Strength Training for Better Marathon Performance

Author: Alyssa T.

Who would have thought that a quarantine hobby would result in me completing one of my lifelong goals? If you would have asked me a few years ago, if I ever thought I could run a marathon, the answer would have been an overwhelming no. Truth be told, I couldn’t even run a mile without having to walk. Running started as a way for me to get back into shape after finishing graduate school but it soon became a passion when access to gyms was completely shut off. I had decided that I wanted to work towards running Broad Street, a 10-mile run. After completing it virtually in 2020 and then again in 2021, I figured why not go all the way? Why not sign up to run the 2021 Philadelphia Marathon? 

Now, when I started running, the main barrier was the cardiovascular aspect of it. Soon enough my endurance increased but muscle fatigue became the bigger deterrent. I found that I was able to put in the miles but my legs were exhausted for days after the longer runs. I assumed this was just part of the process and would take my rest days as I needed. I began strength training as something to do on the days when the weather was less than ideal for running. I started out by doing some basic body weight exercises, you know, like squats and pushups. Eventually, I began incorporating weights and started to notice a real difference in what my body could do. As I began to get stronger, I found the muscle fatigue after longer runs was minimal. But to be honest, I really had no clue what I was doing or how beneficial proper strength training could be. You see, I do not have a background (or really any training as a matter of fact) in the fitness industry. However, I am a medical professional who knows how to do some basic research.  So, with that being said, here’s a little information that I compiled as I was trying to figure out the best and most efficient way to train for a marathon (besides just running the countless miles). 

Running may seem like a simple form of exercise but it puts a lot of force on your bones and joints. Because of this, it requires a great deal of precision and practice. Building strength can help reduce the risk of injury by re-enforcing proper form and by making your muscles and joints stronger. Not surprisingly, up to half of runners report an injury yearly, with the majority being from overuse. Many runners have actually been found to have disproportionately strong hamstrings.  By adding supplemental strength training exercises to increase quadriceps strength, you can help to balance the hamstring dominance that naturally occurs from running. Runners are also noted to have weak hip flexors and hip abductors when not completing strength training exercises which can be alleviated by adding in compound exercises. Now, it is key to not allow the stress of weight training to lead to an injury. With that consideration, it is often best to begin with body weight exercises until you are able to master the proper body mechanics. Only then should you add resistance and weights to your training regimen. Seems like a natural progression, right? Turns out I did something right from the get-go without even realizing it.

There can sometimes be a fear among runners that strength training will lead to bulky muscle mass formation and a decrease in a runner’s pace from the weight gain. There are so many variables that go into this theory: frequency of strength training, weight being used, overall calorie intake and so on. In reality, the added strength in a runner’s legs, core and even arms can help to increase overall pace. I mean, have you ever heard of a weak runner, either physically or mentally?

 So, cut to November 21, 2021… I managed to finish my first marathon and couldn’t have been more excited. I had set a few goals for myself while training. Most importantly, just finish the marathon. Then there was the goal of not walking: check! And also, completing it under a certain time. Turns out I was close to that goal but I ended up coming in 2 minute slower than I had wanted. Not bad for my first marathon and it will give me a reason to push myself even harder when training for the next! 

Callahan L. Overview of running injuries of the lower extremity. In: Grayzel J, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, Mass.: UpToDate 2021.