The idea of running your first marathon can be nerve-wracking. The timing, the training, the shoes and gear, the nutrition plan – it can all be very overwhelming. Typically, training for a marathon takes anywhere between 12 and 20 weeks. During those intense months of training, you’ll probably be running 4-5 days a week, with a couple rest days in between.
There’s a ton of different marathon training plans out there. With the overload of options and different varieties of plans, even just choosing one can be stressful. And while you might think that sticking to an intense training plan and running more and more each week is the best way to prepare for your first marathon – there might be a better way.
Whether you’re training for your first marathon, looking to beat your PR, or just training to stay in marathon shape, you should consider adding cross-training to your exercise plan. Cross-training is super beneficial for runners, especially if you are training for a big race. Not only will it help you build strength and stamina, it can also be a fun and enjoyable break from running.
Maybe you’ve heard about cross-training before but never really understood exactly what it meant. Many people think it must be the same or similar to Cross-fit – but that’s actually not true. Simply put, cross-training is “any sport or exercise that supplements your main sport.” (1)
So, if your main sport is running, then cross-training is basically anything else – swimming, biking, hiking, yoga, pilates, boxing – all those other exercises that sometimes get left behind when you’re in the heat of training for a marathon. You might be thinking that you don’t have time for those other sports now that you’ve started training full time. But it turns out cross-training has a lot of benefits and can actually help you prepare your body for race day.
And, most elite marathoners use cross-training to really be competitive on race day. According to Men’s Health, “not only can [cross-training] reduce their risk of injury, but research shows that it can also boost speed, power output, and time to exhaustion.” (2) Those are just a few of the many benefits of cross-training. Here’s some more…
First, cross-training strengthens less-worked muscle groups. For example, if you are running regularly, the same muscle groups in your legs are being worked day after day. Cross-training can activate other muscle groups that are used less during running. This actually improves your body mechanics and balance, making you less likely to be injured.
Second, it can improve your stamina and heart health. Many cross-training exercises like swimming, boxing, and biking, are all fantastic cardiovascular activities. They have similar benefits to running and can actually help you build up stamina – putting you one step closer to crossing that finish line even faster.
Third, cross-training can help prevent running burn-out. Training for a marathon and running long distances day after day can be exhausting – not just physically, but mentally as well. One of the many benefits of cross-training is that it “gives runners a much-needed mental break from their sport.” Adding cross-training to your training plan will help you not get bored of running – making your training process much more enjoyable.
As we mentioned before, cross-training can be any activity that’s different from your main sport. One of the most beneficial activities that you can do as cross-training while preparing for a marathon is weight lifting or strength training.
In addition to strengthening muscles that are essential for running – like your quads, glutes, and calves – lifting weights also trains your body to burn calories efficiently. (2) It also helps protect your bones and improves joint health as well. Long-distance running is a repetitive movement that can wear down your joints. Adding strength training to your schedule and making sure you have adequate rest and recovery can help protect you from painful injuries.
Weight-lifting has a ton of benefits for building strength in runners, and it can be great for weight loss as well. Neal Pire, an exercise physiologist says that it “keeps your metabolism active after exercising, much longer than after an aerobic workout.” That means it’ll be easier to lose fat and keep your body in marathon-condition, even if you miss a few running days.
Even just adding one day a week of strength training to your marathon training plan can help strengthen and prepare your body for race day. Start off slow, maybe doing 3 sets of 8-12 reps at a comfortable weight, then slowly add weight week after week to really build your muscle.
One of the best cross-training activities is actually a personal favorite of mine. You could even say it’s kind of the opposite of running. But it has huge benefits that can really help you build stamina and strength. That’s right – it’s swimming!
Swimming is a great activity for runners because “it’s not weight-bearing, so it gives your joints a break from the stresses of running.” (1) It’s often recommended for certain injuries as well, because it can be a great way to rebuild strength without risk of more injury. It can even help you train your body to breathe properly while running. And, it’s super enjoyable – especially in the summer months.
Even if you just swim laps for 30-45 minutes a week, you can improve your stamina and strength (and get a break from running). If you aren’t a big swimmer, you can still get the benefits of this exercise by starting off with a kickboard and doing some laps kicking – it’s a great way to work different leg muscles, and it’s sure to get you a great workout as well.
With cross-training, truly the possibilities are endless. One week, you could do yoga at the park. Maybe you want to work out your leg muscles in a different way with a great stairclimbing workout. Try going to a new boxing class with a friend, or hiking through the mountains around your house.
You are in charge of your marathon training program. Although it should be challenging and most certainly prepare you for race day, it should also be enjoyable. And one of the best ways to make it enjoyable (while also still training your body to perform at the highest level) is by adding cross-training to your workout plan. So, try it out for yourself today! Your body will thank you when you cross that marathon finish line victorious.