A quick, simple strength training program for trail runners

Strength training is a critically important part of a trail runner’s program, but one that’s overlooked far too often.  Runners want to spend their spare time running.  They don’t want to waste it beefing up in the gym.  Trail runners, especially, want to spend their time outdoors, enjoying nature.  Would you rather be stuck in a gym doing repetitive weights, or out on a trail enjoying the outdoors?

The benefits of weight training are well established.  Strength training can improve cardiovascular fitness, improve your balance, strengthen your bones, and help you lose weight.  Importantly though for trail runners, strength training can reduce the risk of injury by strengthening specific muscles and other soft tissues that are put under stress by trail running.  In particular, these are the foot, ankle and calves.  Also, strengthening muscles like the glute and the smaller leg muscles improves balance and agility, which leads to reduced injury.

This strength program is designed specifically for trail runners, but also suitable for non-trail runners.  These few exercises are all you need to maximise your trail running and reduce injury.  In fact, keeping it simple increases the effectiveness and makes it easier to stick to.  The best part is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of time.  One strength workout per week is plenty for the average trail runner.  And each workout will only take about 30 minutes.  Minimising the amount of time required for strength workouts makes it more likely that they’ll actually get done.

Single-leg deadlift

OK.  I started with a tricky one but don’t leave just yet.  The single-leg deadlift is the ultimate goal.  Start with a double-leg deadlift before moving on to the single-leg version or you’ll probably have difficulty or hurt yourself, and you’ll definitely have poor form.  

The single-leg deadlift does so much in one action.  It’s one of those compound exercises that develops functional fitness by working multiple muscle groups at once.  Deadlifts work just about every muscle in the leg, including glute, calf, quad, hamstring and Adductor Magnus.  They also work numerous back and abdominal muscles.  Single-leg deadlifts are even more awesome because they also require torso, pelvic, and hip stability.

How to do it

  • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Hold the barbell with your arms fully extended toward the ground, hands shoulder-width apart, and palms facing your thighs. While lifting one foot a few inches off the floor to bring it behind you, slightly bend the knee of your supporting leg.
  • Push your hips backward, bending at the waist to lower your torso toward the ground as your rear leg trails behind you to help with balance. Push out your chest, only going as low as you can without your lower back rounding. Let the weights touch the floor, pause, and then squeeze your glutes to return to the starting position.

Instead of the barbell, you can also use dumbbells or kettlebells, or just one kettlebell for extra emphasis on stability and balance.

Weighted hops

Single legged hops with dumbbells or a barbell strengthen the calves, which are important for stability on technical trails and for powering up hills.

How to do it

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your feet together.
  • Lift one leg off the floor and balance on the other.
  • Hop up and down and do the same motion until exhaustion. Switch sides and repeat.

Do this exercise without wearing shoes.

Single leg balance

This exercise improves balance and strengthens foot and ankle muscles.

How to do it

  • Stand on a BOSU ball.
  • Lift one leg up, bending your standing leg slightly.
  • Stay in this position for as long as you can until your muscles become fatigued and cause you to lose your balance.
  • Repeat three to five times.
  • For an extra challenge, try it with your eyes closed.

Jumping lunges

This is another one of those exercises that work just about every muscle in your legs.  Specifically, it works the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves and hip flexors.

How to do it

  • To begin, start standing tall with your feet staggered, your left foot slightly in front of your right. Making sure you’re not too stiff, keep your stance active with your knees bent in a slight but not full lunge.
  • With your core engaged, push off the bottom of both feet into a jump, switching the position of your feet in mid-air, landing in a basic lunge with your right leg in front.
  • Without rest, repeat this movement alternating which leg is in front. To prevent injury, make sure your back leg is bent directly underneath your body and your front leg is bent at 90 degrees at the knee and hip.
  • Repeat to exhaustion.

Hill training for a faster half marathon

The half marathon is run at a pace just below the lactate threshold. It requires more restraint than a 10K but more aggressiveness than a trail ultramarathon. It’s a delicate balance that needs to be practised in training to prepare both mind and body.

Hill training is so important when training for any race distance.  If your race route is fairly flat then using hills in your training will make your race day experience so much easier and enjoyable.

Here are three types of hill workout to incorporate into your half marathon training plan.

Why does hill training work?

Hills increase the difficulty or the intensity of a workout. Climbing a hill increases heart rate, which improves both your aerobic and your anaerobic capacity. So, can be used to vary the workout intensity kind of like speed-work, but without the actual speed.

Hill Sprints

This hill sprinting workout is a training run that doesn’t change much as your goal race distance changes. The purpose of this high intensity workout is to build your running strength, power and speed. Your pace for this workout should be at nearly all out pace and will be anaerobic. The goal is to maximise your strength and power gains rather than improve endurance so the workout can be used for all distances from the mile to the marathon.

Workout: Run 10 repeats of about 150 meters up a steep hill of 10% to 15% elevation. Run at the fastest pace you can maintain for the repeat.

Pace: As fast as you can maintain on each repeat.

Recover: Recover by walking or running at a very easy pace down the hill after each repeat. As soon as you reach your starting point, turn around and begin your next repeat.

Hill Power Runs

For this half marathon hill training you will need to find a hill that is around 400 meters in length and with a moderate to steep elevation of around 10% incline.

Workout: Run 4 to 10 repeats of 400 meters up a moderate to steep hill. Concentrate on maintaining a strong steady pace throughout this hill climb.

Pace: Maintain a pace that is a bit faster than your current half marathon race pace.

Recover: Recover by walking or jogging down the hill at an easy pace. Begin your next repeat as soon as you reach your starting point.

Hill Lactate Builders

This hill workout is not only a great half marathon specific workout but it is also an excellent training run to build and improve your lactate threshold.

Workout: Run four to eight 800 metre hill repeats up a moderate to steep hill of between 8% and 12% elevation.

Pace: Maintain a pace that is a bit faster than your current half marathon race pace.

Recover: Recover by jogging down the hill at an easy pace. Turn around when you reach the bottom of the hill and begin your next repeat.

Good luck

I hope this helps your achieve your half marathon training goals.  Please leave your thoughts or questions in the comments section.  If you use these workouts, please let me know.  Or of you have a favourite hill workout,  please comment below.


How to make more time for running

When training for a long distance running event (anything over half marathon distance), you’ll quickly discover that it can be a very time consuming hobby. Especially if you get into trail ultramarathons, you’ll find that a good portion of most weekends can be consumed by running about your nearby hills. Here I’ll share my tips for maximising your training time and making sure you have a little left over for resting.


If it’s practical, run to work. If it’s too far, run part of the way. There are plenty of resources on the internet with advice for commuting. I’m lucky enough to live 17km from work, which is a manageable distance to make commuting practical.

Do more, shorter runs

Maybe you can only manage smaller windows of time. It’s probably easier to squeeze in two 30 minute runs than it is to do a 1 hour run. You could do an early morning run and an after work run, or maybe a run in your lunch break and a run after work. If you can do two 5K runs per day, that’s 70K per week. That’s a great baseline for most ultra distance events.

Treadmill (or run at night)

I can hear you groaning, but if you run out of daylight, consider adding in a treadmill run, or run at night. I like to do a 30 minute lunch run and a 30 minute treadmill in the evening.

Work less

Whoa. That sounds pretty crazy, but negotiating this type of thing with your employer is probably not as hard as you might think. You could cut back your hours to 4 days per week, on a temporary basis. The pay difference probably won’t break the bank.

Let me know if these tips were helpful. How do you squeeze ultramarathon training into your daily schedule? If you have any questions or anything to add, fell free to leave a comment below.