Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

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“Many people have been impressed, even awestruck with my recovery. I’ve been asked frequently how it was possible to recover so quickly and to such a high level after such a serious accident. Although the process was grueling, arduous and full of set backs, my success in recovery can be attributed to one thing – my strength program.

— Hillary Allen

So what’s the deal with a strength routine for endurance athletes? Is it necessary? Won’t it make me slower, or cause me to bulk up?

These are questions I’ve asked myself, and excuses I’ve relied upon to prevent me from entering the weight room. As a professional ultra runner for The North Face, if I want to improve performance, it’s an easy default to think I must do MORE – miles, hours, vertical feet – to make improvements. Since the race distances I cover range from 30 -70 miles in one go, and cover extreme elevation changes, my immediate thought is – I need to put in a ton of volume so my body can handle these distances on race day.

Although this argument is true to some extent – running is the most specific way to train for a running race – it’s not the complete picture. If my body isn’t strong enough to withstand my training load, injuries will start to creep in. The most common source of injuries in runners originate from weak hips or core. These are the powerhouses which support the biomechanics of running, so why don’t we pay more attention to them, and strengthen them?

As an endurance runner, I did zero strength work. It wasn’t until I got my first running injury that I saw a physical therapist and began to understand the importance of strength. My injury was a pinched nerve in my calf. I thought I had strained it running, but it really resulted from a weak glute causing severe compensation issues. I was forced to stop running and had no choice but go to the gym and address my hip imbalances.

At first I viewed my gym work as a tedious task, boring, and something I could leave behind when I returned to the trails. But, when I was able to start running again, I noticed how smooth, fluid and effortless my running felt. Maybe it could be the strength work? So, I continued my strength routine as I upped my running volume and I continued to see the benefits. It was the strength work that changed my body’s ability to withstand my training load. It became my new routine, and kept me injury free for 2 years, competing at a professional level.

Last year, however, I was faced with a new challenge. During the final race of my season, a rock gave way underneath my foot and I fell 150 feet off of a ridge-line. I broke 14 bones including my back and some major ligaments in my feet and ankles. I was told I would never run again, let alone compete at a world class level. My spirit – and body – were crushed.

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I was faced with an intense recovery, starting from ground zero. I had to learn how to walk again before I could even think about running. So what did I do? I got my butt into the weight room.

Now, I’m going to ruin the surprise, but nearly a year after sustaining such traumatic injuries I’m back competing and running. Many people have been impressed, even awestruck with my recovery. I’ve been asked frequently how it was possible to recover so quickly and to such a high level after such a serious accident. Although the process was grueling, arduous and full of set backs, my success in recovery can be attributed to one thing – my strength program.

Long before I could run, or even walk properly, I was working with Matt Smith at Revo Physiotherapy and Sports Performance. I would come in 5 days a week working on my hip strength, glute activation, and an all around strength program for endurance athletes. If it wasn’t for their devotion and expertise in rebuilding my body (and booty), I would have never been strong enough to start running trails again. It wasn’t about the number of miles I was putting in, it was about how strong my supporting framework was to withstand the training, allowing me to compete at my first ultra only 10 months after the accident.

So if you have doubts about your performance, maybe some niggles that keep popping up, or you’re in need of an off-season activity, I encourage you to head into Revo. They will get you up and running again, and stronger than before. From a performance and injury prevention perspective, strength training is the best thing I ever did for my endurance running.

So go work on that booty, you’ll enjoy more about it than just the look in the mirror.

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Strength training for endurance athletes

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What’s Nutrition Got to do with it?

No matter how you slice it, training won’t add up unless you’re refilling your tank – and not with just anything – with quality fuel.

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When I speak about nutrition, most athletes focus in on racing. They think about gels and the number of calories they should be consuming to maintain a race effort. Of course, this is an important part of nutrition, but it’s not the whole picture. I think more holistically, not only about my needs during my training, but about my day-in, day-out habits of fueling pre run, post run and everything in between.

I, personally abide by a plant-based diet. Even with all the traveling I do, it’s really quite simple to stick to. Skratch Labs products play a key role in supporting this lifestyle and my training. Now, if you’re curious about this plant-based diet, the science supporting it and specifics of meeting your body’s requirements, I encourage you to check out Thought for Food Lifestyle for great information and resources surrounding the powerful world of plants. Then start doing some research on your own! But for now, I’ll take you back to the task at hand, and tell you my general routine for fueling pre run and post run during a big week of training.

The big take away – eat often, eat sufficiently and (for me at least) eat all the plants you can!

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I recently completed a 105 mile route through the alps, over 4 days. Some know about this course, it follows the race course of the famous Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc ultra marathon over 3 countries and around the Mont Blanc massif. It’s a gnarly course, with 33,000 ft of positive elevation gain. The average finish time is about 40 hours. To complete this thing, not only did I have to eat properly during my runs, to maintain energy, but I also had to eat properly, before and especially after, to recover adequately.

 

First of all, consuming sufficient calories and quality calories is the first step. During a run I aim for 200 calories per hour, strictly from a carbohydrate source. I use Skratch Labs drink mix and Skratch Labs Sport Energy Chews (the new matcha flavor is my FAV!) during my runs. I also like to bring along fruit for an extra crunch and treat for the summits. Typically, I start fueling in the second hour of my run, only because I started my days with a good breakfast (oatmeal, fruit and nuts), that would tide me over the first hour. Then, it’s a matter of staying on top of the fueling throughout the duration of my runs, which were typically 6-7 hours each day for this route. I’ve found that if I fuel well during my run, I’m more likely to recovery more quickly, physically feel better (less sore, achy, etc.) and to run better the next day. This also includes hydration! Skratch Labs drink mix is the perfect balance for full hydration – not only replenishing my water loss, but also my salt loss. I’ve had a sweat test to determine exactly how much salt i’m losing per hour – so I know exactly how much drink mix I need to replenish it. Science is pretty neat!

The big take away here is – eat and drink during your run! It has long term benefits and aids in overall recovery!

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Now onto post run. I kick off recovery with a recovery drink. Most athletes have great success with Skratch Labs Sport Recovery Drink Mix, but because I don’t consume diary, I have my own recovery drink (generally a smoothie with the Skratch Labs Wellness Hydration mix mixed in to get some extra electrolytes, almond or oat milk, plenty of fruit and some nut butter). It’s the best post run treat you could ask for. Not only does it satiate me until I can start refueling with real food, it has a good balance of carbohydrate, fat and protein to start the refueling process.

Then, once I’m ready for a meal, I make sure I consume whole foods, as many plants as possible, and again, make sure I get in fat, protein and filling foods to make sure my body replenishes all that it lost during the day. Then, lots of water! Even in France, Italy and Switzerland, there was no shortage of plants, so there was nothing lacking in the fat, protein or carb department.

After the food is taken care of, many athletes like to stretch or foam roll for extra help with their recovery. I’m a big fan of stretching and light muscle activation (if I feel I need it), but the most important for me is a good night sleep – as many hours as I can. Sleep, combined with all that good food, helps me to best prepare for the next day of training – oh, and some comfy slippers. Then it’s time to rinse and repeat the process of fueling and refueling.

 

How I love the simplicity of training life:  Run. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

 

I am better than a result

I am better than a result. I have inherent worth. There is no such thing as good enough because I am innately good.

Despite the challenges of my injuries, I am certain that my best physical and mental days are ahead – that being the best athlete I can ever be is only possible because of the challenges I face now.

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These are the mantras I repeat, daily. My days are not always perfect, and there are times I question if I’m moving in the ‘right’ direction or forward at all. I face some sort of doubt and fear, every day. It’s an active choice to acknowledge them, confront them and lean into them.

Especially as I return to running, I am still holding onto many doubts surrounding my body, its capabilities and abilities to sustain the activities I want to do.

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Photo: Running in the Dolomites

This past week I faced some huge fears. I planned to complete a route I had always dreamed of completing – the HardRock 100-mile course. A group of good friends planned the adventure, aiming to complete the course in 3 days, averaging about 30 miles per day, with 10,000 feet of positive elevation gain, traversing the San Juan Mountains in Southern Colorado. I knew this undertaking would test me physically, but more so mentally. I was excited, yet anxious. Fearful of the technical terrain and its impact on my (still) recovering injuries.

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As I look back on the hours spent in the mountains, I’m in awe of our bodies and their resilience. I’m also in awe of the human spirit, how energy can ebb and flow. Entering this softrock endeavor, I was certain I would be the weakest one. But, each person in the group had their low moments and high moments, including myself. We supported each other – encouraging and supporting during the low moments, and doing the same when energy and motivation returned.

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Photo: SoftRock Day #2, on top of Handies Peak

I learned that energy is not constant, and no matter how well-trained an athlete is, there is also doubt and insecurities to face. It was empowering to see every single person confront these fears head on. One practice that helped me to confront my fears/insecurities and to keep pushing forward, was to say – out loud – three things I am grateful for, and one reason why I am great. My good friend, Lucy Bartholomew, had the idea. The only rule – we couldn’t repeat the same three things twice and we had to come up with a new reason we were great each day as well. It was a humbling practice and gave me strength to look for the positive, instead of focusing on my doubts of completing the route.

Filling my head with positive thoughts, even when I hurt, lacked energy, or was lagging behind on a downhill, wouldn’t allow room for negative thoughts or doubts in my head. It’s a daily practice I’m going to incorporate into my routine.

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Photo: Ice Lake

Upon writing this piece, I thought I was going to focus on the feelings of each day, and the pride of finishing such an epic course, just shy of a year from my accident. But now, I’m hoping to use it as a benchmark in my mental training, to remember it’s possible to accomplish the impossible if you’re willing to try and challenge doubt. Positivity and gratitude can alter your course, if you allow a little light to shine through.

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Photo: Silverton, CO after finishing the Hardrock 100 mile course.

Who I am – Without Running?

When did it become commonplace to define one’s life by a single subjective thing? When did we start whittling a person’s existence to a singularity; a career, a relationship or single attribute? Throughout evolution mammals never fixated on  one thing – if they had, they never would have survived. So why do we choose to judge, assume or react to ourselves and others based solely on one single attribute? Whether that be a physical characteristic, a personality trait or a job, modern society – enhanced by social media – encourages these snap judgements and generalizations.
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Photo Credit: Mike Thurk

I’ve certainly fell into this trap, especially when it comes to the activities I do. Since finding the sport, I have built a whole new life around running and the person I am as a runner. It’s an empowering community. To be surrounded by people who share your passions and can relate about gross toenails, ducking into the woods for a quick “break,” and especially those tiny moments where you feel so small, yet so connected to this vast universe. It’s addicting and can quickly become all you care about.

 

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Photo Credit: Greg Mionske

Recently, I’ve been forced to reevaluate this lifestyle. Now, the community and environment that has been a source of joy, belonging and acceptance has become painful. Running doesn’t come naturally to me now, it’s a battle of recovery, to regain strength so I can walk normally. Instead of finding solace in this community, connected and cemented in the life-centering activity of running, I find myself angry and consumed with grief. It has become isolating – a self inflicted ailment. Since I’m not running at the moment, I feel as though I have lost my identity, who I am. I’m lost in getting back to the “runner I was.” Trying desperately to prove to myself that this emptiness I feel can be fixed if I can just run again, if I could just walk down the street like a normal person, if I could just push through the pain of each step, if I could only go back in time and not step on that rock that cast me off the mountain side. If only . . . .

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Am I really that unbalanced? To be someone who defines their entire self-worth solely on one activity? Before my accident I would have defined myself as a balanced person. I have a Masters degree in Neuroscience and I teach Chemistry, Biology, and Physiology at a small college in Colorado. Anyone who knows me can see my extreme fascination and intrigue in the world around me, with science, especially with bugs, lizards and frogs. It’s been a passion of mine long before I became a runner and will likely continue to be something that captivates me long after I stop running competitively. I do have a life outside of running and I enjoy fostering those interests.

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Yet, I am still devastated by this state of injury I find myself in, and the halo of sadness that constantly surrounds me. So much so that it has begun to negatively affect my life outside of running, those interesting parts of me that have always been there. I’m realizing now that I have intertwined my identity with running. My injury is temporary, and as I continue to show signs of progress to regaining my strength and a sense of normalcy, this feeling of disconnection still persists. It can be dangerous, especially when ‘health’ and being ‘injury free’ seems to be the only cure – the promise of a wholly better self in all capacities, even those that weren’t directly injured in my accident. It is the utopian idea that once I can run again, all of my problems will disappear. But this is not true. Real life problems, the ones that running once helped alleviate, have a persistent nature and lay in wait for the next time I slow down or find myself injured again.

So I ask the question: who am I without running? Beyond my job, my hobbies, my relationships, what lays in wait there? I’ve struggled immensely since my injury and it’s forced me to take a deeper look and connect with who I am at my core – without the preconception of a job, activity or physical attribute interfering.

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Photo Credit: Greg Mionske

It’s a difficult question to ask, one I still struggle with. In fact, I’m still amid the process of introspection. It is the part of the injury recovery process that most people don’t get to see, and one we most often try to keep private, attempting to hide our struggle from others to save face. Why? I’m not sure I have those answers quite yet. I’m finding a sense of ease in the process but I still struggle. The biggest impact of this rebuilding process has been that I no longer look at myself through the lens of singularity. I can see a more complete and complex person beneath the brightly colored running shorts and shoes. One that enjoys being outside, with eyes glued to the ground in search of bugs, or frogs, simply because it makes me giggle and brings me joy. I want more of that complexity and diversity in my life. This injury and break from running has been immensely difficult but the blessing has been the lessons it has taught me about myself.

Of course, I’ll get back to running – it brings me so much joy to move in that way – but I’m no longer allowing my happiness to be fixed to that linear timeline. In the meantime, anyone want to go bug hunting?

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You Don’t Look Like a Runner

I only had 5.5km left, all downhill. I told myself to focus for thirty more minutes, extra time never hurt. This course was brutal, a 55km race bragging 4000 meters (13,000ft) of gain. Technical, steep, hot – just what I like. It was a very competitive race and I had pushed into 2nd place. As I rounded the final corner to push up one final hill I finally let myself feel it as chills ran over my skin. There was excitement, relief, accomplishment, a need for more water and to take off my shoes. I had made the podium and I had fought for every single second of it. I was proud, happy to be done, and pleased with my strength and patience throughout the race.

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After some rest and recovery the athletes and volunteers gathered for congratulations and dinner. It was great to celebrate. We relived the race, our ups and downs, the views, and the terrain; assuring the organizers they had put on a tough race.

Everyone kept telling me how strong I was, how hard I pushed on the uphills, that I was a machine. Then one of the local runners had a question for me:

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“How much do you weigh?” he asked, comparing me directly to Gemma Arenas, the winner of the race, who was standing next to me at the time. She’s about 5’ tall, and petite. Not only am I 9’’ taller than Gemma, but we have completely different builds; I, being, the more muscular of the two. Then, another question, ‘”How is it you can run so fast when you weigh so much more?’

Strength, machine, powerful, animal – those were the adjectives used to describe me. Not fast, or skilled, or talented, or even the word ‘runner.’ Was it because of the way I looked? I couldn’t help but be slightly offended, hurt and extremely self-conscious. I had just finished second, amongst world-class competition, and I was asked to explain my performance and myself.

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photo credit: Ian Corless

Immediately, the first thoughts in my head were “Why am I here? How did I run that fast? I don’t look like I’m supposed to look?” I let those comments and doubts interfere with celebration of my achievement. In fact, that night I let myself stagger in confusion and self-deprecation, crying and wishing I could change how I looked to avoid future speculation from others and my own critical eye.

Like many women – and runners – I have had an eating disorder. However, trail running is what motivated my recovery. When I started running, is when I decided to take care of myself, to listen to my body and respect it. Although I am recovered now, it’s a dynamic process and one I can never ignore. That fact made clear by my shear devastation brought on by a comment about my weight.

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So I challenged that doubt and fear. I don’t need to look different to be considered a runner. I am one. I challenge that thought in all of us. Take a breath, and decide to take action. Maybe the action is an out loud declaration, quiet introspection or venting. For me it’s an all out battle inside my head to accept those uncomfortable thoughts that are urging me, convincing me that I ‘don’t look like a runner’ and that I must change my physical state to match a certain standard. They’re bullshit. Complete. Total. Irrational. Bullshit.

I can run. I can move. Uphill. Strong. Fast. Running. I am a runner.

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What is a runner supposed to look like anyway? I am a runner and so are you, no matter the size and shape of our bodies, no matter the distance covered or the terrain encountered.

I was made to run. My soul feels it; my body knows it; my heart longs for it. These are the thoughts I listen to. I am a runner. I chose to run toward that truth.

 

For more articles and inspirational stories check out the Trail Sisters Blog!