Strength Training For Trail Runners – Garage Strength

Strength Training For Trail Runners

Strength Training For Trail Runners

A common misconception among runners is that strength training will slow them down. “I don't want to be bulky” is the most often used reason behind not adding strength to your program. But what if you knew that adding strength actually gave you an edge that some other runners don't have. Maybe you need an added kick at the end of a long race. Or perhaps you want to power up a long incline or even more so, not feel totally destroyed after a long down. This is where strength work comes in. Let's take it a step further, what if you are running trails? Is trail strength work different from road running? Yes and no. There is some nuance to this topic, and we are going to dive into the details.

But first, know this. No matter what your sport, and especially with running, you will almost never regret being stronger, more balanced, versatile and agile. And that's what proper strength work does. When you combine your sport specific training with a well thought out weight training program, magic can happen. And if you currently run trails, you already know the magic that can be found on a single-track trail filled with roots and rocks, twists and turns and the rush of what some call “being freed in the forest.” Now, couple that magic with being a well-rounded, well-trained runner on and off the trails, you may very well find yourself feeling like pure magic.

Trail is Different than Road

Running is running, unless you talk about the types of terrain you are running on. Then it is in fact not the same. When talking trail vs road running, there are some major differences and considerations that need to be made in your training.


Running on trails often means roots and rocks to navigate, steep inclines and unpredictable footing with every step. The terrain runners find on trail vs road is dramatically different. With the road you often have just that, road.  Aside from the occasional pothole or roadkill (unfortunate truth sometimes), the terrain is much more predictable on the roads than the trails.  Because of this, small stabilizer muscles are called into play much more often on the trails.  Also, your balance will be put to the test time and time again on trails. Proper strength training helps your body be prepared to make quick steps and sudden changes, that often need to be made in your stride, come a little easier.  

Muscle recruitment

The muscles used on road vs trail are also quite different. One of the biggest concerns of injury in road running is often overuse.  The repetitive nature of running a paved route for long distances can bring about injuries simply due to impact and going through the same motion over and over and over again.  However, trails require a different type of muscle recruitment than road.  

On trails, it's not so much the repetitive nature of the sport that can be potentially troublesome, rather the diversity of the trail that can potentially cause issues but also requires a variety of different muscles compared to roads.  This is where strength training is massively important for proper muscle recruitment.  The varying terrain will require you to recruit a variety of muscles that the road may not.  Strong and stable ankles and lower legs can help prevent sprains and other injuries.  Dynamic trunk control is always important, we know this.  However, the importance on the trail for proper posture and balance is even more necessary.

Why Runners Need to Strength Train

Improved Overall Performance

Strong running isn't just about your legs. Running, especially on trail, is a full body sport. Don’t believe it? I was a seasoned road runner who regularly ran 40-50 mile weeks and I very arrogantly ran one single mile on trail. The next day not only were my ankles destroyed but also were my calves, obliques and dare I say my upper back. To be a strong runner on trail you must be strong, period. A strong upper back and chest help keep you upright. Strong dynamic trunk control allows you to maintain balance and posture on uneven terrain. Running on gnarly terrain and you find yourself with running poles? Strong arms can come in quite handy for that as well. When done properly, strength training can be a huge added benefit to your overall performance and longevity on the trail.

As if we need to do any more convincing, there are quite a few other reasons why runners need strength work in their training.

Injury Prevention

It’s an unfortunate reality when you are out on the unpredictable terrain of trails, injury of some sort is likely to happen eventually.  A hidden root or rock under a leaf layer in late fall or even the slick moss during an early, dew filled morning can make a great run go bad real quick.  Coming across either of these will likely leave you slowing down, staying more aware of your footing and hoping to avoid a rolled ankle or two.  Being strong and having versatility in your training can help.  More mobile joints are an added bonus of strength training, and you can see how it may very beneficially translate to your trail runs.  Being agile on the trails is important but mobile joints can also help in preventing injury along the way as well.

Improve Imbalances

We all have a weaker side, but when that weakness turns into overcompensating from the strong side, it can lead to an array of issues.  Strength training, especially unilateral work, can help prevent these issues and keep you lacing up your shoes for a lot longer than your weaker trail buddy. Not to mention, unaddressed imbalances often lead to overuse due to overcompensation and that can bring about long term, potentially catastrophic injury.

Things like hip drops, fatigued ankles, hips and knees are all going to benefit from a proper strength program.  Not only will strength training in your fitness regimen help improve those potential imbalances, but you will find you have more structural integrity in your joints in general.  Considering the terrain you are preparing to run on, we take that as a massive benefit.

Strength Endurance

When you run for any duration of time, you are essentially asking your body to complete reps over and over again.  Reps of the same movement no less. This is where improved strength endurance comes in.  

The repetitive nature of the sport of running requires muscular endurance to be top notch.  Yes, practicing the sport itself will improve that endurance but adding strength endurance specific movements are important.  Think something like 60 seconds of walking lunges.  Completing a few sets of these single leg movements will likely leave your muscles burning but every time you recover from a set, you are teaching your body how to adequately handle, and recover from, the repetitive nature of the sport that is running.

Another thing to consider is time under tension in order to improve your strength endurance.   Adding tempo and pauses to your lifts will vary the time under tension, which ultimately helps your muscular endurance on the trails as well.

How to strength train as a trail runner

It's not uncommon for runners to feel lost on how to add strength into their programming. When to train what body parts, best recovery protocols, what weights to use, how much volume to commit to- all of these considerations can make it feel quite overwhelming. That's when we see paralysis by analysis- you end up over analyzing everything to death and ultimately do nothing at all. Let's avoid that and unpack how to best add strength in as a trail runner. 


Should you do double days and add strength on a run day? Or do you want to keep them separate? It depends. Here is the biggest thing to remember, it’s ok to train on tired and even sore legs. There are a few schools of thought here. The best thing you can do is take the approach that you can be most consistent with. Ideal for your life may not always be optimal. But what is always optimal is getting it done. Getting strength training done is more important than the exact “best time” to complete it.

Most of the time, having 1 heavier leg day (heavy in volume and weight) a week is normal. From there you will certainly want to add balance, plyometrics and single leg work. The heavy, most leg demanding work can be done either close to or on the heavier run day or, alternatively, do this leg workout furthest from your longest endurance effort. Again, what is ideal for your life? That’s when you should consider incorporating it into your training.

Recovery Considerations

Runners love to run. And hopefully by the time you are done reading this you will convince yourself to learn to love to lift too. And with that your recovery needs to be top notch. Your next workout is only as good as your current recovery protocol. Because of this, it would be in your best interest to not only lift but consider how you will recover from the added training volume and novel stimulus that lifting brings to your training. While this is an in-depth topic all on its own, understanding the basics will make it so you recover adequately and have less of a chance of blaming your added strength training as to why you can't run the way you prefer.

Things like adequate hydration, proper calorie intake, adequate sleep and even mobility practices are all simple (not easy) things that will help you recover from strength work so you can keep hitting the trails as you please.

Choosing the right weights

There are 2 camps runners often find themselves in. Either the camp of “go hard or go home” or one where you air too much on the side of caution.

The “go hard or go home” folks, you are there to lift so you want to push it. You aren't afraid of some weight so “LFG!” But also, not ideal. This strength work is supplemental to your running. You don't want to leave feeling so wrecked that it negatively impacts the rest of your training week.

The other camp is too cautious, you don't want to injure yourself or get too sore, so you tread way too carefully. 10-pound dumbbell deadlifts certainly are not going to do the trick. Your groceries are likely heavier than that so let's add just a touch more weight to your next set.

So how much weight should you use? This is another one of those “it depends” answers. Trial and error and experimenting will help you figure it out. Keeping track week to week of the weights you use and following a program that has progressive overload can be key. Be sure to check out our Peak Strength app If you are just hitting the weights and looking for a program that helps you every step of the way. Determining weights, tracking weights, peak strength is your solution to both of those problems.

You want to be challenged, but just the right amount, that's the goal when it comes to adding strength to your run training.

6 Strength Focuses or Trail Runners

Now that you understand how important strength work is, where do you start? Again, our peak strength app can spell it all out for you. But if you are curious on how to sprinkle in strength work yourself, there are a few different types of training to consider.

Single leg work

Since we know strength work can help with imbalances and even muscular endurance, single leg work is a must. However, you don't need to be limited to traditional single leg work. We love lunges and single leg deadlifts. But training in different planes- think lateral lunges or Cossack squats- as well as upping the ante so you work on your dynamic trunk control at the same time can be a beneficial spin on single leg training. Consider even adding in a heavy sandbag hold while lunging or taking weights overhead as you lunge. And we can't forget about our favorite split squat to help really hammer home single leg strength.

Anti Rotation Work

Most runners will be told to add core work and immediately they think of a traditional plank. And while there is nothing wrong with that, thinking about your dynamic trunk control on the trail requires more than just plank work. Sure, movements like the Copenhagen plank or sliding planks can be helpful, but adding in work where you are rotating, twisting and even supine with your movements can help.

Deadbugs, paloff presses or other variations of a paloff press, Russian twists and even side bends all have you working on rotating or preventing the rotation of your trunk. This is beneficial not only for obliques and your deep core muscles known as your transverse abdominals, but there is an added benefit for they also help strengthen your back as well.  


We already touched on the importance of single leg work, and squatting single leg can fit there. But don't underestimate the simple front or back squat. Strong legs are often built from this compound movement. Getting under a barbell and having different cycles of either heavy in volume or heavy in weight can be beneficial to your running depending on where you are in your racing season.

Back work

Weak backs are often a weak link in trail running. The last thing you want is to be breathing heavy, already huffing and puffing, then find your upper back fatigued so now your lungs need to work harder because you are hunched over and compressing your core, making it even harder to breathe. Your back keeps you upright. Your back is like your trunk, you want to stay upright and feel solid. Incorporating movements like pull ups, different row variations and lower back strength work can keep you upright and healthy on the trails.


Hopping, bounding and jumping are all important aspects of a well-rounded trail running program. On the trails you will be required to do a bit of each. Jumping over a root, hopping over a creek or even leaping over the rattle snake you saw at the last minute, you want power behind your punch…errrr, jump. Plyometrics, help you do just that. 


If you want to be strong on the trails, if you want to stay healthy, if you want to improve your performance, it’s obvious that strength training needs to be in your programming. Understanding the demand, it has on your body, your joints and ligaments is important, but what you do with that knowledge is even more important. So long are the days of using injury or bulk as an excuse. You now know the unending list as to why runners, especially on trail, need strength. You know how to implement and best practices for you, the unique individual, all that's left is to execute. And if you even want help from a professional programming the runs themselves, consider starting here.

Gaylemarie Kayes

Gaylemarie, but just call her GM, is a seasoned fitness and nutrition professional with nearly two decades of experience in the industry. With a diverse clientele ranging from ultra runners to high-level competitors, gm brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise. As a former high-level athlete in running, CrossFit and Olympic lifting to now, a busy yet active mother, she understands the challenges of balancing fitness and goal getting with a hectic lifestyle. Gm's approach emphasizes discipline, ownership, and hard work, tailored to honor each individual's life season for optimal health and well-being.

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