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4 strength training gains for marathon runners

Posted by James Eacott on

Once marathon runners incorporate strength training into their schedule, performance skyrockets. Here's the four main strength training gains that marathon runners can expect

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1. Improve power, strength and endurance

Strength training reaps benefits across a range of endurance sport from swimming and cycling to running and kayaking.

Old school methods taught that performing exercises with a relatively light weight and high number of repetitions was the best practice for endurance gains, but we now know that's only part of the puzzle.

For those untrained or new to strength training, starting with light weights is useful to develop correct form and range of motion, but science increasingly shows that real gains for endurance athletes come when you transition to lifting heavier weights with low reps.

As muscles, tendons and ligaments strengthen, you’ll find you’re able to hold better technique for longer and this is crucial to marathon performance.

It's easy to spot those who neglect strength training: you'll see them, all wobbly-legged as they shuffle through Mile 22 like a new-born giraffe. But they aren’t running like that because their cardiovascular system is spent - they run like that because they're not strong enough to continue running with good form.

Lack of strength is one reason marathon runners hit the wall

Stronger muscles resist fatigue, so the likelihood of cramping in the latter stage of long training runs and marathons also reduces.

strength training for marathon runners - hit the wall

Lift weights and you’ll bust through this no problem

2. Boost fat burning

When you perform exercise, you burn energy (calories). Low intensity exercise burns calories at a low rate and high intensity activity - including strength training - burns calories at a higher rate.

Ah yes, but I’ll run for 2-hours whereas HIIT sessions only last 20 to 30-minutes, so I’ll burn more”.

That’s true: if you go for a long, low intensity run then you may burn more calories than 20-minutes of HIIT during the session. That last bit is important.

But you must also consider EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption), which refers to calories burnt once you’ve stopped exercising.

After a low intensity run, you achieve homeostasis quickly and thus stop burning calories soon after hitting the couch. After an intense strength training session, your body takes hours (even days) to recover from the damage.

This means that by incorporating strength training into your schedule, you’ll burn more calories which will not only develop lean muscle but also trim unwanted fat.

3. Improve running economy

The three pillars of long distance run performance are often considered to be:

  1. Maximum oxygen uptake and use (VO2 max)
  2. Lactate threshold
  3. Running economy

Develop these and you’ll run faster.

strength training for marathon runners - running economy

Running economy improves with strength training

Running alone will not improve these three factors as much as if you include strength training, because lifting weights improves running economy.

This happens because weight training develops neuromuscular pathways like motor unit recruitment and decreases ground contact time, both of which are key to efficiency.

Elites have this nailed. You don’t need a sports science degree to appreciate the fluidity with which Mo Farah or Eliud Kipchoge glide across the ground. They’re poetry in motion.

And it’s not just beginner runners that benefit - studies show that well-trained distance runners see an increase in economy by up to 8% when adding strength training into their marathon schedule.

That’s massive.

It’s also important to note that VO2 and lactate threshold are not compromised when undertaking strength training.

4. Reduce injury occurrence

Last, but by no means least, strength training reduces your likelihood of injury.

Let’s face it, marathon running is brutal. Our bodies take a pounding not only from the marathon itself but also the training. Depending on which study you quote, between 35 – 80% of runners will experience an injury every single year.

strength training for marathon runners - reduce injury occurance

You don’t need to go this heavy, but weight lifting will make you less injury prone

If you believe that consistency is important, then you need to address preventative measures because injury and illness are the largest factors resulting in unscheduled time off from training.

Lifting weights strengthens tendons, ligaments and joints and improves bone density, all of which let your body absorb greater training loads.

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More performance boosting content

From the Vlog  – strength, power and smart training with Brian Keane

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From the Blog

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How to schedule strength training into a marathon plan

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Best protein for endurance athletes


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