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Weight training on your upper and lower body can improve your running. Photo: UTMB

Explainer | Should I do upper body exercises for trail running? How weight and core training improves performance and resilience

  • Weight training should be part of your regular training programme, and this should include upper body sessions or exercises too
  • Weight training will improve your posture and help prevent injuries

Weight training should be a core part of your trail running training. But those who do resistance work often neglect their upper bodies for fear of carrying extra muscle weight.

For many, the thought of carrying the extra weight of muscle on your top half seems detrimental. But it’s not. Upper body strength can actually improve your running, and it’s unlikely you’ll put on so much muscle you’ll slow yourself down. If you do the right training.

Upper body strength improves your posture. This in turn will help you run efficiently, especially towards the end of a race when your body is tired. Strong muscles can also improve your running technique and ensure the energy you use to push yourself forward is not lost.

This is backed by an April 2021 study from the National Library of Medicine to test the link between the head and forearms while running. In short, the report found that strong muscles will stop your upper body rotating, making you a more efficient runner.

Upper body strength can actually improve your running, especially if you are using poles. Photo: John Ellis

If you are using poles in trail or ultra running, upper body strength is a key factor to using them efficiently and not ending up with sore, tired shoulders that hinder rather than help your performance.

Here are some upper body exercises you should incorporate into your training, including core training. In addition, try conventional upper body exercises like press-ups, tricep dips and shoulder raises.

1. Press-up rows

This will activate your trapezius, pectoral, core and many other muscles in your upper body. Do a press up, but while holding two dumbbells, instead of having your palms flat against the ground. When you are at the top of your press-up (with straight arms), lift one of the dumbbells to your shoulder.

You may find it hard to balance at first, so widen your feet. Try and move the dumbbell without rotating your whole body. Keep it as still as possible. If you are finding it impossible, do it without a dumbbell, and touch your shoulders with your hands.

Complete a set of press-ups (try 12 if you can), and take a minute break. Do four sets.

2. Lawnmowers

This will activate your back and core muscles, aiding your posture. Place one hand on the weights bench, move your feet back until your back is flat and parallel to the ground. In the other hand, hold a weight. Pull the weight up to your shoulder like you are pulling on the cord of a lawnmower or boat engine to start it.

If this is too hard – or too difficult to balance – try with one hand and one knee on the bench, instead of both feet back. It will engage less of your core, but it will give you a chance to build strength and progress to having both feet back.

3. Dumbbell snatches

Running is a full body exercise, so you should incorporate some full body movements that engage your lower and upper body all at once. The dumbbell snatch is a complicated movement, and should not be tried if you are new to weight training.

If you are strong and confident in your experience, it is a good way to improve power in your legs, strength in your upper body, core, stability and coordination.

Start with one dumbbell on the ground, squat to pick it up. In one swift and fast movement, lift the dumbbell over your head. Firstly, drive up with your legs. When your legs are fully extended, use the momentum of the weight and pull it up with your hands. As it passes your shoulder, rotate your wrist and continue the movement up, by pushing with your shoulder and arms.

Make sure you do both arms. Try for sets of eight on each arm.

4. Core training

Incorporate specific core segments into your weight programme. Try the plank, with your toes and elbows on the ground, remain still with a flat body for 30 seconds. Build up the time or reduce breaks between planks as your get stronger.

Russian twists are when you sit on the ground. Lift your feet and lean back, so your thighs and stomach are in a V-shape (your legs do not have to be straight, but can be bent at the knee). Clasp your hands together and rotate to touch the ground next to your hips. Try it with a weight for added resistance.

To do dead bugs, firstly lie on your back with your hands directly in the air, and your thighs pointing up, with your knees bent. Lower one leg until your foot almost touches the ground. Lower the opposite arm. Return to the original position and do the same with the other limbs.