When it comes to distance running, “heft” is not a physical attribute that many elite athletes display. In fact, the top men and women in our sport are typically slight of build and, hence, can handle the pounding of high-mileage weeks. But there is a whole class of huskier-built runners—aka Clydesdales—that aspire to run long distances, too.
I recently ran St Oswald’s Ultra, a challenging 103-mile race in the U.K., in under 23 hours. At over 200 pounds, I was the biggest guy in the race.
In training for past ultras I had followed standard plans designed for smaller runners, often injuring myself in the process. For St Oswald’s Ultra, I decided to draw on my experience as a strength coach to find a way to train that better suited my body type. I finished the race in a joint third place.
Here’s the dirt for larger runners wanting to go big.
When it comes to endurance there’s no substitute for time on your feet. Most coaches agree that for typical runners training for a 100-miler, a peak week would be around 80 miles.
Heavier runners, however, will get more out of running 50-to-60-mile weeks consistently, and employing a slow buildup to peak mileage. Many training programs work on an 18-week timetable. However, Smart Running author Hal Higdon suggests following a timetable of up to 27 weeks to reach your peak mileage, in order to reduce the risk of injury.
Of course, long runs are essential, but heavier runners should employ them sparingly. Unlike the weekly long runs recommended for smaller runners, larger runners should perform really long runs (of marathon distance or more) only once or twice a month, or even just one or two of them during your peak month before tapering.
Before my recent 100-miler, I’d only done two 30-mile runs, but they were quality runs that I had allowed myself to recover from. That’s what counts.
I supplemented that with a focused strength program and lots of rowing and stand-up paddleboarding. An ideal alternative for many people would be to run three days a week and cycle twice a week.
Another big factor in avoiding injury is maintaining and developing efficient running form. When you run, your joints and ligaments absorb four times your bodyweight. For a 200-pound runner, that means absorbing 800 pounds with every step!
Beef Up Your Footwear
Minimalist shoes have become popular for the enhanced, natural, running feel they offer. But heavier runners need more support. Most companies nowadays have added a maximalist model to their lines, and that extra protection costs but a few extra ounces.
Eat Right to Run Far
A generally accepted rule is that 25 to 60 grams of carbs per hour is enough fuel for most runners during longer efforts or races. Bulkier bodies, not necessarily tuned for running efficiency, need more fuel.
This formula is a good guideline: (Bodyweight in pounds / 2) x 0.9.
As your body fatigues, it becomes more difficult to digest that amount of calories via “real” foods. Still, try and eat them until your guts say no, and then switch to gels. Protein is also important to help reduce muscle breakdown. Eating one part protein to three or four parts carbohydrates in the latter stages of a race is a good target.
Remember, with less weight to carry, a lighter runner will be able to motor along at a quicker pace than a heavier one. On the other hand, a bigger, yet properly trained, athlete will be strong and robust enough to push on in the closing stages of a challenging event.
According to Dr. Laura Chase of the Cal Poly College of Science, in an article on Clydesdales in the Sociology of Sport Journal, the larger running body is both a site of control and a site of resistance. A heavier, stronger runner can rely on strength to maintain running posture and power on hilly stretches, even as fatigue sets in late in a race.
Having cartoon-bodybuilder-esque thighs won’t help your running (and it can result in some savage chafing), but strong thighs translate into more power on hills. That means you’ll cover more ground more easily. Muscle also supports joints, so stronger legs alleviate the stress normally put on knees and ankles over long distances.
But remember: muscular stability and endurance is just as important as all-out strength.
4 Essential Bodyweight Exercises
A challenging exercise that strengthens the vastus medialis (quads) and hip flexors. Go into a deep lunge and, without letting your knee touch the ground, hold that position. Start off aiming to hold for 30 seconds on each leg with the goal of completing two full minutes on each leg.
Great for your quads. With your back against the wall simply squat until your hamstrings are parallel with the floor. If you can do three full-minute efforts without taking a rest inside each minute, you’re off to a good start.
These work your glutes and hamstrings and improve proprioception. Do them barefoot and, if possible, while standing on something slightly uneven like a cushion to make them more challenging. Stand on one leg, shift your hips back and hinge forward, aiming to touch the ground in front of you while keeping your back straight. It’s a surprisingly difficult movement so don’t focus on doing a lot of reps. Instead, aim for slow and controlled repetitions for 30 seconds on each leg. Do that three times per leg.
A straightforward but effective exercise to build strength through the calves and ankles. Stand with the balls of your feet on a step and allow your heels to dip before raising yourself back up. Do three sets of 20 using both legs. When that becomes easy, begin alternating one leg at a time.