If you’re a marathon runner, strength and conditioning sessions can be used to improve your run times, reduce your injury risk and lessen impact on your joints. However, strength sessions have to be carefully implemented so as not to interfere with your running. This article is a complete guide on strength and conditioning for marathon runners, written by an professional strength coach and experienced runner. We’ll be covering:
- How Does Strength and Conditioning Support Marathon Runners?
- 5 strength and conditioning exercises for runners
- Strength and Conditioning for Cross Country
- Strength training for marathon runners at home
- Marathon Strength Training Schedule (3 Examples With Running Included)
- Frequently Asked Questions About Strength and Conditioning for Runners
- Next Steps
Let’s Jump straight in…
How Does Strength and Conditioning Support Marathon Runners?
It’s becoming increasingly common for runners to look towards strength and conditioning to make them more competitive. Over the last year alone I’ve worked with a half-dozen marathon and ultra marathon athletes for exactly this reason. Fundamentally, strength and conditioning (S&C for short) benefits runners in 4 ways.
1) Strength training improves the maximal force output of your lower body muscles.
This means that relatively speaking, each step you take will use a smaller percentage of your muscles energy. A good analogy is that if your car can only drive at 60mph, driving at 50mph is basically pushing it to the limit. But if your car can drive at 100mph, driving at 50mph is relatively chill/easy.
2) Strength training improves your muscles ability to absorb forces and reduce impact on joints
Muscles work to provide stability to joints, and to absorb landing forces. If you have stronger muscles, then they can absorb more force, and lessen the impacts experienced by your ankle, knee and hip joints during running.
3) Strength training increases bone density and reduces injury risk
Strength training is the best tool humans currently have to increase bone density, and bone density is hugely correlated with athletic performance and injury reduction. Let’s put it this way, if you have two older guys in their 70’s, one who has never strength trained (and thus has little bone density) versus the other who has strength trained for decades (thus has good bone density), and you asked them both to step off of a medium height box and land on the floor, who would you bet on landing safely?
Exactly, you’d bet on the strength trained one, right? Because their bones are better able to handle impact forces. The same principle applies to running, only instead of one big step or drop, we’re talking about thousands of much smaller impacts.
4) Strength training improves stretch shorten efficiency
Your calves and ankles are fundamental to your running, and one of the key things that they do as you run is absorb and transmit forces between your foot / the ground and your leg. Specific strength and conditioning exercises can be used to improve the stiffness of your calf-ankle complex, allowing it to absorb and transfer forces quicker and more efficiently. This means that you get more from every single step that you take, and it costs you less energy.
It might only be a 1% saving per step, but when you take thousands of steps that soon adds up.
5 strength and conditioning exercises for runners
- Calf Raises
- Hamstring Curls
- Pogo/Bunny Hops
Lunges For Marathon Runners
Lunges are a great exercise to build strength and endurance in your quads and glutes. Personally I like to have my running athletes perform sets of 20-30 reps (10-15 each side) to build muscular endurance. I think the unilateral (one sided) nature of each rep is also a good way to prevent or even address side to side imbalances.
Calf Raises for Marathon Runners
Calf raises are an exercise that I love to have my athletes perform to build strength and strength endurance in their calves. This strength can also help to underpin stretch shorten cycle mechanics and force absorption during running. Personally I like to encourage a slow, controlled negative and a deep stretch on each rep.
Hamstring Curls for Runners
Running tends to be a quad dominant movement, so the main reason I suggest hamstring curls is for front-back muscle balance (which may link to injury prevention) and to provide some strength just in case your slip into a lengthened positioned, or over-stride as you run down hill. You don’t need to do much, but a couple of sets per week can go a long way.
Pogo/Bunny Hops for Marathon Runners
Pogo hops are frequently used by sprinters and track athletes to create stiffness in their calf-ankle complex, but marathon runners can also benefit from the exercise. Improving stiffness can improve your stretch shorten cycle mechanics, will means a more efficient absorption and transfer of force on each step. Anything from 2-4 sets towards the start of your strength and conditioning workout can have a beneficial effect.
Deadbugs for Marathon Runners
Core work is generally a good idea for runners as proper core control prevents wobbling and instability. A nice analogy I like to use is that it’s easier to carry a big bowl of crisps than it is to carry a big bowl of water. The water shakes and moves around unpredictably, so you have to spend half your time balancing it. The same goes when running; we want a controlled torso throughout. Deadbugs are a great way to train this, as you get to practice maintaining your core control as you move your arms and legs.
Strength and Conditioning for Cross Country
Strength and conditioning for cross country runners is incredibly similar to strength and conditioning for marathon runners. You still need to develop strength and endurance in your quads, you still need to improve stretch shorten mechanics in your calf-ankle complex, and you still need to develop some level of core control.
There are, however, a couple of things that might want to consider doing slightly differently.
1) Incorporate more step-up type work.
Speaking from experience (I spent years running cross-country as a teenager) there’s a strong possibility that your runs are going to be hillier, and your inclines steeper than most marathons. To prepare you for this, I think there’s some real benefit to be found in performing weighted step ups. A typical set and rep scheme that I’ve prescribed to some of my cross-country athletes might look like:
3 to 5 sets of 20-30 reps (10-15 reps per leg)
Done with good control on the way down for each rep, this makes each set take 80-120 seconds. Look, if your muscles are strong enough to perform weighted step ups with good control for solid minutes, they will almost certainly be strong enough to survive (and thrive) when you have to climb a steep hill.
2) Do More Unstable and ‘Out of Position’ Ankle Work
Honestly, in like 95% of cases unstable surface training is a complete waste of time. it doesn’t allow you to produce enough forces to optimally develop size or strength in the targeted muscles. However, for cross-country runners I really do think it has a place. Think about the types of ground you run on….
– Slippery mud
– Forests with branches and roots
– Loose stones
– Field paths with random holes, dips and curvatures
Put simply, a bunch of unstable and unpredictable surfaces that are just waiting to mess your ankle up.
To combat this, we can introduce some simple unstable ankle exercises, which serve to strengthen your ankle in unusual and uncomfortable ranges of motion, as well as create some proprioception (sensory awareness) of what those positions feel like and how to micro-adjust out of them. Here are a couple of exercises that I like to add to my cross country runners strength and conditioning programmes:
Strength training for marathon runners at home
Strength training at home does have it’s limitations, but with the right adjustments you can put together a pretty decent strength training plan to support your marathon training.
First off, do you have any equipment available? Any dumbbells, kettlebells, a weighted vest etc? it might not be much, but even a small amount of weight can go a long way. I’ve often suggested to my athletes that it can be worth spending a little bit of money upfront to get an adjustable dumbbell set. They’re incredibly versatile, and you won’t need a huge amount of weight to make a big difference in your training.
If you have a decent weight set, then you can follow the exact same workout suggestions in this article.
If you have a lighter set of weights, you can still make progress, you might just need to work in higher rep ranges to keep the exercises challenging enough as you progress.
And if you don’t have any weights, then we’ll need to adjust the exercises that you use in order to use your own bodyweight as the challenge. A couple of good examples include:
- Performing bulgarian split squats or both feet elevated split squats instead of lunges. The extra range of motion will make the exercise more challenging, even without weight added.
- Performing single leg calf raises rather than double leg calf raises, this will place far more of your weight onto one calf, making the exercise more challenging.
Marathon Strength Training Schedule (3 Examples With Running Included)
A good marathon strength training schedule needs to balance the demands of running with the demands of strength training, here are three example weekly schedules for beginners, intermediates and advanced runners.
Running and Strength Training Weekly Schedule for Beginners
This weekly running and strength training schedule allows for a nice 50/50 balance between running and strength training. Most beginners don’t need loads of miles to improve their run times, so it makes sense to use a decent portion of your training time strengthening your body to prepare it for higher training volumes in the future.
Notice how strength and conditioning sessions are all the day after running sessions so that you can run on fresh legs where possible.
Running and Strength Training Schedule for Intermediates (late intermediates in brackets)
This training arrangement adds an additional run (plus an optional 4th run for late intermediates) to allow you get more total miles in per week and keep progress coming with your running times.
In this structure, it’s hard to avoid strength sessions being close to running sessions, so you might want to consider using Saturday as an easy run, or potentially using Friday as an easier S&C session.
Running and Strength Training Schedule for Advanced Runners
|Moderate Run||Easy Run||Hard Run||Moderate Run||Easy Run||Hard Run|
|S&C||(Optional Cross Train)||S&C||(Optional Cross Train)|
This training structure allows advanced runners to continue to make progress, and it does so by utilising twice a day training as well as easy, moderate and hard runs in a specific pattern to allow for recovery. S&C sessions are performed in the PM, ideally at least 4 hours after the morning run, which should be moderate, but not so hard as to negatively impact your strength and conditioning session.
Notice how the following run after each S&C session is always an easy run. This is to allow your body to continue to recovery from the strength work.
Also notice that there are two optional cross-training sessions, where you can perform off-feet conditioning such as cycling, swimming, cross-trainer machine or ski-erg work. This is simply a nice way to get more aerobic stimulus without adding any more impact to your joints.
Frequently Asked Questions About Strength and Conditioning for Runners
How often should marathon runners strength train?
I tend to recommend marathon runners strength train twice per week. This tends to provide enough stimulus to keep strength improvements coming, without interfering too much with running training.
Do marathon runners need strength training?
In theory, no, there are plenty of marathon runners who don’t strength train. However, most people would likely improve their run times and reduce their risk of injury by adding some strength training into their routine.
best strength and conditioning for marathon runners?
The best strength and conditioning for marathon runners should develop strength and endurance in the leg musculature, as well as helping to improve stretch shorten mechanics in the calf-ankle complex. It should also include some amount of core stability work.
strength training for half marathon?
Strength training for a half-marathon follows all the same rules and principles as training for a full marathon, so you can follow the strength and conditioning advice in this article exactly as written.
Should runners lift heavy or light?
Runners can lift either heavy or light depending on the specific goal of the exercise. For example, if you were trying to build general leg strength, lifting heavier with fewer reps would be a good idea. On the other hand, if you were aiming to develop more muscular endurance, then lifting lighter for more reps would work better. Generally speaking, runners can incorporate both types of training for best results.
Should you do squats when training for a marathon?
Squats are a fantastic exercise options when training for a marathon. They can be used to build strength and endurance in the leg and hip muscles, specifically the quads and glutes.
When should you stop strength training before a marathon?
I tend to recommend that you stop all strength training around 1 week before a marathon. So if your marathon is on saturday the 14th (as an example) that means your last strength training session should be around the 6th or 7th.
Is it OK to lift weights while training for a marathon?
Absolutely, lifting weights while training for a marathon is okay, in fact it can be incredibly beneficial.
What muscles should I workout for a marathon?
You should focus on working out your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves to support your marathon training.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time to go train,
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‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 8+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.