Reps for runners

Strength work as part of your marathon training plan

Reps for Runners


Question: “Are gym sessions essential if I am training for a marathon?”

Answer: “Is a seat belt essential for a Formula One driver?” 

Neither gym work or wearing a seat belt are essential for the sport in question but I guarantee that every Formula One driver wears their six-point safety harness. It makes the experience a lot better, the driver is able to push the car further because he/she feels more confident. And, needless to say, it prevents minor mistakes from turning into career-ending injuries. The same goes for gym work in a marathon training plan.

You could run and finish a marathon without any gym sessions or strength workouts in the comfort of your own home. However, if you are going to run a marathon where you are testing the limits of your performance, why would you not want to be as strong as possible? Running fast and being strong are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue that an effortless runner is a strong runner. 

I never was much of a gym rat. I used to be very reluctant to work out in the gym because I thought it would be detrimental to my running performance. After all, if I gain all that muscle from lifting weights, it would make me slower, right? Turns out I was very wrong about that. 


High-reps-low weight vs Low-reps-high-weight

Why would you train cardio in the gym when you are already doing that in your outdoor runs, my former colleague asked me? What you need is a strength program that actually builds muscular strength. You need low-reps-high-weight at the right time in your marathon training cycle. I had been doing the exact opposite. Familiar with high reps and low weight, I was adding gym cardio on top of all the mileage that I was running in the marathon plan. I needed to rethink why I was in the gym.  

Strength work for runners

Phases of strength work

Add weekly strength sets to your marathon training plan and incorporate mobility and stability work. You will not only be able to absorb the ‘load’ of a marathon better, you will also reduce the chances of injury. Ask yourself what would give you more marginal gains, one more run (of which you have already been doing a lot in any decent marathon plan) or the fitness gains from short, but effective strength sets. I know which one I would choose if I had to.

To get the most out of your strength workouts, you should aim to dovetail what you do in the gym with what you do on the road. Plan your strength sets according to your marathon plan phases. Here is what that would look like in a typical 16-week marathon training plan.  


Phase 1: marathon base pace preparation 

Strength training should focus on stability work in this phase. As you are getting used to the volume in the marathon training plan, you don’t want to hammer it in the gym to the point of exhaustion. Stability work focuses on balance, core control, and correct muscle activation. In this phase gym work should focus on form and execution of the movement rather than on the strength (weights). Your exercises are mostly bodyweight and off-balance (single leg) complex movements focussed on control. 

Phase 2: Building your aerobic endurance 

Depending on your personal adaptability to training incentives, you’ll start building out your aerobic endurance somewhere around week 5 in your training plan. Now that you have the core control from the stability strength work you did earlier, you can start to add weight to your strength sets. In this phase of your plan, you want to focus on low reps with higher weights so that you build your relative strength as a runner. Choose the more ‘traditional’ exercises for this such as squats and deadlifts. No need for complex stability movements in this phase.    


Phase 3: Build to peak volume and pace 

The 8 to 4 weeks prior to the marathon will see you do the biggest volume (ideally 6 weeks prior) and working towards the fastest pace. This is a hard run part of the marathon plan and can leave you quite exhausted. Let your complementary strength work reflect the hard work you are putting into your runs. Your strength work in these weeks focus on explosive movements but the reps and sets are low. This allows you to recover and not empty the tank in the gym. You’ll need that energy for your runs. Keep the reps and sets low but the intensity of the movements high, explosive. Allow yourself ample rest intervals between reps to fully recover. 


Phase 4: Race phase maintenance and taper

After the peak volume weeks, about 3 to 4 weeks out from race day, you should start thinking about maintaining your speed and strength. In this phase you might drop the volume of the run sets whilst keeping the body attuned to the intended race pace. This is the part of the plan where you balance resting up from the hard work put in earlier and keeping the running fitness all the way up to the race. 

Your strength workouts in this phase should focus on maintenance as well. Mobility work, stretching and light bodyweight workouts are the best in this phase. Avoid the heavy grunting and reps to failure in this part of the marathon plan. It won’t serve you at all on race day. 

Effortless Running training plans

Whether you are an aspiring marathon runner or shooting for a personal best as an experienced marathoner, the Effortless Running training plan is customized for every runner. If you want to make sure your marathon adventure becomes a success, start with the right guidance. Contact our coaches through or email [email protected] for more information on our individualized training plans. 


Happy training! 

Erik Böhm - Effortless Running - August 2021


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