Pounding out the miles might be the key part of a marathon training regimen, but it’s not the only one. The marathon training equation includes many pieces, although convincing runners of that can be a challenge.
“I find that a lot of athletes get really nervous when they’re doing cross training because they think they should be running all the time,” Lori McGee Koch, the head running coach for Chicago Endurance Sports, says. “Usually I have a really hard time with that. They think all the running they can possibly do is what will make their marathon performance better.”
In reality, a well-rounded program yields the greatest results. That means approaching cross training, nutrition and warmup/cooldown with the same dedication and committment you bring to running.
Cross training builds up muscle groups that running doesn’t. It helps you become a complete athlete, which will pay dividends once marathon day arrives.
“Cross training is pretty essential, especially the strength training you need to do to complement the other muscles that get tired as you’re running long distances,” McGee Koch says. “As you build up your distances, other muscles have to pick up the slack.
“A lot of times people sign up for a marathon, and they’re like, ‘Okay, I have to run every day.’ But what they have to do is figure out the gradual increase in mileage. Cross training can be a complement as they increase the volume of their training.”
For novices, McGee Koch recommends two days of cross training per week. She advises one day for advanced athletes, plus 10 minutes of strength training tacked on to the end of each run. In addition to strength training, runners can try biking, swimming, yoga, Pilates and the ballet barre as cross training activities.
“A lot of times, I’ll tell people to do things they enjoy,” McGee Koch says. “That goes back to people thinking they have to be running all the time.”
You can also blend cross training into your everyday life.
“Riding your bike to work can count depending on the duration of your commute,” McGee Koch says. “If you have a 10-minute ride, you can’t necessarily count that. But if you have a good 35-minute ride along the lakefront where you’re not stopping with a bunch of traffic, it certainly can count as a cross-training activity.”
While one of the least understood aspects of training, nutrition stands out as one of the most important facets of a successful marathon season.
“The clients who come to me are really looking for information that’s credible and will help them to build a solid foundation of good nutrition,” Chicago-based performance nutrition coach Linda Samuels, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, who serves as the nutrition coach for Northwestern University’s triathlon team, says. “It can be very confusing. The information out there—like online and from friends—always seems to be supplement-based, and they don’t know what is credible and true.
“What I’m finding is that the pendulum is swinging back to an increased awareness of the value of whole foods for building good nutrition for runners. A diet rich in whole foods provides a variety of compounds that work synergistically. You would never get that in a supplement. So a diet of whole foods is so much more valuable, and that’s what runners come to me for.”
In a general sense, Samuels’ nutrition program utilizes a simple “three-three-three” formula: three servings of fruit, three servings of vegetables and three servings of dairy per day, with adjustments for those who are lactose intolerant. This underpinning of vitamins and minerals strengthens the runner’s immune system.
“As the volume of running increases, we’re putting a lot of stress on our body,” Samuels says. “By providing that solid foundation of nutrition, runners get sick less often.”
During actual runs, hydration becomes the most important factor, though many runners fall short in this area.
“At 1 percent dehydration, the onset of fatigue starts to happen,” Samuels says. “If we can correct their individual hydration needs, we can check their symptoms to figure out whether that fatigue is actually caused by dehydration or by the need for additional carbohydrates. This is a problem that typically happens with most runners. They may think they need more carbohydrates, but what they actually need is better hydration.”
Samuels takes sweat samples from her runners and sends them to a company that determines the exact amount of sodium released into the perspiration.
“What I can do with that information is calculate a hydration solution that might be higher in sodium. That helps runners retain fluids, and they’ll have to drink less,” she says. “It can completely transform the body’s need for hydration because we’re providing the exact formula the athlete needs. Their runs are transformed.”
Warming up before a run and cooling down after one serve a vital purpose: guarding against injury.
Before a run, you should do dynamic stretching, or stretching using momentum. These exercises include butt kicks, skipping, walking lunges, leg swings and ankle bounces.
“The whole workup doesn’t need to last more than 15 minutes,” Lindsay Cullen, a physical therapist at Athletico Gold Coast, says. “You want to increase your blood flow and make sure your muscles are loose to increase your range of motion. You want to do this right before you run. If you wait too long, your muscles will tighten up again.”
Upon completing your run, walk for five or 10 minutes to decelerate your heart rate. Follow that walk with static stretching, or holding a stretch for a period of time, in order to ensure that you don’t stiffen up. Here, you’ll want to focus on foam rolling and groin, quad, hamstring, calf and Achilles stretches.
Stretching, however, shouldn’t be limited to your runs. The most successful marathoners make an effort to incorporate it into their everyday routine.
“Consistency is really important,” Cullen says. “If you want to gain flexibility, you have to be consistent daily. If you’re someone who wakes up stiff in the morning, do stretches first thing. If you’re someone who’s stiff after a long day of work, stretch when you get home. Stretching is just as important as your actual training program. You need to prep your body.”