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Strength Training for Marathon Runners

Find out how to adjust your strength training to fit your marathon training plan.

With the start of marathon training or distance running events, many guys ditch the weights in favor of additional miles on the road. While the added mileage might be beneficial for increasing endurance, it might actually lead to extra injuries. The pounding from running puts an immense strain on the body. If the muscles aren't prepared to handle the load, stress gets absorbed elsewhere including bones and connective tissue. Over time, overuse injuries including shin splints, stress fractures, and "runner's knee" can force even the most dedicated of runners to miss their target marathon.

Maintaining a strength training program is critical for improving running efficiency particularly for those going the full 26.2. "Distance running breaks down the muscles in the body and can result in a loss of strength, which in the end can slow you down," says Justin Klein, C.S.C.S., of HumanFitProject. But that doesn't mean all distance athletes are destined for failure. "With a proper strength-training program, this muscle breakdown can be assisted, and strength can be maintained through long-distance and endurance training," he adds.

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While most strength-training programs will be beneficial to a point, runners should look to tailor their routine to their marathon goals. This includes adjusting their lifting schedule to mirror their running training. The two should complement each other rather than compete for time and attention. When paired together correctly, strength workouts and a running program are the perfect duo to get you through the finish line feeling strong.

Each phase of a marathon training program has a different focus. Your strength training plan should mirror and support that focus. We've outlined four typical phases of a marathon training plan allowing for a total of 16 weeks until race day and the complimentary strength training phase. Adjust your strength training according to the indicated phase to build muscle, maintain strength, and finish your marathon goal feeling strong.

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Phase 1 (Weeks 1-4)

Marathon focus: Base
Training focus: Stability

The Base Phase of marathon training is imperative for a great performance on race day. Although the mileage and intensity may be lower, this phase is crucial to ease runners into a harder training schedule. Runners slowly begin to add miles to their training routine to increase their cardiovascular fitness and slowly acclimate their body to the increase in mileage.

Similarly, the Stability Phase is meant to ease the body into strength training. This helps to prevent injury down the road as lifters look to increase balance, proprioception, core control, and muscle recruitment. This phase also serves as an adjustment period to introduce runners to weight training. According to Jon-Erik Kawamoto, C.S.C.S., C.E.P., of jkconditioning.com, "Runners should include strength training during the Base Phase of their marathon training so that the negative effects of weight training [delayed onset muscle soreness] does not interfere with important races." 

During the Stability Phase, the focus isn't on the weight but rather on form and execution. The priorities should be practicing and mastering body-weight movements including single-leg exercises like the single-leg deadlift and single-leg squat. Both exercises will strengthen the hips and prepare the muscles to handle the increased pounding on the roads. While it may be tempting to pile on the plates, keep the weight light and practice mastering the movement. Runners should focus on high-repetition sets (12-15 reps) with little rest time (30-45 seconds) in between exercises.

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