Start Strong: Your First Step in Training for a Marathon

Start Strong: Your First Step in Training for a Marathon

I want to talk about your first step toward conquering the big 26.2. It’s something I find particularly interesting right now because, frankly, it’s my first step too. In exactly 57 days, I will tie on a pair of running shoes, leave my apartment, arrive at the starting line of the 2013 ING New York City Marathon, and pray to Forrest Gump that I’ll finish my first marathon in a respectable time.

I’ll admit, I’ve got a bit of an edge. (Well, actually, I’m at a terrifying disadvantage—I should’ve started training eight weeks ago, but, well, putting this fine magazine together for your enjoyment takes quite a bit of time out of the day, you see—but we’ll get into that in my next post.) I’m honored to be racing with Team USA Endurance, the official New York City Marathon team of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) that was formed this year to help raise money to support the United States’ Olympic and Paralympic teams in the Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. (If you want to help support Team USA—the USOC receives zero government funding—I’ve created a donation page.) Basically, that’s a long way of saying that over the next 57 days I’ll have around-the-clock access to the best training, nutrition, and sports psychology experts in the country. For all intents and purposes, I will be a Team USA athlete. Seriously, it’s legit: They gave me a T-shirt.

So, how does this help you? Well, for starters, I get to call up people like Amanda Wittenmyer, the USOC’s strength and conditioning coordinator, to learn the real-life training strategies of U.S. Olympic marathon runners. So let’s start there.

“If your body isn’t physically prepared to run those miles, your body is just going to break down,” Wittenmyer told me last week over the phone. “If you want to run those 26.2 miles, you need to supplement your training with a little bit of strength training.”

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I always thought that it was a no-brainer: I strength train now, so why wouldn’t I strength train while training for a marathon? It works on paper, but after just one week of training for the race I can see why so many guys let their strength workouts slide. There is no time. Marathon training, if you’re following the kind of plan that I am (that’ll be in my next post, too), is extremely time consuming, and with the amount of hours we’re all pulling at work these days, who has the time for three runs a week, plus cross training, plus strength training?

The inconvenient truth is that we all have the time for an extra workout here and there. You just have to be a bit creative, whether it’s sneaking out to the gym across the street at lunch or waking up a little earlier. “You can find 30 minutes somewhere to do something,” Wittenmyer says. “You can get a good lift in 30 minutes if you just keep moving, if you take 30 seconds rest instead of one or two minutes, if you superset exercises.” Either way, whether you’re an iron giant or don’t know a kettlebell from a teacup, strength training is critical to your success on the marathon course. So, how do Olympic marathoners get their lift on?

“When I have athletes in the weight room, I’m definitely focusing on weight strength and not weight endurance,” Wittenmyer says. “So, we look at doing three to four sets of, let’s say, 8–10 reps instead of three sets of 20, which would be more muscular endurance. You’ll build muscular endurance through your running training, so when you’re in the weight room you’re trying to focus more on strength.”

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As for the exercises themselves, elite marathoners focus on single-leg movements like lunges and squat variations including box squats and elevated squats, one of the goals being to iron out any muscle imbalances that could lead to injury, Wittenmyer says. “If, say, you’ve got muscle discrepancies between your right and left leg, then you’re going to have a weak spot, and that’s where you’re going to break down.”

While squats and lunges are vital for keeping your major leg muscles—the hamstrings and quadriceps—balanced from one leg to the other, it’s just as important to pay attention to the smaller, supporting muscles that you’ll rely on to pick up the slack as the former begin to fatigue. “Its important to work the side of your hips,” Wittenmyer says. “That and dorsiflexion exercises, because when you start running a lot you put a lot of extra stress on your lower body, so by doing dorsiflexion, which would be your shin and the interior portion of the lower leg, it’s going to help balance out the posterior portion of the lower leg and interior portion of the lower leg and minimize any kind of lower-leg injury that you might get just from overuse.”

In the same way that you’ll taper your running training as the race approaches, your strength-training regimen too will compress slightly in the final weeks. Wittenmyer recommends adjusting the number of sets you’re doing for any given exercise. So if, say, you were doing four sets of 10 lunges, cut it to three sets two weeks out and then two sets one week out. As for the week of, “it depends on the athlete and what will make you feel confident on your race day,” Wittenmyer says. “You’re not going to really benefit a lot by doing weights the week of, but, psychologically, if that’s something you prefer then you’ve got to do that.”

It all comes down to your goals. If I think about myself, I’d personally like to finish around the three-hour mark, preferably under; I recently raced my first triathlon and feel like I have a good base as a result. Still, a small part of me really just wants to make sure I finish this thing. You, on the other hand, may have a totally different goal. Either way, making strength training a part of your training will get you one step closer to hitting it.

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