7 essential strengthening exercises for marathoners
By: Elysa Graci
Why strength training is important for endurance athletes to help improve marathon times and reduce risk of injury.
“If I could only lose a few more pounds, my marathon time would become that much faster!” is a thought you must have had at least once. I know I have. I was once told that for every 5 pounds you lose, your marathon time will improve by 5-10minutes. So all I did was run. I used to be lighter and less muscular. I did not strength or cross train because I was afraid that gaining muscle would bulk me up and slow me down. I constantly watched my weight and counted my calories. Because of this, I ended up injury prone and burned out. I did not feel present in my daily job and social interactions. Instead, I felt like I was in a state of fatigue and in a daze.
So, does overall weight loss lead to a faster time? In some ways, it would make sense that it is easier to carry yourself over longer distances if you were lighter. However as a runner, if you undervalue the importance of regular strength training you will expose yourself to muscle imbalance, injury, and burnout. We’ve all heard that at minimum 50% of the running population will experience an injury every year. Some publications claim that number to be as high as 70-80%. The culprit? A lack of proper muscular strength. Without it, your body will fatigue at a faster rate and will be unable to withstand all the mileage placed upon it during your training.
As a Certified Athletic Therapist in Toronto at the Rehab and Wellbeing Centre located at Mount Sinai Hospital, I work with many people including athletes to overcome injury and muscle imbalance with strength training. This is equally important for men and women; however, what I have noticed in my practice is that females have more of a tendency to resist this type of training. Reasons for this may be related to body image and how successful female marathoners have been portrayed physically in the past.
Personally, I have been inspired by Canadian elite female endurance athletes such as Lanni Marchant and Paula Findlay. Both are extremely talented runners who exude strength, passion and drive. They place an emphasis on strength training in order to compliment their running and it shows in their world class results. Having gone through 3 knee surgeries from my previous life as a soccer player, I once lacked confidence in my physical strength during training and while running races because I was afraid of re-injury. Now that the strength is back and better than before, I don’t worry about this and I am never afraid to push the limit of my physical capabilities. Having a strong mind and body are equally as essential in distance running, and can both be improved through lifting weights.
As a member of Pace & Mind, a customized coaching service for runners based in Toronto, I am lucky to be surrounded by strong and hard-working female runners. Our coach, Rejean Chiasson, has never put pressure on us to lose weight in order to achieve our goals. Instead, when asked, he has told us to let weight loss come naturally during our training and to never deprive our bodies of the food that it needs and craves.
Futhermore, regular strength training is proven to prevent injury. Focusing on certain muscle groups such as the glutes, core, and upper back will help sort out common muscular imbalances. Proprioceptive or balance training will help the body resist falls and adapt to irregular running terrain. As a runner, if you are experiencing chronic pain that gets worse with your training, I recommend that you see a health practitioner in order to address the root of the cause. In many cases, it is not rest or medication that will relieve your pain. It may be basic strengthening of certain muscles that are inhibited due to the overactivity of other muscles. Once your body learns to activate the correct muscles through exercise and strengthening, your chronic pain has a far greater chance of healing.
Below are several running specific strengthening exercises including their progressions. Form is everything, so always be mindful of what muscles you are supposed to be contracting while you are performing each exercise.
Glute Bridge: Strengthens the glutes and opens up the hips
Lay on your back with your hands by your side. Keep heels close to the glutes and focus on pushing the heels through the ground while lifting the hips up as much as you can without arching the lower back. Before you lift, intentionally contract your glutes. Bring the hips back to the ground, relax and repeat.
To start: Do 2 sets of 8-10
Walking lunges: Strengthens the lower body while challenging balance and range of motion of the hip
With your hands by your side, take a big step forward and lunge down towards the ground. Make sure the knee of the leg that is forward does not pass the toe. Focus on putting your bodyweight in the front heel and contracting the glute muscles of the front leg. Come out of the lunge and take a big step forward with the opposite leg. Repeat. Hold weights for more of a challenge.
To start: 2 sets of 10-20
Front Plank: Strengthens the abdominal and back muscles.
Focus on keeping your body in a straight line and actively contracting your core muscles. Slightly activate the glute muscles in order to protect the lower back and sacro-iliac joint.
To start: 2 sets of 30 seconds – 1 minute
Bent over Row with Dumbbells: Strengthens the mid-back muscles and promotes proper posture.
Stay in a semi squat position while lifting the weights up, using the muscles between the shoulder blades. Roll the shoulder blades back towards each other without excessively arching the lower back. This also requires lower body and core activation.
To start: 2 sets of 10-12 with a weight that is challenging but does not cause you to compromise form
One-Legged Squat and Balance: Works on proprioception (the body’s awareness in space) and well as strengthening lower body muscles such as glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.
Stand on one leg and focus on putting your body weight back in the heel. As if you were about to sit back on a seat, bent the knee and perform a squat while maintaining balance. Do not let the knee pass the toe. Push back up through the glute muscles, and repeat.
To start: 2 sets of 10 on each leg
Goblet Squat: Strengthens the lower body and opens up the hip muscles.
Sit back into a squat while focusing on putting your bodyweight in the heels and not letting your knees pass your toes. When you stand up from the squat contract your glutes and bring the front of your hips forward. Hold a dumbbell close to your chest during the entire exercise.
To start: 2 sets of 10-12
Side Steps with band: Strengthens the glute medius muscles to promote hip stability.
Place a resistance band around both lower ankles. Sit in a semi-squat by placing the bodyweight in the heels. While maintaining this position, take moderate steps to the side without letting your upper body sway side to side.
To start: 2 sets of 10 in each direction
Pace & Mind is an advanced coaching service for distance runners. We offer advanced and highly customized 5k, 10k, half-marathon and marathon coaching for runners to improve their performance both on and off the road. Our coaching is based on the principles founded by Head Coach and Co-founder Rejean Chiasson, a Canadian marathon champion, 4x half-marathon medalist and NIKE+ NRC Coach. He is supported by our Online Run Coach, Kate Van Buskirk, an internationally accomplished track and field athlete, bronze medalist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and Brooks Elite Ambassador. Unlike traditional ‘cookie-cutter’ or ‘clinic’ approaches to coaching, our Coaches first assesses, then customizes each runner’s training program based on:
INDIVIDUALITY * PROGRESSION * RECOVERY * MOTIVATION * COMMITMENT * COMMUNITY
Coaching programs are powered by TrainingPeaks software to ensure data accuracy. No runner’s program is the same and it constantly changes season by season, cycle by cycle. Our Coaches review your plan in detail each week, then adjust based on your progression and listens to you in terms of changes in nutrition, mental state and cross training efforts. Each runner also receives a cross-training plan and a racing singlet as part of the program.
You have one life to live. Run for your life