– Colleen Wood PT, DPT, CMTPT, Well-Fit Performance Marathon Coach

Want to avoid injury when training for a marathon? 
Many runners understand that to have a successful race, they need a weekly long run, a few midweek runs and to include speed workouts (all included in the Well-Fit marathon training program). Many runners are challenged by finding time in their busy schedule just to “fit in” all their runs or they prefer to add in extra mileage and skip strengthening. However, strength training is one important aspect that can reduce overuse injuries such as shin splints, ITband syndrome, foot injuries, hip and low back injuries as the muscles are trained how to cope with the stress and muscle breakdown during training and racing. 

Many runners become injured due to the lack of strength. Running requires you to propel yourself in a forward repetitive motion for an extended period of time. Therefore, a runner needs the muscle strength, support and endurance to avoid muscle fatigue and breakdown of the muscles that give you support. Your core and hips are at the center of your body and give your body the stability it needs when propelling yourself forward. Focusing on hip and core strengthening exercises will make you stronger, faster and less prone to injury when training for a marathon.

The focus of strength training for marathon runners should be endurance based. Performing strengthening exercises at lower resistance but increased repetitions will help build fatigue levels, improve stability and ultimately, prevent injury. Performing 3-4 sets of 12-20 repetitions is best to increase muscle endurance.
So what is the best time within a marathon program to strengthen? With an 18 week marathon training program, you can break down your strengthening program into 3 phases. 

Phase 1: Running Build/ Speed and Strength Build

During the first phase, I encourage my runners to strengthen 2-3 times per week. This phase lasts about the first 8-10 weeks. Typically, strength training is performed in combination with an “easy” 3-5 mile run or on a cross training day.  Here, you may do side stepping, swiss ball bridges, single leg bridges, lateral and forward lunges, single leg squats, planks, squats and eccentric hamstring strengthening exercises. All of these exercises can carry over to the next phase.

Phase 2: High Mileage and Functional Strengthening

Phase 2 generally lasts about 5 weeks. This is when your running volume increases, so focusing on functional strengthening 1-2 times per week may be sufficient to maintain your strength that you have built from earlier in training and to continue to avoid injury. Focusing on exercises that are performed in single leg stance will help improve your running mechanics when in the midstance phase of gait. A few examples of functional exercises are walking lunges, split lunges (back foot elevated), deep squats, Romanian deadlifts, single leg squats standing at the edge of a box and returning to a hip hike position, box jumps and single leg box jumps, single leg lateral jumps.  

Phase 3: Taper

During the taper phase, the last three weeks of a training program, your focus is on allowing your body to recover and rebuild. 1-2 days of strengthening should be sufficient to be ready for race day without tired legs.  You can continue to perform your strengthening routine, but it should decrease to be only 20-30 percent of your training. Pushing heavy resistance or performing intense strengthening exercises during your marathon taper will give you minimal benefit for race day, in fact, it may make your legs feel sluggish and overworked. 

Listed below are a few exercises that I believe are beneficial to include in your strengthening program.

Single Leg Bridge: Focus on pushing through the glute and keeping your core gently contracted.

Strength Training for Marathon - Glute Bridge

Forward lunges: Focus on dropping your back knee towards the ground. Your front knee should not lunge past your knee.

Strength Training for Marathon - Front Lunge

Lateral lunges: Focus on sitting back with your weight more on your heels. Be sure not to take too big of a step so you are able to maintain good form by keeping your hip, knee and toes aligned.

Strength Training for Marathon - Lateral Lunge

Side Stepping: Be sure to bend your knees slighty by sitting back, move sideways in a straight line and keep your knees facing forward, towards your toes.  The “back pocket muscle” should be the location of fatigue, not the side of your thigh.

Strength Training for Marathon - Side Step

Squats: Be sure to “sit back” when squatting to increase gluteal activation and avoid your knees shifting forward past your toes. Avoid your knees collapsing in towards eachother by gently pushing out against the resistnace band. 

Strength Training for Marathon - Squat

Forward Plank with Hip Extension: Be sure to maintain a core contraction when lifting your leg to avoid arching your low back.

Strength Training for Marathon - Plank with Hip Extension

Side plank with Clam: Add a band above the knees to increase difficulty. Fatigue should be felt at the core (side lower to the ground) and opposite hip/ glute when performing the “clam” motion.

Strength Training For Marathon - Side plank with Clam