Strength Training for Marathons

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If you have the start date of a fall marathon race circled on your calendar, you’ve likely laid out your training plan, or perhaps even begun training for the race. And if you haven’t, you know you should! While not meeting or exceeding your personal goals may feel like a race day failure, skipping strength training during your season could lead to much greater disappointment: a failure to start or finish your race due ot injury.

What is the risk? Some estimates state that as many as eight out of 10 long distance runners will sustain some form of injury due to lack of strength training, and just because you didn’t get injured last time doesn’t mean you won’t next time.

The body can perform three types of motion: sagittal, or forward and backward motion; frontal, which refers to side to side motion and traverse motion, referring to rotational motion, such as a golf swing. In running, the body mostly relies on sagittal motion, and some runners train for this motion only. Alex Myerchin, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified trainer at Equinox in Lincoln Park emphasizes the need to train for all range of motion.

“Because the body is made to move in all three planes of motion and not just sagittal, a runner needs strength in the stabilizing muscles in order to support that sagittal motion,” Myerchin says.


In addition to strengthening your core, basic strength training also increases bone density, which can help you avoid stress fractures, Myerchin says. Adding too much mileage too quickly and not allowing enough recovery days increases your risk of a stress fracture: an injury that could potentially end your running season.

“Listen to your body,” Myerchin says. “If it hurts to run, then stop running. Pushing too far through the pain risks permanent damage.”

A typical marathoner may run four to six days per week depending on skill level. With all that running, how can a marathoner incorporate strength training into his or her preparations?

Cross train two or three days per week. Ideally, you want to strength train after running to help build up your endurance. Think of your run as an hour-long warm up before your strength training and do the most complicated exercise first. If you don’t have time after your run, find another time that works with your schedule.

“If people run in the morning then have to work, don’t put off [strength training] simply because you weren’t able to do it after the run,” Myerchin says. “Do what works with your schedule, and listen to how your body works. For me, it’s easier to do it in the evening.”

Myerchin recommends spending no more than 45 on your strength related cross training efforts.

“For that 45 minutes, focus on non-running activities,” Myerchin says. “Complement the running; don’t run the risk of overtraining. For my clients, we’ll do a lot of foam rolling: five to 15 minutes, then a quick warm up based on their training so far, maybe elliptical warm up or rowing. Then it’s low weights, high reps and very little rest [between sets]. This helps build up endurance for all 26 miles.“

Strengthening your core will help your body avoid excessive transverse motion while running. Myerchin suggests “anti-rotation” core exercises, such as straight-arm chops, any single-arm exercise lifts or pulls and a farmer’s carry.

“I cringe when watching people do crunches,” he says, “It doesn’t train the body for a particular purpose. People don’t do that in reality. We use our core to stabilize, to fight rotation. You want an exercise that engages your obliques.”

For the more advanced runner, he suggests strengthening with single leg deadlifts and squats. “It’s not for beginners, but strengthens and definitely helps with balance,” Myerchin says

Already suffering from a typical running injury? These exercises, if done correctly and under proper supervision, could provide relief and help you avoid a relapse:

 

  • Plantar fasciitis: Stretching the toes helps you recover. Try rolling your bare foot over a golf ball in all directions, about five minutes per foot two to three times a day.
  • IT band syndrome: Strengthening your hip abductors is key. Using a resistance band around your ankles, do lateral band walks, walking side to side one minute in each direction. You can use this as a warm up exercise. Foam rolling in addition to this works wonders.

 

  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome (Runner’s Knee): Exercises that strengthen glutes, such as single leg deadlifts, can help. Balance on one foot and with opposite hand reach to touch your toe. Step ups and lunges help strengthen your quadriceps.
  • Shin splints: Strengthen your anterior tibialis muscles by stretching your calves. Practice walking on your heels 20 feet back and forth, rest a few minutes, then repeat. Or, kneel down, point your toes, then sit back on the soles of your shoes as you lean back and feel the stretch in your shin area.

 

  • Achilles tendonitis: Focus on strengthening your calves. You can perform calf raises standing on a platform, but avoid putting calf in a constant shortened position.

Augment your strength training with foam rolling. “Foam rolling is huge,” Myerchin says. “It’s good for self myofascial release, releasing a lot of the tension in kinetic chains in the body that inhibit your full range of motion.”