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Strength training for marathons

How to apply strength work to marathon training has historically always been a topic of contention, particularly within the longer distance community. With various interpretations of the research, opinions are often conflicting and it can be difficult to know where to start (if at all). In all cases, the perfect solution, as usual, very much depends on the individual – their training history, previous injuries, goals and ultimately the time they have available to train. If implemented appropriately, strength training provides significant benefits to performance and reducing the risk of injury.

Training for a marathon is no easy feat. It requires dedication and time to achieve it, in addition to managing the demands of everyday life. Many of you have probably underestimated the training or equally gone overboard, resulting in an injury from over training.

This post aims to layout the schools of thought around the benefits of strength training, as well as giving you some ways of implementing it into your weekly plan. It is not here to delve into the science behind it (we’d be here all day), but to make you think about the benefits it could have to your running, and even cure that niggle that has been plaguing you for years. Adding in strength work effectively gives you more capacity to cope with training, helping you to become a better runner.

I like to run, so why waste time in the gym?

Well, let’s start by comparing the benefits to those of “super” shoes – splashing out on a pair of these can supposedly improve performance by 4%. What if I told you strength training has been found to improve running economy (the amount of oxygen that your body uses at a certain speed) by 2-8%, time trial performance by 2-5%, improves neuromuscular co-ordination and power, and even reduces the risk of overuse injuries by 50%. All this before you even put your super shoes on.  There is also some evidence emerging in the non-elite population linking consistent use of the carbon plated shoes to an increase in risk of injury and de-conditioning of the calf, quads and associated tendons, so ensuring you maintain your strength may be vital to counteract this.

To keep things simple, this advice is specific to marathon training, as there will be modifications for longer and shorter events. It is important to consider your athlete age (how many years you have been running) and your experience in the gym as this will have an impact on when and how to incorporate strength training into your training. So, if you are doing a spring marathon or have a marathon in the next 6-8 weeks then please continue reading but I would be reluctant to change too much at this stage of your training. However, post marathon recovery would be perfect time to start adding some strength work into your weekly training.

So, what is the point?

As runners we need power (measured in watts more commonly a measurement in cycling) to propel ourselves forward. Without this power our stride length is short and efficiency poor, meaning we are unable to maintain the target pace for the target distance. It will also place more demand on other areas of our body, such as the joints and tendons, due to the reduced economy (amount of energy we are expelling).

By lifting weights correctly, we can increase the power our muscles are able to produce, making us faster and more economical with a reduced chance of injury. We can’t however jump straight into throwing big weights around, and even seasoned athletes will need to spend time getting their body used to the demands of strength training. 

Initially starting in a conditioning phase, such as circuits, and then moving on to moderate weight with high rep strength work would be a sensible route to reach the main beneficial phase.  The conditioning phase will allow the muscles and nerves time to adapt to the new demands and allow you time to learn the movements correctly before adding heavier loads to them. Considering 70% of people taught an exercise do not perform it correctly on their own, this initial phase is important, and should last in the region of 6-8 weeks with high repetitions. For example, 3 sets of 12-20 reps with a moderate weight and 30-60 sec recovery between sets.

This will set you up nicely for the main ’strength’ phase which aims to build power, not bulk, by using low reps and very heavy weights (relative to the individual). Fear of building too much muscle is often a barrier to many runners wanting to add strength work to their plan, but it doesn’t need to be. A recent study of strength training in runners showed that the weight of the runners did not deviate from their baseline measurements, but their performance and power production all improved when weight training in a specific rep range. This strength phase should consist of 3-5 sets of 1-5 very heavy reps with 2mins+ between the sets.

So, why do we want low weights and heavy reps?

Put simply, you are already building your endurance by running, so when you think of the objectives of what you are trying to achieve (power), lifting weights or doing body weight exercises repeatedly will only add to your fatigue. Low reps mitigate the majority of the fatigue while still making you stronger.

The power phase should be in place for the majority of your training block of 8-16 weeks, and I will show some examples below.  The final phase in the last 4 weeks will still have a power element but would then shift to a more speed/plyometric based approach as the lead element of the session.  I would strongly suggest seeking the knowledge of a local PT/physio for this plyometrics phase, as these explosive movements need to be done correctly to optimise the benefits. Such movements include hopping, bounding and box jumps. 

How do you determine what weight to lift?

This will vary on your fatigue and recovery levels. During the conditioning phase, you should finish the set with the feeling you could do another 3-4 reps if you had to, whereas in the strength phase it should be heavy enough to feel you only have 1 rep in reserve. Don’t chase a number in your gym sessions, be reactive to what your body is capable of on that particular day, as with your running training you need to have flexibility in your approach to the gym too.  Sometimes days this will be a big jump up, others will be a step back. 

Some of you will have heard of 1 rep max testing, but for most athletes, this is not a wise idea or in fact necessary in my opinion as it exposes an already tired marathon runner to an increased risk of injury and does not offer any added benefits other than confusing and alienating people from a setting that they are probably not comfortable in in the first place. In short, use the reps in reserve as a platform for developing your power. 

Adding a strength training session to your routine may mean that you lose a run or have to shorten a run, but I can promise you the benefits significantly outweigh the drawbacks of this. Ideally aiming to add this in 2-3x/week within a training week or extended training week (10 days) for Masters athletes. Where and when you implement it will depend on how many days a week you run and the time you have available.  

When should I do it?

Ideally the same day as your hard session and a minimum of 3 hours afterwards.  However, for most that is unachievable and therefore aiming to do it the day after a harder workout would be preferred. Always avoid it the day before a harder session as it will likely impact your performance and you don’t want to increase the risk of injury either.

Below are two generic plans to use as a skeleton from which to build your own gym-based plans including your own ‘rehab’ exercises between the heavy exercises. Ideally speaking, a physio or strength and conditioning coach with a good understanding of the demands of running will help you build this in to your weekly schedule.


  • Start with a conditioning phase to learn the exercises, consisting of 6-8 weeks, 3 sets of 12-20 reps with a light to moderate weight.  Some people will never progress past here but that is ok, that is better than doing nothing at all.
  • Then progress to strength-based training 3×1-5 reps – heavy load.
  • Keep the exercises simple – trendy exercises from Instagram are probably not going to help.
  • Wear flat shoes or go barefoot. Avoid lifting in your trainers to improve what you can lift and preserve the life of your trainers.
  • Seek advice to learn the basics for developing the movement patterns.
  • Fit your rehab exercises into the gaps between sets (in the plans above the 2nd and 4th exercises are rehab exercises).
  • Lift after running, ideally with a gap of 3 hours.  You can lift on hard running days too as long as it is afterwards.
  • Plan it, working back from the race day.
  • Drop to one session in the last two weeks before your race.
  • Most of all, keep it simple.


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