When gearing up for a marathon, you’ll likely hear about the merits of cross-training. But do you do it? Maybe not enough. This time of year, physical therapy offices are packed with marathoners and half marathoners gearing up for fall races and getting injured in the process. Half of all runners do strength training for only one hour or less per week, according to a survey from Running USA. Those aren’t very good odds, and resistance training exercises for marathoners are essential because you’re covering long distances.
Why You Need to Strength Train
“The No. 1 reason marathoners get hurt is that they lack mobility in the front of their hips and their calves, which leads to altered mechanics and glute and core muscles that don’t work the way they should,” says Brian Gurney, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a trainer, board-certified sports clinical specialist, and physical therapist at BeFit Therapy in New York City. “You need your core and glute muscles firing to help with your mechanics.” When they don’t, you wind up with aches in your ankles, knees, IT bands, Achilles tendon—you name it.
The good news is that adding resistance training to your routine just a couple times a week is enough to help you sidestep injury and finish your race strong. The key is to target muscles that will help you stay upright and stable once you’re several miles into the race. “When runners do strength training, they’re often not engaging the right muscles,” Gurney says. “People do lots of squats and lunges, but if you’re really tight in the front of your hips, more of that work goes into the quads. They’re not working their glutes like they want to be.”
Muscles to Focus On
The main muscles to focus on are the stabilizing ones in your glutes, hips, and core. “Any kind of core work helps to mainly improve posture when you run,” says Aaptiv trainer Meghan Takacs. “A significant part of your posture comes from core stabilization. Being able to have a strong core means you are able to run tall, and running tall increases overall running efficiency.”
Single-leg moves are also great when you’re building up mileage because they work your core (by challenging your balance) while strengthening your glutes, hamstrings, and hips. “When you’re running, only one foot spends time on the ground at a time,” Takacs explains. “So when you do strength work, it’s important to focus on strengthening one leg without compensating with the other.”
Don’t worry that adding muscle will wind up slowing you down come race day. That’s an excuse Gurney still hears from runners, but he says, “It’s an absolute false thought. Doing strength training will only improve people’s ability to run.” You probably won’t put on enough extra muscle to add pounds. If you’re gaining weight mid-marathon-training, your diet is more likely the culprit.
To make sure you’re strong when you toe the starting line, try adding these strength and mobility moves to your workout routine at least twice a week. Aim for sets of 8 to 15 reps to help build muscular endurance, so your strength will kick in during those late miles of the race and keep you from fading on the way to the finish.
Targets: hip flexors and quads
Kneel next to a couch or in front of a wall. Keeping your left knee on the floor, raise your left foot behind you and rest it against the couch or wall. Step your right leg out so your foot is flat on the floor and your knee is bent (thigh parallel to floor). You should feel the stretch in your left quad and hip flexor. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side.
Targets: hips and glutes
Sit on the floor with your hands on the floor next to you, knees bent, and feet flat on the floor in front of you. Push your hips up toward the ceiling into a tabletop position, straightening your arms and keeping your knees bent. Lower and repeat.
Single-Leg Downward Dog
Targets: calves and hamstrings
Start in plank position, then push your hips up toward the ceiling so your body forms an upside-down V. Keeping your left foot on the floor, lift your right foot and rest it on your left calf. Let your right leg relax as you feel the stretch in your left calf. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side.
Start in plank position so your body forms a straight line from head to toe. Keeping your body straight, twist to the left and reach your left hand toward the ceiling. Return to start, then repeat on the opposite side to complete one rep. Continue, alternating sides.
Place a resistance band around your thighs, just above the knees. Lie on your side, with your knees bent 90 degrees in front of your body. Keeping your feet together, rotate your right knee and lift it open, then slowly lower it to start. Repeat full set, then repeat on the opposite side.
Targets: hamstrings, glutes, and core
Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, your arms extended at your sides, and slightly lift your left foot. Lean your torso forward, raising your left leg behind you and keeping your body in a straight line. Keep your arms straight; the dumbbells will lower toward the floor as you move. With your back straight, return to stand. Repeat full set, then repeat on the opposite side.
Add these exercises for marathoners to your strength training in the weeks leading up to your big race to see improvements in strength and mobility that will help propel you through that finish line.