can easily cause sports injuries (especially the lower back). We’ll leave this type of high technical movement to your gym coaches.~

Compared to back squats, a lot less pressure is placed on the spine in single-leg squats and this movement corresponds more to the runners’ movement patterns (support on one leg).


(2) Romanian Deadlifts (RDL), Single-Leg RDL

Single-leg RDL generates leverage and pressure by standing on one foot, leaning forward on the torso and increasing the weight, which causes the entire kinetic chain, from the ankle, knee, all the way to the cervical spine, to bear the load.

This training is very helpful in the strengthening of the kinetic chain, hips, buttocks, and hamstrings, and the improvement of the proprioception. It helps us to be able to better stabilize the ankle all the way to the torso when running in an unstable environment. This training is a must for trail runners.

Advanced version with weight on hamstrings:


(3) Deadlifts

Deadlift is a great training to strengthen the kinetic chain of the entire back side of the body from the upper back, buttocks, hamstring muscles to the ankles!

Jeff Cavaliere, a well-known American fitness coach who graduated from the Physical Therapy Program (Master’s Degree) at the University of Connecticut, introduced the essentials of deadlift in great detail. You can start with an empty bar or with low pound weights:


(4) Bench Press

It is quite reasonable for trail runners to train their upper limbs. In nature, trees and ropes are good friends that help us to move forward or control our speed.

However, if you haven’t trained your upper limbs, there is no way to make use of these good friends to help us run better. Bench press not only gives us more strength in the area from the chest to the wrist, but also helps breathing. The following is also a video by Jeff Cavaliere, provided for your reference:


(5) Farmer’s Walk

The aforementioned training content achieves the ability to bear heavy weights by in-situ training.

This farmer’s walk is a great training to help our muscles, joints, and connective tissues to adapt to the feedback shock from the ground before entering power endurance phase. Farmer’s walk training is very helpful in the stability and strength of the shoulder joint, grip strength, back, hip joint and the lower limbs, and is less likely to cause sports injuries.


(6) Barbell Lunges

Lunge is a classic of basic freehand strength training for runners. This alternating load training between the two feet can effectively stimulate the buttocks and quadriceps muscles, and it is also helps the mobility of the hip joint a lot. The focus of the lunge is on the torso. When moving, we should try to keep the torso in an upright position, not leaning forward or leaning back. We need to imagine moving the hip joint in an m shape.

After adding the barbells, the load on the front leg when placing the foot down will increase exponentially due to acceleration. Therefore, you should be careful in the beginning of operating this training when adding weights. To avoid sports injuries, the knees must be stable and not track inside the toes, and the torso must also be stable. The following video is for your reference:

In addition, from the relevant links next to the film, you may be able to see the lunges in different directions, to the back, to the right and left, etc.

You can do all four of these different directional trainings, because the training functionality of each is all different functionalities and is all very helpful for runners!


3. Power Endurance Phase

Power endurance is a type of comprehensive high-intensity training with coordination, maximum power output, and muscle and nerve control. So why do runners need to do power endurance training? According to Jack Daniels’ running intensity training table, the code name for power endurance training is R intensity, which is a full sprint for within 60 m. The purpose of which is to improve running economy (efficiency).

By increasing the load of power endurance training, the muscle memory can be made closer to the exercise mode of trail running. The motor nerves are being stimulated to recruit more muscle fibers and this helps us improve our coordination of movement within mountains and forests.

1. Enhanced Training

This is a freehand full-body, rapid muscle-contraction training that is short (generally less than 20” is spent on each movement). We will arrange a set of functionally relevant training in a training schedule, which is operated like interval running, where the training is used to strengthen the overall strength and power endurance of the body. The following is an enhanced training schedule developed by football players, which is also very similar to the training content of trail runners.

Power endurance training impacts the muscles and joints greatly. If the movement is not done correctly or if you insist on training even when tired, it is very easy for you to get injured.


2. Pulling Sled

The concept of pulling a sled is derived from this. Plates can be placed on a specially-designed “sled,” so we can successfully quantify the training intensity each time. We will tie the drawstring around the waist (center of gravity) and train by sprinting or stride running.

Through this method, in addition to boosting power endurance, it will also help the body to remember the feeling of leaning forward when running. This is a great training for improving the sense of running!

Flexible and Changeable Training Principles

After all, the training schedule depends on the goal we want to achieve and our current state. Just like the “diagnosis through observation, diagnosis through auscultation and olfaction, diagnosis through inquiry, and diagnosis through pulse feeling and palpation” in Chinese medicine so the doctor can give the most suitable treatment, observing and recording the athlete’s status, as well as flexibly adjusting the schedule, is a very important job for the coach. This is a more important principle that overrides the rigidity of the fixed periodization.

Therefore, you can alternate doing all the above trainings even in different cycles, the only difference is in the variation of weight, repetitions, and speed.

Strength training is not as simple as just lifting dumbbells to build muscles as some people may imagine. It can be a technique that is very in-depth and can help us to achieve huge breakthroughs in all physiological and psychological aspects. It is not something you can learn just by looking at articles and video clips. Like running, in order to learn it, you need continuous practice and accumulation. I hope that after reading what I shared in this article, you have a deeper understanding of the planning of strength training for trail running, and that by practicing strength training, it can help us to run more easily and safely within the mountains and forests.