Strength training for new marathon runners

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Strength training is a great idea for all runners, full stop. But, given a challenging marathon course, it's even more important. In addition, cross-training can be an effective training tool as well, especially if you are following a three or four day-a-week running plan. Just one word of caution though, know that you have taken on a lot of training for your first marathon, so please make certain you have adequate recovery time scheduled into your training too! 

First of all, hills are a great form of strength training so your training plan should include plenty of hill runs. Start by checking out the course profile of your marathon and see if it is possible to find any hills in your area that are of similar incline and/or length. Next, create a good hill route that you can use frequently to train on, meaning at least once every one to two weeks. If there are no hills for you to use, resort to the treadmill or bridges to simulate the incline.

Here are two hill workouts for you to consider adding to your run plan.

  • Hill repeats - Include a 1- to 2-mile warm up and then hit your chosen hill. Run up the hill and focus on your form by picking up your knees and pumping your arms. At the top, relax, shake out your arms, breath deeply and use the downhill portion as an easy recovery run. Turn around and tackle the hill again. Do several repeats and gradually increase the number of repeats you are able to run each time.
  • Downhill training - It's also important to work the downhill portion of a hill too. Descending feels easier, because it is easier on our heart and lungs, but the downhill portion is much harder on our muscles. Running downhill requires eccentric contractions of the lower body muscles. Eccentric contractions mean the muscle lengthens while under great tension. This causes small micro-tears in the muscle tissue. In proper doses, this results in making the muscle stronger but it does leave us sore afterwards until we adapt. 

When doing a downhill workout, look for a hill with no more than an 8 per cent slope. Too steep a slope increases your risk of injury, so start gently! Relax on the way up the hill, keeping the pace easy as you climb, and then work it on the way down. Downhill running form is important too. Keep an upright posture, lean slightly forward, keeping your upper body over your hips. Avoid the tendency to lean backwards and slow down. Shorten your stride to keep your hips under you, and quicken your cadence. Try to land more mid-foot and avoid using your heel as a brake. Keep your knee slightly bent on your landing leg to minimise the impact. Keep your eyes on the road, just ahead of your feet. 

I prefer lifting on the same day as a run. For example, during the week, if you run Tuesday and Thursday, lift weights on those days too. This way, you will be able to plan for recovery. If you alternate running days with weights, every other day, there is no down time for your legs between workouts. It's best to run first, then lift weights after the run. You can lift weights right after your run or opt to do weights at the end of the day. The fatigue from running before lifting will probably mean you use lighter weight but that's ok. Doubling up will help make you stronger. 

For specific exercises, target movements that engage the large muscles of the lower body, like the gluteal muscles, lower back, quadriceps, hamstrings, calf muscles and hip flexors. Try squats, lunges, walking lunges, step ups and calf raises, which are all good lower body exercises. These exercises can easily be done at home with dumbbells too.

Strengthen your upper body too because a strong upper body helps maintain good posture and running form during the marathon. Upper body exercises that you can do at home with dumbbells include lateral raises, overhead press, chest press, one-arm rows, and biceps and triceps.

In terms of core exercises, planks, side planks, sit ups, reverse curls and abdominal curls will help improve your running form, reduce your risk of injury, and make running hills easier.

Cross-training can be beneficial to runners too, especially when combined with a 3 or 4 day-a-week running plan. If running 3 or 4 days a week, include aerobic cross-training two days a week at an easy to moderate intensity level. Please make sure you are including at least one day a week completely off for recovery though. Start by adding 1 day a week of cycling and note how your legs feel when running the next day. It's important to make sure you have adequate recovery time before adding a second day of cycling. If you feel fatigued, burned out, experience heavy legs, notice aches and pains, or your running suffers, cut back the cross-training. Quality is more important than quantity.