Training With Weight Vests

Ian Sharman

One thing I’m frequently asked about is how I incorporate weight vests into training, since it’s a tool I use for myself and for those I coach. It was especially key to my attempt at the 2013 Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, where I ran 100-milers close together and had to get the most out of training while focusing on recovery. There are several reasons to use a weight vest, but the main benefits are:

  • more leg strength for downhills;
  • harder hiking training for uphills (stairs or treadmills can mimic long climbs);
  • greater core stability for maintaining form;
  • low intensity training while in recovery; and
  • reducing the chance of injury through all the previous four points.

Even for those of you fortunate enough to live next to huge mountains to build up your leg muscles, the stability and injury arguments still apply. However, most runners live in cities, sometimes nowhere near big hills, meaning treadmills offer the best inclines and weight vests the best strength building for descents. The questions below are the ones I’m asked the most. They will help you get the best use out of this type of training and make it more convenient to fit into any training schedule.

1. What Type Of Weight Vest? It’s possible to buy more expensive weight vests that are more comfortable when running, but I find that a cheap and simple weight vest (mine was around $30) is all that’s needed. A less expensive option is using a running backpack you already own. Even a larger hydration pack can be loaded up with additional items, plus the weight of the water bladder is of use.

2. How Heavy? This partly depends on your body weight and natural strength. Most cheap weight vests have around 20 lbs. of sand bags, and this is enough for most people to get a significant training benefit. It’s a good idea to start with less weight, just enough that you can feel the extra effort required, and build it up over time.

3. Run Or Walk? Both have benefits since trail races involve running and hiking, especially the tougher routes. Road runners are also helped by increased variety in their training that lessens the chance of repetitive strain injuries or loss of form late in a race. So overall I suggest a running backpack or hydration pack with relatively less weight for runs, and then the vest with more ballast for hikes. Including some hills is helpful, but even flat road runs with these training aids will pay off over time.

4. How Often? Adding in weighted vest sessions as part of your normal training routine isn’t difficult. However, the frequency depends partly on where you live and what you’re training for. Someone in a flat city training for a long mountain ultra may use a weight vest or pack on most runs that aren’t focused on an easy recovery pace. Even rest days can include hiking/walking with the vest as long as the effort level is low, since this still avoids the impact of running and is very effective active recovery for the legs while gently working out the core.

5. What About Strength Training In The Gym To Get The Same Effect? The rule of specificity applies to training for any sport: the closer your training is to the actions you want to master, the more effective they will be. This leaves scope for strength training in the gym, but many of those gains can be achieved with a weight vest or pack by going at different speeds with varied loads while still in a running motion. Plus, most runners I know would prefer to be outside than in the gym.

6. Any Other Tips? The most effective trick when hiking with a weight vest is to leave the straps undone. This makes it less stable so it swings around, thus engaging the core muscles in exactly the way they are needed when running without the vest. For those preparing for a mountainous race, hiking on steep inclines on either a treadmill or a hill is enhanced when done with additional weight. The more vertical in your target race, the more of this you can include in your training. A bonus is that the hiking doesn’t wear you out much once you get used to it, so it’s possible to add this in on top of your usual running.



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Ian Sharman is an ultrarunning coach with USATF and NASM certification. He is on the Scott Running Ultra Team and has represented England for ultrarunning. He only started running in 2005 but quickly got addicted to races and became a student of the sport, interested in all types of running terrain and style of event. In particular, Ian loves to explore the world through running and has raced in six continents with almost 200 marathon and ultra finishes. Some highlights include setting the record for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 2013, during which he won the Leadville Trail 100. He also set the fastest North American 100-mile trail time at his Rocky Raccoon 100 course record of 12:44.

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  • David Milner

    Hi Ian,
    Any thoughts on injury risk when using, especially running with, weight vests? It seems to me that during concentric contraction, a weight vest will mimic uphill running; but during the eccentric phase, it will add impact and weight that would not be present when running uphill. Or perhaps my ‘mental modelling’ is inaccurate…
    I love hllly trail races but live in Strasbourg by the the Rhine, where most immediate runs have a flat-line altitude profile. I’ve seen runners with weighted ruck-sacks and wondered about using one, but been reticent on account of a history of acchilles tendinitis.
    Thanks,
    David

  • Ian Sharman

    There’s definitely a slightly higher risk of injury if a weight vest is used for running, so a very gradual progression of weight is best. Personally I don’t run with a weight vest, just walk or power-hike. To get similar benefits when running I use an hydration pack which fits better, bounces less and only has a small increase in weight compared to running without it.