In 2008, Marshall Ulrich was training to run from San Francisco to New York City, which would entail running over 50 miles a day. Then 57, he wanted every advantage he could get.
“I needed a full deck of cards, so to speak, to be able to run and recover sufficiently,” says Ulrich, of Evergreen, Colorado, who has finished over 120 ultramarathons (averaging over 125 miles each) and completed 12 expedition-length adventure races. “I really paid attention to my diet, to heat training and to the physical part of it.”
One thing he found lacking during his training was strength, particularly in his back and abdominal core muscles; this caused his form to break down as the miles piled up.
Rather than resort to gym exercises, Ulrich employed an unconventional approach—he procured a backpack and belt system for snow-sled pulling and attached it to a discarded car tire. Once a week, he ran, dragging the tire slowly behind, shackled by its resistance.
“It looked goofy as hell and I got a lot of looks, but it definitely did the job,” he says, adding that, when he took the tire off, running felt nearly effortless.
“One of the great benefits [of pulling a tire] is that it strengthens your core: your stomach muscles, glutes and back muscles,” says Ulrich. He also says being forced to run slowly, due to the friction of the tire working against him, improved his form.
“You have to lean forward, maintain upward posture, have your chest out,” he says. “It makes you shorten your stride, very similar to uphill running, which has been called ‘speedwork in disguise.’”
Another fan of the unusual technique is Lisa Smith-Batchen, 55, of Jackson, Wyoming. She’s a winner of the six-day, 156-mile Marathon des Sables in Morocco, has coached athletes for 35 years and holds a degree in Health, Fitness and Coaching.
“I have pulled a tire for over 30 years, and besides training your core and developing strength, it gives you experience with fatigue,” she says, “which is key in getting through longer races. It can also help athletes learn proper form for running uphill and downhill.”
Edward Sandor, 33, has twice finished the mountainous, high-altitude Hardrock 100 in Colorado, despite living in the flatlands of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He attributes being able to grind up Hardrock’s relentless inclines to the slow, difficult nature of pulling a tire, although, he jokes, “Just when you thought running couldn’t get any suckier, someone says, ‘Try pulling this tire around.’”
Sandor adds that the resistance of tire pulling can help you get more out of shorter hill repeats in the flatlands.
Time Well Spent?
Jason Koop, Director of Coaching at Carmichael Training Systems and the coach of several top ultrarunners, doesn’t mince words about whether he’d recommend tire pulling.
“No,” he says. “I don’t think it’s an activity specific to running modality, and there are better ways to improve your performance.”
Namely, says Koop, developing a runner’s cardiovascular system delivers the most bang for the buck regardless of the terrain of the goal race; spending time pulling a tire, he says, takes away from time that could be spent running faster and more miles, recovering or addressing other life commitments.
“If the cardiovascular engine is bigger, you’ll be faster and it’s a more sustainable way to train,” says Koop. “And when people talk about ‘strengthening their quads’ for downhills, what they really mean is adapting their muscles to tolerate eccentric contractions.”
Joe Uhan, an ultrarunner and physical therapist who holds a kinesiology degree and a USA Track & Field coaching certification, doesn’t recommend tire pulling to his athletes either, but says he sees the potential benefits.
“I like the idea of anything that provides a stimulating force to trunk stability [and] forces a runner to lean forward and drive better through the hips,” he says.
Some pre-constructed rigs exist, such as the Trail Toes Tire Trainer (trailtoes.com), but you can also build your own. Ulrich suggests starting with a padded, comfortable weight-lifting belt. Punch or drill a hole through it, attach between six and 12 inches of bungee cord (providing some give in the system, says Ulrich, is crucial) then six to eight feet of static cord, and, finally, anchor it to the center of the tire with a bolt.
Tires can be easily found at your local tire shop; Ulrich suggests a 15- or 16-inch tire for most women, and a 16-to-18-inch tire for most men.
Trail runners will be saddened to know a tire doesn’t pull well on trails. “There are too many obstacles,” says Ulrich. “It will catch on everything.”
Ulrich says he prefers pavement or concrete to maximize friction. Gravel, meanwhile, is a much
“The rocks all act like ball bearings and roll it along for you,” he says.
As with running mileage in general or with any new training technique (minimalist shoes, anyone?), incorporate tire pulling slowly. If you’re initially struggling too much, Ulrich recommends reducing the weight and size of the tire.
“It’s akin to just starting running,” says Ulrich. “Start with a mile or two per session.
“Build up to four to six miles,” he continues, “once a week, or even once every two weeks.”
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.