Record-setting triathlete and ultra runner Andy Mouncey details four exercises that will not only help to improve your running performance but lessen your chance of injury as well

Interview by Damian Hall

Are you a runner who ever suffers from any of the following? Considerable muscle soreness, soft tissue injuries, single-speed only, poor posture and running mechanics in the latter stages of long events, recovery taking longer than it really should, or are you slower than most on big climbs and descents?

If you answered yes to any of those, the chances are you lack strength and could benefit from some strength training. Most runners don’t want big muscles because they’ll slow us down. But you could get much stronger without bulking up and there are two very good reasons for doing strength work.

“One reason is to get better at what we want to do,” says Andy Mouncey. “Which means improving the prime muscles needed for that activity. “Secondly, strength training can really help us stay injury free – especially if you think of long distance running as repetitive strain injury writ large.”

“To do the latter you need your system and mechanics in balance, as opposed to just being very good at one set of movements – that can mean working in the opposite direction of your main activity. So if your sport essentially requires moving forward in a straight line, i.e. running, you need to make yourself stronger in the opposite direction. So when you strength train you need to move backwards (and sideways). Additionally many of us spend most waking hours hunched forward at a desk or behind a wheel, so it’s important to counteract this dominant lifestyle and work-related postures and movements too.”

“Endurance athletes can be a pain in the backside to coach,” chuckles Mouncey, “because they don’t do moderation well. They’re highly motivated, resilient and can tolerate discomfort to a high level. That’s a great quality to race with, but not so great when the goal is to back off and re-build the platform.” The four strength training exercises provided will build that platform and boost resilience and running strength. If you are in any way unsure how to perform any of the exercises, seek suitably qualified help.

[1] Front Squats

“Squats have specific benefits for endurance runners and there’s a huge argument to say if you do nothing else but front squat you’ll experience benefits.” Hold a weights bar across the front of your shoulders keeping your elbows up. Your legs should be shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. Lower your bottom slowly. Keep your knees over your toes – think sitting down in a chair — keep your back straight, elbows up, chest up and head up, drop down until your hips are level or lower than your knees.

“Most of us spend an awful lot of hours slumped forwards at desks and at the steering wheels of our cars,” says Mouncey adding, “Plus, in races, most runners wear some form of backpack and we’ve all seen the forward-grovelling- posture-look towards the end of a race. So from a conditioning and balancing perspective you want to do the opposite.

Sticking a load on the front of your shoulders forces you into an upright posture which actually counters that forward slump. So I tend to recommend a front squat as opposed to a back squat. This exercise targets the muscles you need to call on when you need to remain as upright as possible, for as long as possible.

Squats benefit quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes and core strength, and will contribute to greater power overall.”

[2] Back Squats

Strength training

The back squat also has great benefit. “It’s one of the crown jewels of strength and conditioning,” says Mouncey. “Use a weights bar or for a DIY version, load a rucksack with books, bricks, water or similar. Well-conditioned athletes will squat in excess of one and a half times their bodyweight and world class ones will do twice that and more. Even someone as seemingly slight such as Victoria Pendleton at her cycling peak would have been close to squatting twice her body weight – that’s real strength without bulk.”

[3] Walking Lunges

A walking lunge is a really runningspecific exercise that works your glutes, hamstrings, quads and core strength, while giving your hip flexors a good workout too.

Step forward into a lunge, pause, and then take another step forward into another lunge and repeat. Start with 6-12 slow controlled steps. “It’s normal to be sore after starting these, but once you’re away you can build up to sets of 50 brisk ones and more. Remember, you just need to do enough to make a difference… You can do them with just bodyweight or with dumbbells held at arms’ length too.”

“For a DIY version of the walking lunge – as I described previously, you could add a loaded rucksack to the back or front of your torso – or hold a loaded rucksack above your head with straight arms or even hold a lighter pack in front of you adding a twist to each side with every lunge,” says Mouncey.

Do walking lunges backwards and forwards.

[4] Deadlift into Farmer’s Walk

The deadlift strengthens the entire back, core muscles (so glutes and the abdominal region too) the hips and the hamstrings. To perform the exercise stand with your feet shoulder-width apart behind a weights bar. Take hold of it with an evenly spaced knuckles on top grip. You will be leaning forward from the hips.

Keeping your arms long and your back flat pivot backwards from the hips to start the exercise. Do not squat the bar from the floor. You are using your glutes, lower back and hamstrings to power the lift. Raise the bar until your torso is upright. Pause and then return the bar slowly to the floor.

“Deadlifts are great, because they take you from a forward bending position to an upright position,” says Mouncey, “thus strengthening those posterior muscles that have to combat the forward pull of gravity a consequence of our modern lifestyles and age.”

You can also perform this exercise with a sand filled sack or with dumbbells in each hand – and there are also single leg variations.

For the Farmer’s Life perform a deadlift using dumbbells held at arms’ length. Once upright, walk as fast as you can over a short distance, staying as upright at possible.

“You get two bangs for your buck with this combination,” says Mouncey. “With the deadlift you’re going from a forward bend to fully extended and for the farmer’s walk you have to stay upright and you have to have core strength or you turn into a blancmange!”

“Start with a weight you’re comfortable with, and do no more than 8-12 paces at a time, 2-3 reps. Again, it’ll take just five minutes at the end of a run or before it, 3-4 times a week to start to get the benefits.”

Summing up

“With these exercises and others work in bite-sized chunks,” recommends Mouncey. “Start easy, with no loading to get the form and movement right and build your confidence. Ideally, get expert instruction as outlined previously. Also consider using reflection, so glass doors, mirrors, or someone else to give you feedback.” You want to initially embed the movement. “Getting confident takes practise and needs feedback, so that you’re safe when weight and/or the speed of movement goes up. Little and often is good at first, which could be five minutes at end of a run, 3-4 times a week.”

“With the above exercises, particularly the lunge, you can expect soreness. Soreness is just the body saying “Yelp – we’ve not done this before!” Some soreness should be expected and welcomed. But if you’ve taken it to a point where you can’t sit without wincing you’ve over done it, especially in the early stages. Even when competent you can get sore, when variables are changed, such as the amount of weight lifted.”

“Any time you put your body in an extended position and add load or shock, you’re asking muscles to do a big job. If you’ve overdone it the default setting should always be PRICE (Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation).”

However, the good news is that your body will develop a resilience which will last over time as long as you keep strength training relatively regularly i.e. 1-2 times a week and progress gradually. Your running will thank you as you become less injury prone, better able to handle the hilly stuff and stay efficient while putting one foot in front of the other – relentlessly.

The Expert

Mouncey is an accredited conditioning coach, personal trainer and author of So You Want to Run An Ultra