I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!
I'll be the first to admit that over the years I've not been very good at doing anything other than running. Stretching I do a bit, some yoga now and then, and occasionally some circuits if I'm feeling energetic. But exercise specifically to help my running? Not so much. A few minor injuries later and I'm a lot more conscientious about doing my exercises. It's often hard to do preventative exercise when you feel fine but unless you're really, really lucky, it won't last forever. And being injured is no fun at all.
While hill training provides some functional strength for runners, it shouldn’t be the only way to prepare the body for running a marathon, or indeed any distance. Some of your muscles will develop from running a lot of miles but it isn't enough simply to run. If you want to be an efficient runner who avoids injury, you'll need to address weaknesses in your body, some of which you may not even know about. Here's what Jay Dicharry says in his excellent book 'Anatomy for Runners'.
Strong up top
Training with weights can lead to muscle gain and therefore weight gain, particularly in men. Extra weight is the last thing that distance runners want and so many will avoid hitting the gym for this reason. However, a strong upper body will help form and posture and encourage efficient running. The key is to use relatively light weights and focus on form rather than seeing how much you can lift.
My favourite exercise: Renegade row
I like this because it’s difficult. Lifting the dumbbell itself is relatively easy - keeping your hips level is the tricky bit, and that’s the part that engages your core.
You may well hear a lot about how important a strong core is to running. Up to 10k, you might be able to get away without worrying too much about whether your abs will keep you upright. Beyond that though, your core takes on more responsibility for maintaining good running posture.
Often when people think of ‘core’, they think of sit ups. While these do target your abs, they don’t use exactly the same muscles as you use when running. For this reason, planks are far more useful, and there are numerous other options which target those running muscles.
Here’s a short (and sped-up - don’t do it this fast!) core workout from mountain runner Emelie Forsberg.
As she says herself, anything is better than nothing, even if it’s only five minutes a day.
My favourite exercise: Mountain climber
This is another one that seems easy until you try to keep it going for any length of time. The key here is to make sure your bum (like I haven't in the first picture!) stays down so that your body remains on one plane.
Squat cross buns
Legs are the most obvious area to improve your strength for running, and squats and lunges are the most functional exercises to incorporate into your training. They key though is to start with light weights (or none at all) and to introduce them gradually. If you do too much too soon, you could jeopardise the quality or even quantity of your runs.
Favourite exercise: Reverse lunge
Like a normal lunge but you step back instead of forward. I like it because it’s also good for improving your balance, as well as giving you a good glute workout.
If you’re short on time, you might find it easiest to fit in any of the above whenever you can. If you have a bit longer (30-40 mins), you could do a lot worse than combine them and even some cardio elements into a circuit training session.
The best one I’ve found is ultrarunner Rob Krar’s 'The Equalizer'.
LINK: The Equalizer
It’s a whole body workout and always leaves me breathless after and sore the next day. It requires a little bit of equipment but I get by with just a mat and some dumbbells. Once a week is enough for me!
Thoughts for the week
Strength work is crucial for developing supporting muscles and to prevent injury.
Introduce any sessions into your programme gradually.
Start with light weights, or even none at all.