title pic training for 215mile ultramarathon with kettlebells

How I Use Kettlebells to Train for a 215-Mile Ultramarathon

Kettlebell training and ultrarunning are a perfect match.

If you want to enjoy either for many years and continue to make progress, you need self-discipline, a commitment to excellence, and an iron mind.

I started running in 2006 and added kettlebells to my routine in 2015. I don’t remember how I found out about them. Still, somehow, I found myself ordering an 8kg and a 12kg bell along with Pavel Tsatsouline’s book “Enter The Kettlebell.”

Back then, I was still a gymphobic, and kettlebells seemed the perfect addition to my run training. Today, I feel at home in a gym and am a personal trainer, helping other women discover their strengths.

And even though I have expanded my toolkit by including dumbbells and barbells, the kettlebell remains my favorite tool.

In August 2023, I will participate in the Race Across Scottland – a 215-mile race along Scottland’s coast-to-coast trail – The Southern Upland Way.

In another article, you can find a more general overview of my training principles in preparing for the race. In this one, I will focus specifically on kettlebell training and why I chose to focus on kettlebells exclusively.

Why I prefer kettlebells over dumbbells and barbells.

Strength training is critical for a healthy, enduring body that can go far. I want a strong core and upper body to carry a fully loaded pack for several days during the Race Across Scotland. I also want to have strong legs that can go the distance and a mind that stays sharp and strong throughout the journey.

The kettlebell offers unique benefits to runners that barbell and dumbbell training can’t provide.

First, the kettlebell is highly effective in delivering a strength-endurance workout.

You can design workouts that challenge your cardiovascular system and muscles with just a single bell. Due to the unique shape, ballistic exercises like the snatch or the swing are just as easy to perform as grinding movements that build raw strength and pack on muscle, like the military press or the front squat.

Secondly, having a few kettlebells at home frees up time and energy.

I don’t need to drive to the gym and can work out whenever I want. Sometimes that’s at 04:15 am before a long day in the gym. I also don’t have to wait until I can use the equipment, which can happen in a crowded gym. Plus, I can fully concentrate on myself and my workout without dealing with interruptions from others or annoying gym music.

And finally, kettlebells are easy to transport.

I have competition bells and iron-cast kettlebells at home. Especially the iron cast bells are relatively small, so they can easily be carried outside to the garden or the nearest soccer field or park. There’s no better feeling than trying to bring your kettlebells back home after you’ve just finished a challenging strength session, wondering how you will be able to carry the bell up the stairs.

How I train with kettlebells as an ultrarunner.

The gym I work at is women-only. And the most common concern I hear from women runners is that they don’t want to look like bodybuilders.

For the most part, these fears are unfounded. Here’s why.

First, most women won’t bulk up and look like a female version of the hulk, especially without using performance-enhancing drugs. And secondly, it is possible to design a strength-focused training program that keeps muscle gain to a minimum.

I want to stress though, that I am not concerned about muscle gain personally.

I prefer having a healthy body that functions well into old age over being a little thinner now to shave off a few minutes of my marathon time. I also feel that training for a multi-day effort makes it imperative to be strong with a few pounds of “extra” muscle that I can afford to sacrifice over the race.

However, I focus mainly on upper body muscle and strength, as I naturally carry more muscle and strength in my lower body. My goal is not to build massive quads or big legs since I don’t like chafing when running. But I want strong, powerful legs that can endure a 215-mile run over rugged terrain. How do I accomplish this? By focusing mainly on heavy kettlebell swings and keeping front squats to a minimum. When doing squats, I use a high load, keep the reps low, and the rest periods long. This is the best training approach primarily for strength while keeping muscle gain minimal.

I like to divide my training sessions into strength and muscle-building-focused and endurance-focused sessions. 

I primarily do heavy military presses, front squats, and loaded carries when I do strength and muscle-building-focused ones. I also always include the turkish get-up as a warm-up with lighter bells or as a strength builder with heavier bells.

On the other hand, I will do many swings and snatches when I do endurance-focused sessions. Sometimes I will also do a few rounds of double cleans.

Even though I run in almost any weather, I sometimes swap an endurance-focused kettlebell session for a run if the weather gets too crazy. I wholeheartedly detest the treadmill, and I doubt that swapping out a running session with a kettlebell swing and snatch session once in a blue moon has detrimental effects on my running performance 😉.

I stick with the basic kettlebell exercises and avoid overcomplicating things. I also use a training plan that adheres to the principle of progressive overload and don’t pick a random workout from youtube or social media when I work out. After all, my goal is to improve specific skills and not simply break a sweat. However, similar to my run training, I listen to my body and adapt the workouts accordingly.

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