As mentioned in my previous post I completed a 13 mile ‘half-marathon’ on Sunday and I really struggled to get around the route much to my shock and dismay after all of the good training that I have been putting in. I have been following the Tri-Ripped Training programme and am currently within the second months of Phase 1 which has been based on shorter, sharper sessions with hill running sessions and drills so I can understand that my lungs would fatigue during the run as this is the longest and farthest I’ve run for a while. But what did, and continues to, surprise me is that my legs, although feeling good early on in the run, especially on the uphill sections, massive fatigued to a point of not being able to lift or bend them and my pace massively dropped as did my heart rate as I couldn’t seem to get my body to work hard enough to raise it.
Whilst I have spent a lot of time studying and picking a training programme and I am happy with the Tri-Ripped Programme thus far I wanted to do some research myself which in the main has reiterated my confidence in the training plan that I am following and I now believe that I went too far and too long too early. It is not until Phase 2 of the plan (in a couple of weeks’ time) that the mileage is set to grow gradually at weeks end. At this point it is probably worth mentioning that even though I am training for an Ironman Triathlon; I have been looking at the Marathon and running in general in isolation here.
So, how do you get strong legs for a marathon???
My Research (Well, Google Search…)
Time for my usual solution to most problems (research based anyway) and a quick google for “improve leg strength for marathon” led me straight to a number of good informative sites and articles which actually give pretty similar advice around improving your leg strength specifically for a marathon.
The 10 Marathon Foundations – Follow these long-time marathon principles and success will be yours!
This article is aimed at training for a marathon in general based around 10 ‘foundations’ which are good to read but for the basis of this post I have concentrated on the parts which are specifically related to improving leg strength to maximise marathon results and stripped back the content of the other rules.
“The following 10 rules underpin all our marathon programmes, some will be reinforced again as you follow a programme; others you need to think about now. And if you want to develop your own programme or tailor one of ours to your needs, these rules should help to focus your training.”
Rule 1: Start your training from a reasonable base
Based on having a base fitness before embarking on a 12-16 week marathon training programme. Depending on your target time there are guidelines given for what you base fitness should be.
|Target Marathon Time||Base Fitness|
|Sub-3:00||Regularly running 40 miles a week|
|Sub-3:30||Weekly mileage should be 30-35|
|Sub-4:00||Run 4 consecutive weeks of 20-25 miles a week|
|Sub-4:30||Able to run comfortably 3-4 times a week|
Rule 2: Set a specific but realistic goal
Methods for calculating your marathon time goal are given here but I’ll assume you already know this part… however if not:
Multiplying your 5K time by 9.7 or your 10K time by 4.7 will give you a rough rule-of-thumb of what you are capable of. If you divide the figure by 26.2 you will obtain your perfect marathon pace in minutes per mile 09:09 per mile for my good self and a 4 hour marathon.
NB- I would add 20% to this for the Ironman Marathon time.
Rule 3: Gradually build your specific endurance
The article states that this is the ability to run longer and longer distances at marathon pace which will help you develop a sense of pace, improve your running efficiency, stop you running out of steam in the last few miles, and above all give you the confidence that you can actually run the marathon at your hoped-for pace. The effort of a marathon pace sessions should be hard but achievable, since it should be about 40-60 seconds per mile slower than your 10K pace.
It is suggested that you should try to build from a six-mile marathon pace run in the first weeks of your programme up to about a 12-mile maximum declaring that anything longer than 12 miles are like races, which is not the point of the session. I think to base this rule on distance I fallible due to the difference in pace that people are running at. For example, myself; an aspiring sub-4 hour marathoner would complete 12 miles in about 1hr50 whereas a sub-3 hour marathoner would complete 12 miles in around 1hr20 therefore I would recommend sticking to the 80 minute marker regardless of speed. Support for this recommendation can be found here at incurable data geek.
Rule 4: Improve your lactate threshold pace (LTP)
LTP is one of the leading predictors of marathon success. If you can improve it, your marathon time will get better. You can use two special sessions to increase your LTP:
– Run 10 minute intervals at your current 10K pace (do two or three intervals with five-minute recoveries) or
– Do a continuous 25-minute tempo run at a pace that’s 12-15 seconds per mile slower than your usual 10K race pace.
Rule 5: Increase your leg muscle strength and power
This is one area that is often overlooked by marathon runners, who mistakenly think that leg-muscle strength is more important for short distances than for the marathon. They are wrong.
If you run a marathon in 3:30, and use a common stride rate of 180 steps a minute, you are taking 37,800 steps in the entire race. If you had better leg-muscle power you would achieve two things: you’d spend less time on the ground with each footstrike, and you’d increase your stride length.
It’s easy to see how this could help your time. If improved power helps you reduce your time on the ground per footstrike by just 0.02 of a second, an almost infinitesimal change, your marathon time will be 12:36 faster (0.02 x 37,800 strides). And if the same improvement in leg-muscle power helps to improve your stride length by just half an inch, you’ll gain almost 500 metres, which could be another two minutes off your time.
The best way to build leg strength and power is to do strengthening exercises twice a week. The best exercises are squats, leg extensions, thigh curls (for the hamstrings and buttocks), leg presses, toe raises and heel raises. These exercises will lower your risk of injury by fortifying your joints and protecting your legs from the pounding of marathon training.
You can also develop power and improve efficiency in the major running muscles of the legs by doing hill intervals. Find a hill that is 75-100 metres from bottom to top and run intervals at an intensity that feels slightly harder than 5K race pace. Start with seven or eight intervals, each followed by an easy jog back to the bottom of the hill.
I have found a couple of further article more on the specifics on this. One has a generic all-year-round approach the strength training and the other has a tailored approach depending upon the phase of training that you are in:
“When you get tired, your strength will pull you through,” Mark Plaatjes, the 1993 world championships marathon winner
Multiple studies show that regular strength training can improve how efficiently the body uses oxygen by as much as eight percent, translating into greater speed and more muscle endurance. Since many runners have a hard enough time squeezing workouts into their busy lives, Plaatjes was asked by Runners World to pick the most essential moves to develop strength where runners need it most (in the core and legs) and correct the natural muscular imbalances caused by running, which can lead to injury and loss of speed. And the exercises can be done at home in about 15 minutes.
A Strength Plan
For the full article and exercise description see faster in five.
- Single-leg Squat
- Balance Run
- Heel Raises
- Hamstring Push-up
- Plank + Lift
Strength Training for Marathon Runners
With the start of marathon training or distance running events, many guys ditch the weights in favour of additional miles on the road. While the added mileage might be beneficial for increasing endurance, it might actually lead to extra injuries. The pounding from running puts an immense strain on the body. If the muscles aren’t prepared to handle the load, stress gets absorbed elsewhere including bones and connective tissue. Maintaining a strength training program is critical for improving running efficiency particularly for those going the full 26.2.
The article from Mens Fitness goes down a more tailored route depending upon the phase of you training that you are in based upon a typical 16 weeks marathon training plan with the aim of pairingstrength works and running programme to find the ‘perfect duo’:
Phase 1 (Weeks 1-4)
Marathon focus: Base
Training focus: Stability
Although the mileage and intensity may be lower, this phase is crucial to ease runners into a harder training schedule. Similarly, the Stability Phase is meant to ease the body into strength training.
During the Stability Phase, the focus isn’t on the weight but rather on form and execution. The priorities should be practicing and mastering body-weight movements including single-leg exercises like the single-leg deadlift and single-leg squat. Both exercises will strengthen the hips and prepare the muscles to handle the increased pounding on the roads. Runners should focus on high-repetition sets (12-15 reps) with little rest time (30-45 seconds) in between exercises.
Phase 2 (Weeks 5-8)
Marathon focus: Aerobic Endurance
Training focus: Strength
The overall mileage begins to slowly increase, and runners may choose to focus one or two days a week on faster runs. The purpose of this training phase is to slowly push the cardiovascular system and begin to prepare for harder and longer runs. In the Strength Phase runners can start to add weight to exercises and work harder throughout the set. The increased intensity in the weight room helps to improve a runner’s relative strength—that is their strength relative to their body weight.
During the Strength Phase, runners should focus on bilateral exercises like the barbell squat and barbell deadlift. Whereas unilateral exercises may be the focus in the Stability Phase, it’s important to choose exercises during the Strength Phase that can be loaded up to a challenging intensity. Instead of opting for higher repetitions, runners should choose a load that is challenging for five to eight repetitions. The increase in intensity also requires a longer rest period (1-2 minutes).
Phase 3 (Weeks 9-12)
Marathon focus: Peak
Training Focus: Power
During the Peak Phase, the volume and intensity of the marathon training plan should be at its highest. The entire focus now is to get the body prepared to bust through the wall at 20 miles and get to the finish line feeling strong. Since the running volume is increased during the Peak Phase, the Power Phase in the weight room features a decrease in volume focusing primarily on form and technique instead. The intensity is high since the lifts will be performed in an explosive fashion, but sets and reps are down to give runners a chance to recover.
During the Power Phase, runners should stick to total-body movements and perform them quickly and explosively. Exercises like jump squats, box jumps, and plyometric pushups are perfect since they still activate muscle fibers and help you maintain strength while not putting wear and tear on the muscular system. These body-weight plyometrics can also serve another function of improving running form. “This type of training (body-weight plyometrics) will improve muscle and tendon stiffness, which has been shown in the research to improve running economy,” Kawamoto says. Since the focus is on form and intensity and not volume, sets and reps should be relatively low (think 2-3 sets of 3-5 repetitions) and rest times should be fairly long (2-3 minutes) between exercises.
Phase 4 (Weeks 13-16)
Marathon focus: Taper
Training focus: Maintenance and Recovery
With the hard work in the bank, the Taper Phase of marathon training is meant to give the body some time to recover from the intense training while still maintaining a high level of fitness. Long runs are cut shorter. The entire focus is on getting runners to the line feeling strong and healthy. To complement the Taper Phase, the Maintenance and Recovery Phase reduces the strength-training intensity as well. Runners should simply look to maintain strength and spend the rest of the time on stretching and foam rolling to promote recovery.
To promote recovery while not overstressing the muscular system, runners should shift away from heavily weighted exercises and focus more on body-weight movements like pushups, pullups, squats, and lunges. For those who still want to use additional weight, it’s important to keep the load light and avoid hitting failure. During this phase, runners should go back to a higher-repetition scheme (10-15 reps) while keeping sets moderate (2-3 sets) and rest times short (45-90 seconds). Workouts during this phase should also be short to avoid overtaxing the body. The extra time can be spent with massage, ice baths, and other recovery methods designed to reduce muscle soreness and damage.
Rule 6: Make your long runs count
Most runners training for a marathon believe that long runs of 18-20 miles prepare them to handle the full 26.2-mile distance. But these runs only prepare you to run part of the marathon at a slower-than-marathon pace. To make your long runs more specific to the upcoming race, you should run the early miles at 45 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace but then run the last three miles at marathon pace. This will teach your leg muscles to function at your goal pace even when they’re already tired, which is exactly what you will need them to do on marathon day.
Rule 7: Build your aerobic capacity
Having a high aerobic capacity (VO2max) will increase the blood-flow to your leg muscles, ensuring that they get all the oxygen that they need during the marathon. This will help you combat fatigue. Long runs improve VO2max, but you can also boost it by running 800m intervals at your best two-mile pace, 1200m intervals at 5K pace and one-mile intervals at 10K pace. Start with two or three intervals and build up to five or six; between each effort, jog for the same amount of time as it took to complete the interval.
Rule 8: Carbo-load daily during marathon training
This article was written in 2002 and does not align with recent thinking but I have left this section untouched and you can use it, abuse it or ignore as you see fit.
You need to consume 3-4g of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day (if you weigh 11 stone that’s 460-615g of carbohydrate, the exact figure depending on how many miles you are actually running).
If you don’t consume this much carbohydrate, your leg muscles will gradually become glycogen-depleted, leading to poorer-quality sessions and an increased risk of overtraining. Ensure that your consumption plan includes about 300 carbohydrate calories immediately after running. Studies show that this is the time when your muscles will most easily assimilate the carbohydrate.
Don’t worry if you gain a pound or two when you begin this high-carbohydrate diet. It is probably just essential additional water that your body stores with the glycogen. These additional pounds will disappear as your better-fuelled leg muscles take you through higher-quality sessions.
Rule 9: Taper
This is the golden rule of marathon training, which forms one of the main cornerstones of all our schedules. If you don’t taper (ease off) sufficiently for the race, you may find that you’ve wasted all those hard sessions. You will find that our schedules reduce your training for three weeks before the race, falling from 85 per cent of mileage with three weeks to go, to 75 per cent in the penultimate week and 50 per cent in the final week.
A contradictory opinion on this can be found again at incurable geek.
Rule 10: Run a smart marathon
For a perfect marathon, you should start out at precisely the average pace that you’ll need to hit your target, or even a few seconds per mile slower to achieve a negative split. The key is not to go out too fast. The article claims that studies have shown that runners who exceed their marathon pace by as little as two per cent during the first few miles of the marathon (which is very easy to do, and could be only 10 seconds per mile) are the ones who have the greatest drop-off in pace in the last six miles.
Also, be sure to carbo-load during the marathon. No matter how well you’ve followed this practice beforehand, your leg muscles are eventually going to run low on glycogen during the race. To avoid this, try to drink five or six mouthfuls of a carbohydrate drink 15 minutes before the start of the marathon and every 15 minutes during the run. This is something you should practise regularly throughout training.
Squats For Those Who Can’t Squat
This is a little aside for myself really as I use this site as a reference point when I can’t quite remember where I have seen an interesting article somewhere. However, if you, like me, struggle in anyway with you knees I found the Squats For Those Who Can’t Squat article on the t-nation bodybuilders website.
The article starts off ”squats are one of my absolute favorite exercises. Unfortunately, as much as I love squats, my knees and back don’t. If I’m not careful they can really do a number on me. I could nix squats altogether in favour of more single-leg work, but squats are too valuable to ditch entirely, plus I just enjoy doing them.
If you have a similar love-hate relationship with squats, here are some ways to make the lift more user-friendly.”
1- Switch to Front Squats
For starters, it’s easier to squat to an appropriate depth with front squats than back squats, so more people can do it well and front squats are a lot easier on the body as you’re forced to keep a more upright posture. Front squats also do a better job of targeting the quads.
2- Shoot for About Parallel
Aim to squat to parallel or maybe slightly below. For most lifters this means you need to squat deeper because most people squat abysmally high. Quarter squats are just an ego exercise; they allow you to handle more weight than you deserve to be lifting. Full squats are better than partial squats for leg development but there is such a thing as “too low,” especially for those with lower back and knee issues. Squat just below parallel and your joints will feel much better for it.
3- Control the Eccentric
It is recommended that controlling the eccentric portion of the squat rather than dive bombing to prevent bouncing and reducing for on the knee. You don’t necessarily have to pause in the bottom position, but it is suggested. This will also ensure that you’re relying on the muscles to lift the weight rather than using momentum.
4- Get Wider
Take a moderate stance just outside shoulder-width and breaking from both the hips and knees at the same time. This will allow for a good torso position and still smoke the quads without putting quite so much stress on the knees. Try just moving your stance out a few inches and it will make a world of difference to your knees.
5- Squat to a Box or Pins
The primary reason for squatting to a box or the pins in a safety rack is to serve as a depth gauge. For high squatters, it forces you to go all the way down. For ass-to-grass squatters, it stops you from going too low. Squatting to a box or pins also encourages you to control the eccentric so you aren’t bouncing off the box or bouncing the bar off the pins.
6- Use Chains
Chains are not something that I have available at my local gym but they’re a great way to take some stress off the lower back and knees in the bottom position while still allowing you to move bigger weights.
7- Stick to Moderate Reps
Those with joint issues will do best spending the majority of their training time in the 6-12 rep range. Going much below that is flirting with danger, and doing super high reps can often lead to some gnarly form breakdown.
8- Squat at the End of the Workout
Squatting at the end of the workout ensures you’re sufficiently warmed up, and it also means you’ll have to lighten the load, which takes stress off the joints and makes it easier to maintain good form.
Thanks again for reading and good luck with your training.