I haven’t been injured once since I started running again in 2021. After an 8-year-long break, I resumed running to finish an ultramarathon.
Tackling an ultra has been a long dream of mine. However, in my earlier running days, frequent injuries sidelined me. So I stuck to running half-marathons most of the time.
In 2013 I completed my first – and to date only – official marathon distance.
After this race, I stopped running.
In search of an alternative, I tried hiking. However, I got bored quickly moving around at such slow speeds.
Then I tried cycling but found the need to become knowledgeable about gear and how to fix your bike on route too distracting. Riding was also more weather dependent, and at the time, my gym anxiety was still so severe that cycling indoors in bad weather or during winter was not an option.
Besides, I didn’t get the same feeling of freedom and aliveness that running gave me.
Exactly how I stumbled upon kettlebell training, I don’t remember. But I do remember that I was fascinated right from the start. A cardio workout with a kettlebell was much more effective for burning fat than running. Plus, it was fun.
At least, that’s what the few sources I found online in 2015 argued.
Enthusiastically I ordered my first pair of 12 kg bells and a copy of Pavel Tsatsouline’s book “Enter the Kettlebell.”
During the following years, I transitioned from swinging a kettlebell for 30-60 minutes non-stop to training primarily for strength. Every now and then, I went for a little jog.
And even though I didn’t run much during those years, I stayed mentally involved with the sport. I read books and listened to podcasts. I devoured every science paper I could get my hands on. I watched the sport of ultrarunning evolve and go mainstream.
In 2021, I felt an itch. “At least I want to try once,” I told myself as I signed up for my first ultramarathon in August of the same year – the Schwerin Lake trail ultramarathon. I had eight months to prepare for the 61 km race.
Strengthening my ligaments and muscles kept me injury-free while ramping up running mileage.
In 8 months, I went from running 0 kilometers to running between 50 and 100 weekly kilometers routinely. I finished the 61 km trail race in 06:12 hours and was the third woman.
I entered another 50 K that year, where I finished 3rd overall.
In 2022 I completed my first 24-hour race at the German 24 h championships and finished 2nd in my age group (35). I also finished my first 100-mile race in 22:07 hours.
I have achieved great results and didn’t sustain a single injury, even though I had just started running again one year prior.
So what was different now?
I didn’t have more time to devote to recovery. I certainly didn’t have fewer life stresses. I also didn’t eat a diet that was drastically different than before.
The only variable that was new in my life was kettlebell training.
In a previous article, I described how training with these cannonballs with a handle ended my war with my body. As it turns out, being strong helps with body-image issues and disordered eating tendencies.
But it also helps to protect your body from incurring running-related injuries. And if you are like me and find the “traditional” strength training routines with barbells and dumbbells boring, then maybe kettlebell training is a better fit.
A kettlebell training program for runners has the advantage that you can train outside since the bells are portable. Due to the kettlebell’s unique shape, many exercises are more joint-friendly than their barbell counterparts (such as the press).
You can design workout routines that strengthen your whole body in 20 minutes without putting the weight down once. And while it is possible to get creative and develop a variety of kettlebell flows using various exercises, I love to stick to the basics.
The following three exercises are the staples of my kettlebell training program.
They are all you need to get strong to run long.
The kettlebell swing is the basis of kettlebell training. To become proficient with kettlebells, you must master the swing.
But even if you don’t care about becoming a kettlebell Jedi and just want to use kettlebells to improve your running performance, you need to focus on the swing.
In fact, the swing is the only kettlebell exercise I prescribe for every runner who comes to me for coaching.
Why? Because it primarily trains hip extension. And for runners, hip extension is vital. The hip drive is essential to consider when you run fast and want to run injury-free.
Many runners suffering from running-related injuries think they must look at their footwear first to identify the cause. However, for many, the real problem resides further up the kinetic chain – in the hips.
Our modern lifestyle, comprised of mostly sitting, has us remaining in a flexion posture most of the time. And since our bodies adapt to the stress they are under most, your body will adapt to being hip flexed.
What you need to run fast, and injury-free is the complete opposite.
Luckily the kettlebell swing offsets many problems caused by sitting all day. It trains hip flexion and the entire posterior chain, meaning all the major muscles on the back side of your body.
This includes your “running muscles,” like the hamstrings and glutes, and your back muscles. Why do you need a strong back to run well? Because with strong upper back muscles, you stand and move more upright. Your chest is open, allowing for deeper breathing. And guess what? More oxygen means better performance.
Different types of swings for different goals.
As explained in my kettlebell training for beginners article, there are two styles of kettlebell training. Hardstyle and kettlebell sport, often called softstyle.
When I started kettlebell training in 2015, I started with the hardstyle approach. The primary aim of performing the hardstyle kettlebell swing is to produce as much power as possible.
Usually, the repetitions are low, and the weight is heavy. The two-arm swing is a staple exercise in hardstyle kettlebell training. It is taught before the one-arm swing.
The video below shows the hardstyle two-arm swing.
In kettlebell sport, however, the focus is on maximum efficiency. And the one-arm swing is the only type of swing that is practiced frequently.
The video below shows the kettlebell soft-style swing.
Which type of swing should you use?
That depends on your goals and your preferred training style. I recently shifted to practicing more softstyle training because I enjoy longer endurance-style sets.
However, I still include hardstyle swings on my strength and power days.
Kettlebell Clean and Press
The kettlebell clean and press is one of the best total-body exercises you can do. It combines the two fundamental movements, “clean” and “strict press,” and strengthens almost every muscle in your body.
To master it, you must develop the skill of bringing the kettlebell into the rack position and holding them there. Training both movements separately until you are comfortable enough to combine them is best.
The kettlebell clean is one of the most technical of all kettlebell exercises. However, it is also one of the most rewarding. Once you can comfortably clean a pair of kettlebells, you gain access to the best strength and muscle-building exercises in the kettlebell world, such as the clean and press and the front squat. The clean is a pulling movement that involves various muscle groups, including the legs, hips, back, abs, shoulders, and arms. And like the swing, it trains hip extension. To powerfully bring the bells up in the so-called “rack position,” you need an explosive hip drive.
The video below shows the clean.
But the press – the second part of the movement is equally beneficial. The main muscles you use during the press are your shoulders, back, and arms. However, you must also tense your glutes and legs to develop good pressing strength. If you practice this exercise correctly, the kettlebell press works your body from head to toe.
The video below shows the press.
The squat is a fundamental human movement pattern. Sadly many people, including runners, cannot perform this essential exercise even if it’s “only” a bodyweight squat. You can use the kettlebell goblet squat to learn a correct squat pattern. In this exercise, you hold the weight in front of your body and squat in a relatively upright position. Keeping the weight in front of your body makes it easier to balance yourself as the weight acts as a counterbalance. The goblet squat is a great squat variation and is shown in the video below.
Once you feel confident with the goblet squat and show good squat mechanics, you should transition to the kettlebell front squat. Why? Because you can squat more with a double kettlebell front squat than with a goblet squat and hence will build more muscular legs. Plus, I have found that the front squat strengthens the core and the shoulders more than the goblet squat. Another massive benefit of the front squat over the goblet squat is the ability to load only one side of your body. When you use only one kettlebell for the front squat, your trunk and shoulder muscles must work extra hard to stabilize the weight.
The video below shows a double kettlebell front squat. Note that the front squat with two kettlebells is a more advanced movement because holding two kettlebells will restrict your breathing somewhat.
One last point. If you are avoiding squats because you fear they will make your legs too bulky and slow you down, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Bulking up your legs is hard, even more so if you are a runner. It requires you to train frequently, with a relatively high volume, and to eat enough to support muscle growth. To keep muscle gain to an absolute minimum, focus on low rep ranges (1-5 repetitions) and long rest periods (1-5 minutes).
These 3 kettlebell exercises are all you need to keep your training simple yet effective.
Thanks to the increased popularity of kettlebell training over the past decade and the wonderful world of social media, a plethora of kettlebell exercises exist. Log into your favorite social media app with video content. You can admire folks going through endless flow routines, kettlebell juggling, and brute strength workouts. The options for exercise selection seem endless. However, if all you want is to get a little bit stronger and injury-proof your body against running injuries, then you don’t need complicated movements or workout routines. All you need are a few basic exercises that get the job done. The three exercises presented in this article – the kettlebell swing, the kettlebell clean and press, and the kettlebell squat – are the only exercises I perform regularly. They have made my body strong and resilient. And for good reason. Combining those, you have an almost complete strength training program: An upper body push, an upper body pull, a lower body push, and a lower body pull. Add to this some farmers’ walks or other carries, and you hardly need anything else to build strength and resilience for running.