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Cross-Training Guide for Ultra-Runners

Emily-LT100_13By Emily Booth 

For some runners and ultra-runners, it’s a challenge to consider doing anything but running, but there are physical and mental benefits to incorporating other activities this time of the year.

In early January, I stepped off the plane in Minneapolis on the coldest day on record in nearly 20 years. In Minnesota, that’s cold. With temperatures dipping to minus 22 (minus 50 with wind chill!), the idea of going out for a “character building” run had this girl making a beeline for the treadmill at the nearest Life Time.

Despite the weather, this year’s event goals (such as completing the Leadville Trail 100 Run) are looming large, so it’s important to maintain consistency in training. Look at winter as an opportunity to expand your training repertoire with these activities – indoors and out – that will make you stronger come spring and beyond.

Strength Training – When I asked Troy Jacobson, renowned coach and Sr. Director of Endurance Coaching at Life Time, about the best cross-training activities for ultra-runners, he didn’t hesitate to say strength training. It’s often the most ignored activity by runners, but this season is the perfect time to build the kind of leg and core strength that will help you power up Powerline and reduce your chance of injury as you pile on the miles.

Your strength training routine doesn’t have to be complex, but should focus on classic exercises like squats (which contribute to overall leg strength), single-leg squats and deadlifts (great for firing up the oft-underutilized glutes). Core strengtheners like forward planks and side planks ensure that your posture doesn’t fall apart at mile 50. Try searching “strength training for runners” in your web browser and you’ll find a multitude of articles with these and other essential exercises.

Indoor Cycling As the National Indoor Cycle Program Manager at Life Time, I may have a slight personal bias toward this activity, but the benefits of getting some training hours and building your aerobic engine without impact, all while enjoying the company of others (or in the comfort of your living room, if you put your bike on a trainer) are undeniable.

Volume is an important training component for ultra-runners, and indoor cycling sessions can provide just that. In addition to base building, Coach Troy also notes that the higher cadence work and smooth turnover on the bike will translate to improved, more efficient running cadence. For a fun at-home workout with a little Leadville flavor, spin on your stationary bike or trainer to Spinervals 39, Aerobic Base at 10,000 Feet, shot in the Sixth Street Gym and featuring Leadville legends like Bill “Doc” Wenmark in the cast (incidentally the only person I know who was out riding his bike during that frigid Minnesota cold snap). You can find the DVD or download the workout at

Nordic Skiing – Cross-country skiing is arguably the best cardiovascular training activity of all and, as evidenced by the successes of uber-champions like Scott Jurek, Kilian Jornet, and Nikki Kimball – all of whom have backgrounds that involve cross-country skiing – has tremendous crossover benefit to ultra-running.

Cathy Yndestad, elite triathlete, multiple LT100 MTB finisher, and Life Time Endurance Coach, says “Nordic skiing has become my go-to cross-training activity. While many are logging hours on treadmills due to cold, snow and ice, I recommend a change in stride and scenery while maintaining aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Nordic skiing is a tremendous upper- and lower-body workout that uses the largest muscles simultaneously. While minimizing impact on the joints, you can train muscle groups specific to your sport in a slightly different manner, and condition those supporting muscles to really fire when your race season arrives.”  Cathy also noted that there is a relatively low barrier to entry with regard to skill and most areas offer rentals and lessons. A great place to try in Leadville is the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center.

Whatever you choose, enjoy it and reap the benefits of some alternative activities while you perhaps learn a new skill and give not only your body, but also your mind, a change of pace. Spring and big miles are right around the corner.

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