3 Strongman-inspired training moves for runners

Dan O’Neill prepared by the book when it came to his first ultra-marathon, the NorthFace 100K in Australia: waking up at 4am to knock out a few hours of running before work was standard, and he spent most Sundays training in the Blue Mountains National Park. He completed the race in 15:32:21.

But by the following year, he’d adapted his training to knock off over two hours on his second attempt, finishing the brutal trail course in 13:19.05. How? “I decreased my mileage and focused on an increase in strength work. I found that being stronger in the gym meant I became a stronger runner,” says O’Neill. “I wouldn’t get burned out on the hills anymore and I now had the ability to change gears when I needed to. I felt like a totally different runner.”

Strength and conditioning coach O’Neill, who is based at London’s Foundry gym and has previous trained track athletes and rugby players, found his strength work did more than just boost his speed. “Another limitation in my first year was constant nagging injuries that would come and go. Rectifying this and being able to properly utilise my posterior chain (calf, hamstring, glute and lower back complex) was a game changer.”

(Related: 10 essential strength moves for preventing injury)

With this in mind, O’Neill has shared his ultimate power-building moves from his training programme. These moves are inspired by powerlifting and Strongman workouts – they may seem different to your average squats and lunges, but they work all the key running muscles and regular form advice applies (keep your back straight, core tight and seek help from a qualified personal trainer if you are unsure what to do at any point).

1/ Rack pull

The rack pull is a variation of the deadlift where you pull the bar from around knee height, rather than from the floor as shown above. You can either do this from a power rack with safety bars, from blocks or even thick weight plates. Rack pulls have a shortened range of motion so they eliminate a lot of quad involvement and target your hamstrings, glutes and lower back. It is easy to forget about the lower back but it’s essential as a stabiliser when running hills. The hamstrings are predominantly made up of fast twitch fibres therefore benefit from being trained with heavy loads.

Do 4 sets of 4-6 reps.

2/ Sled drag/pull

The sled (see above) must be one of the most useful pieces of equipment for any athlete. It can be used with heavy weights for strength work (your maximum weight pulled over 40-60m) or lighter weights for volume based workouts (2-3 minute efforts).

Sled drag: The key for this exercise is to have a slight lean forward and pull the sled using either a harness or holding the ropes/straps in each hand behind you. You can use varying speeds but this is a walk and not a sprint exercise.

Do 3 sets of 40 metres as a superset with backward drags.

Sled pull: When pulling the sled backwards you want to keep your shoulders back and hips forward to really get full effect on the quads.  This exercise is again done at a walking pace.

Do 3 sets of 40 metres as a superset with forward drags.

3/ Farmer’s carry

When it comes to both injury prevention and improving power output the farmer’s carry is hard to beat. This exercise requires every major muscle in your body to pick up, control and carry the weights for the set distance. Not only does this hit the major muscles of the lower body, but it is excellent for developing torso stability which is essential for maintaining good running mechanics. If you don’t have access to specialist farmer’s walk handles you can carry heavy dumbbells or kettlebells.

Perform 3-4 sets of 30-40 metres.

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