When the fall months—aka race season—roll around, runners everywhere start to ramp up their training in preparation for half or full marathons. While the major increase in mileages takes your endurance to the next level, many runners lament the loss of strength training in their regular routine. They worry that if they focus on building muscle they may bulk up too much and lose some of their cardio chops, fear wearing out their legs, or hesitate to spend time hitting the weights when it feels like there are so many miles to run. But runners rejoice: Not only will proper strength training not hurt your marathon training, it will actually help it dramatically, according to Elizabeth Corkum, running coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City.
The two together will make you more fit all-around, improve your muscle capacity, and take you one step closer to a PR. "Ideally, runners will already have a strength training routine in place, prior to upping their mileage for the race, so that it's not a shock on the cardio and muscular fronts all at once," explains Corkum. If that's the case, it will just be a slight modification to your regular plan to make sure it supports the demands of marathon training, she says. So if you know you have a race on deck but haven't started training, introduce a few new strength workouts to your weekly plan now. (Here's 6 strength exercises every runner should be doing.)
Corkum points out that it's critical to keep strength training supportive of your marathon plan, not just taking place alongside it. That means two things: First, your miles still must take priority with strength training sessions being scheduled carefully around them. Second, you need to target the right muscles so that you're enhancing all the priming from your cardio. "Lower-body work is a must for efficiency and injury prevention, but you won't get all you need from running alone," says Corkum. "Runners typically overuse their quads, so give extra love to the glutes and hamstrings with exercises like deadlifts, squats, and lunges with added dumbbell or kettlebell weight."
Many runners also underestimate the importance of core and upper body strength in their performance. The strongest (and therefore fastest) runners are those that can keep an efficient form throughout the entire race, according to Corkum. That can't happen if every muscle can't fire up to power your stride. To torch your core, simple moves like plank variations will sculpt and tighten effectively. (Try our 31-Day Plank Challenge for plenty of ideas.) For upper body, Corkum recommends things like rows and fly or chest presses, since they hit muscles that will help you keep your chest strong and upright even as you fatigue. (These 8 moves are also great for runners.)
Finally, timing is key. To really get the most out of training, try to align your workouts so that you tire yourself out in both modalities one day, and can rest and recover the next, Corkum suggests. The pros call this double-stressing your body. What does that look like? Leg day should be the same day as your harder runs, whether that's track intervals, tempo runs, hills, or a distance run for time. You'll be exhausted, which sets you up for a recovery day of easy miles or cross training, plus upper body work. Ideally, you should get 2-3 days of each per week depending on your training plan.
Corkum's last word of advice: "This will be tough! Your body needs to recover to make sure sleep and rest aren't compromised." But don't worry too much: There are some pretty awesome things that go through your head on marathon-training rest days.