Personal Trainer’s Guide: Cross Training for a Marathon
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Marathon runners are endurance athletes of the highest caliber—whether it’s a pro or a beginner attempting their first actual marathon. Even for experienced runners, marathons can be a bear. The training volume required is extensive and specific.
There’s a key role that personal trainers can play in a client’s efforts to train for a marathon. Sometimes, a client will have already engaged a running coach to give more specific and expert advice that is purely within the scope of running. In this case, you’ll work with the running coach to develop a well-rounded training plan. Or, you as the personal trainer may take on the entire marathon training plan.
Either way, let’s start with the basics of a marathon training plan. This will give key context in terms of running workouts, gym workouts, and rest days.
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What it Takes to Finish
Ultimately, we’re mainly going to discuss plans in terms of beginner marathon runners. This is because you can always add load and intensity, but first it’s important to know where it all begins.
To start, a marathon is a race totaling 26.2 miles. That’s quite a distance to cover on foot, whether walking or running. Remember that finishing the race is the objective. This means that a walk/run strategy will be incredibly useful to ensure that runners are being safe while developing the muscles needed to cross the finish line.
Runner’s World has a great resource for the specifics of a basic running plan for beginners. It takes place over 16 weeks and clearly balances out running days and rest days. When you see rest days in the schedule, just remember that it’s a rest from running, making cross training an ideal opportunity for growth. We’ll get more into what that cross training looks like, but overall, you’re looking to supplement a plan like the one found here.
It might surprise you how little mileage there is in a marathon training plan like this. That’s because a lot of what goes into completing a marathon is psychological. So, don’t forget that in addition to providing workouts to your client, you need to be training their minds, as well. Mental toughness is often what separates those who finish from those who don’t.
Positive thinking will not overcome an injury, though. So, make sure to keep it positive, but don’t go overboard. Injured runners can’t really train. Safety is a trainer’s first duty to their client.
Sometimes, it’s advisable, too, to start off with a half marathon to build the runner’s stamina and confidence. This is a decision that only your client can make, but in some cases, especially if your client has a lot of extra weight to shed, half marathons can be a great way to scale up to a full marathon. That first half marathon can make all the difference in the world for beginners.
What Cross-Training Looks Like
In short, there are many aspects to potential cross training. A lot of it will come down to what your client enjoys doing. If they’re looking to be competitive, you might focus on one particular direction. If they’re looking to break up the monotony of running while still getting in the physiological benefits of running, then this will require a different approach as well.
If They Want to Go for Broke
Let’s say that your client wants to be competitive, even though it’s their first race. Whereas they might not take a top ten spot, they can probably finish in a respectable time for a beginner. And remember, no matter what, for a client’s first ever marathon, finishing the race will set a PR, or personal record, that they can try to beat in the future.
In this case, you’re going to want to really focus on the supportive muscles and alternative forms of aerobic exercise.
Balancing intensity and safety is paramount here. Overall, balance is the key regardless. One of the major challenges in this plan is putting together enough cardiovascular fitness along with resistance training. On race day, your client will use every muscle in their body to get across the finish line. So, make sure that you aren’t neglecting any muscle groups. The arms in the swing help to propel the runner forward. Even keeping the core and head in alignment can be exhausting for that amount of time and impact. Leg day is still important, but don’t neglect the upper body just because it’s a run.
One great way to measure intensity is to use a heart rate monitor to evaluate performance. This will give you an objective measure of effort put in over time.
But always remember that race pace isn’t the goal with most of the running sessions. This is important, but is something they should build up to, not something that’s pushed from day one.
This mindset is going to be important early on. Most of us have used the phrase, “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon” when advising clients. Well, now it’s literal. So, make sure to balance intensity with consideration of the runner’s health, safety, and fitness level.
Breaking Up the Monotony
This section isn’t just good advice for those trying to ease themselves into marathon running. It’s also good to break up the monotony of more intense training plans. But the focus can be less on specific goals and more on what the client enjoys.
Again, it really comes down to intensity. These clients might want a more laid-back approach to a training plan while still achieving the objective of crossing the finish line. There is absolutely no shame in being this type of marathon runner. They’re running a marathon. Period. That, in and of itself, is a respectable goal and an accomplishment. There is no “easy” way to finish a marathon.
With the difference in intensity in mind, let’s break down the specifics.
Cross Training for Cardiovascular Endurance
Running performance, in a lot of ways, comes down to endurance. But there are many ways to build endurance beyond hitting the pavement.
For those who want a bit more of a challenge, you could use an exercise like swimming. Swimming engages the entire body while training the lungs to be more efficient in how they process oxygen. For this reason, you could have swimming workouts during the running rest days. This could be for distance, time, or intensity. The good news with swimming is that you likely aren’t going to get injured by pushing harder, like you could with running.
As such, swimming days are great ways to push the envelope, or just work on a slow and steady pace, depending on the outcome your client desires.
This works with other aerobic fitness exercises, too. You can do this with cycling, an elliptical machine, and a rower. This is a great way to train and keep joints safe from impact.
Resistance Cross Training
When it comes to a marathon, it’s important that your training plan focus on more than just the cardiovascular effort. It’s also important to add in some sort of resistance training, as well.
You should look at this in phases. As the body develops a tolerance for longer distance, the type of strength training or weight training that you employ should change. For instance, initially, you will want to build up your general strength, and then you will progress into more functional and endurance-type workouts. Finally, you will taper off in the two weeks leading up to race day.
When putting together your programming, it should follow this strategy, based on a 16-week training plan:
Weeks 1-4: Building Your Base
In this phase, stick to the basics and the larger, more total body exercises. This includes deadlifts, squats, upper-body presses, rows, etc. Focus on heavier loads that are about 50-70% of your one-rep max.
2-3 gym sessions per week; all weights based on 1RM
- Deadlift 3x6
- Squat 3x6
- Lunge 3x6
- Bench Press 3x6
- Bent Over Rows 3x6
- Planks 4x60 seconds
Weeks 5-10: Grow Your Base
Once you have the base started, now it’s time to expand it. The focus now shifts to increasing volume. Ideally, you will use the same exercises, but increase the number of sets and reps for each exercise.
2 gym sessions per week; based on body condition and rest days; slightly lighter load
- Deadlift 4x10
- Squat 4x10
- Bench Press 4x10
- Bent Over Rows 4x10
- Planks 5x60 seconds
Weeks 10-14: Change it Up
Now it’s time to focus on more functional resistance exercises as well as supportive musculature. Also, this is where some HIIT exercises can be beneficial in terms of training your anaerobic threshold to be able to better perform on the road.
2 gym sessions per week; circuit training
Complete 5 rounds with 1 minute rest in between rounds:
- Dumbell lunge 20 reps
- Dumbell above the head press 20 reps
- Dumbell raised-calf squats 20 reps
- Dumbell rows 20 reps
- Dumbell sumo squats 20 reps
Core Circuit; Complete 3 rounds with 1 minute rest in between rounds:
- Plank x 60 seconds
- Seated Medicine Ball Twist x 60 seconds
- V-Ups x 60 seconds
Weeks 15-16: Race Prep
At this point, it isn’t about expanding or pushing yourself, it’s about maintenance leading up to race day. You will want to taper everything down so that you still engage all of your muscle groups, but don’t enter into a race with soreness or overused muscles.
Light bodyweight exercises and stretching
- Push Ups 3x20
- Bodyweight Squats 3x50
- Walking Lunges 3x25
- Crunches 3x25
- Injury Prevention
Training for Overall Health
During all of this, it’s essential to keep your client’s health and wellbeing in check, from nutrition to injuries. Training for an endurance event requires more attention to nutrients and hydration than the average workout.
Also pay attention to issues like tenderness and pain. Common injuries like shin splints will require pushing through with special stretches, and attention to supporting muscles. Yoga can be a great way to increase the elasticity of the body which will make your clients more resilient. As always, make certain that your clients check with their doctor before starting any strenuous exercise regimen—especially training for a marathon.
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