Strength Training for Runners – The Missing Ingredient In Your Marathon Training

The world of running is full of misconceptions.

Many of us train (and suffer) because of conventional wisdom that has been replaced by updated thinking. One of the great misconceptions about running is that strength training is for those beefy types that grunt in the gym.

Runners are whippet thin. No extra muscle means no extra weight to slow you down, right?

Wrong.

Forget what you knew. Of course, running is about speed, and being lighter means there's less weight you have to move forward. But the marathon requires strength. Strength training can make you better. The benefits of getting stronger are numerous:

  • Burn more calories
  • Increase efficiency
  • Reduce injuries

In this video, James Dunne, a runner, sports rehabilitation specialist and coach based in the UK, gives you 5 tips for improving your marathon performance.

Prepare Your Body to Run

James' first tip is counter-intuitive. He says that you can improve your marathon performance by shortening your marathon training program.

Rather than a 16 or 18 week program, Dunne advises a 12 week program preceded by 4 to 6 weeks of specific preparation (strength) training. The strength training involves gym and outdoor workouts with equipment like kettle bells, weighted balls, and resistance bands. Running during this lead-up period is minimal, just enough to maintain fitness and technique.

Yes, this tip is a little different from conventional wisdom. But as I mentioned before, sometimes that conventional wisdom is a source of problems.

Running requires specific training to strengthen the body in advance of adding on significant mileage. Resistance training, plyometrics, and other strength exercises prior to increasing your mileage will prepare your body to withstand the pounding of running.​

Reducing the overall number of miles in a training program actually makes sense.

Some of the higher-volume running (longer than 2 or 3 hours) that can cause injury or lead to mental fatigue. Reducing the length of the training program to 12 weeks instead of 16 to 18 weeks lets you build up the resilience and strength you need over 4 to 6 weeks before actually beginning the marathon portion of your training calendar.

Avoid Running Junk Miles

Training your body to run long is a really important part of marathon training.

It's a long race, and your body needs to know what that feels like and how to handle it, but as James says, "Every run session you complete should have a distinct purpose." That means that if you're doing your long slow run on the weekend, you should resist the urge to push the pace. This isn't going to make you a better marathoner in the end; it's just going to sap strength from another workout later on.

It’s usually far better to fill your running week with a number of key, well executed sessions, each with a purpose, balanced out with good rest, than to try and squeeze as many mediocre runs in as your time allows.

James Dunne 
Coach, Rehab Specialist

A lot of people make this mistake with speed and tempo work as well, pushing too hard on track workouts and turning them into sprint sessions that require long recovery periods, when what would be best for your training program (and your marathon time) is a slower, more measured pace and the ability to complete another run later.​

If you're not running at the pace indicated in your training program for a particular run, you're just putting in junk miles that will tire you out and make you less able to complete the next portion of the program.

It's better to have fewer, more focused and effective sessions with purpose each week than to just go out running ever day of the week.

Pace Your Run

James tells us that we should know the purpose of every workout. This knowledge will allow you to identify the pace at which the workout​ should be run, and then to stick to that pace.

Marathon training is made up of various components.

Each component has a purpose.

Long runs teach your body to perform aerobically for long periods of time. Tempo runs teach your body to stave off fatigue by dealing with the cellular by-products of exercise. Speed work helps you get faster and push up your floor, making more intense paces feel more normal and/or bearable.

The problem that a lot of us have is that we let our legs (or our mood) govern what pace we're running at any given moment in a run.

We've all done it...

We go out on a beautiful sunny morning, feel the breeze in our hair and we're off, burning up the road when what we should be doing is running slowly enough to hold a conversation. Later on in the same run, fatigued and reduced to a mass of jello, we stagger through the last part of the run slower than the pace we were supposed to be running, ready to hit the shower and the couch for a few hours.

Pace your run based on its purpose. If it's slow, run slow the whole time, not just when fatigue forces you to.

Likewise, a lot of us start speed work at a breakneck pace, faster than what our training program tells us to. That 400 was ten seconds faster than it was supposed to be?

Slow down.

Do Not Play Catch-Up

Here, Dunne advises us to learn to prioritize our training schedule components to accommodate our lives. He says that a key element of marathon preparation is knowing how to prioritize workouts and, thus which ones can be dropped.​

Life happens. ​Accept it. There will be days when your job or some other aspect of your life doesn't allow you to get in that run. Maybe you have to cut a run short because you have some place to be.

That's okay.

I myself have fallen into the trap of trying to make up for what I missed because of injury.

Don't try to make up a run that you missed, whatever the reason. If you start adding things onto later runs in your training schedule because you missed a previous run, you can blunt the effectiveness of that run, or worse, you can injure yourself. ​

Maintain Running Form​

The strength training discussed in Dunne's first tip really pays off here. Greater strength allows you to hold good form further into the run. This will allow you to maintain your cadence, which in turn will positively affect your stride length, posture, and biomechanics.​

Form is of utmost importance.

As we progress through longer-distance runs, form tends to break down.

When your form breaks down, your joints and muscles aren't operating in their optimal positions, which can quickly result in injury. The stronger you are, the better you train your muscles to hold their correct motion further into the run, which makes you faster and less prone to injury. And isn't that your goal?