By Coach Maria Alcoke
Maria is an accomplished endurance sport athlete and is the endurance coach at Performance360. She has six Top-10 race finishes and has completed the long course Wildflower Half Ironman.
I know plenty of endurance athletes who rarely step foot in a weight room. Instead, they spend their time on their bike, in the water or out on a long run. If you love running (or cycling or swimming) so much that you want to do it all day every day, then more power to you. For me, I have found a mix of weights, distance and interval runs to be the most effective formula for getting faster and staying injury free.
If you create a routine that includes high-to-low intensity work, an appropriately positioned distance workout, and a dedicated strength training program then you’re looking at the perfect blend of strength, speed and endurance on the course. This is the regimen that I’ve followed for every endurance event I have completed in the past almost three years since joining P360, and I’ve seen my times improve quite drastically each year.
Additionally, the diverse training has forced me to dial in my focus on recovery, something a lot of first time racers overlook.
The Traditional Training Template
This plan is an example of a traditional advanced marathon training schedule centered entirely around running. It can certainly be very effective for athletes who are able to follow it strictly, and has produced a lot of great times in beginners and advanced runners alike. However, in my opinion it lacks the critical element of strength training.
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Personally, I don’t find the six-day-a-week running schedule to be nearly as effective as a well rounded, reduced mileage approach that’s focused on quality of runs over quantity. I know the traditional route works very well in a lot of circles, and will certainly get you started, but you must have a diverse running plan along with a strength training element to sit alongside it.
The first marathon I ever trained for was in 2010, just prior to starting my training at P360. I was new to the sport so I followed a more traditional template much like the one above and I ended up developing an overuse injury to my lower left leg after just four months of a heavy running program. In the two weeks leading up to the race, I started experiencing issues in my right IT band and I knew there was a correlation between the IT band strain and my left leg injury, some kind of overcompensation. I managed to complete the race but my time was slower than I had originally planned for and I was not satisfied.
I finished in 4 hours and 10 minutes and I knew there was a better, more efficient way that wouldn’t have me stumbling towards the starting line.
The diagnosis of my left leg was a result of scar tissue build up in my calves from constant over use of solely focusing on running. Because I hadn’t put a lot of focus into recovery, foam rolling or massage during my training, my calf muscles were extremely tight from all of the running which caused issues in the front of my legs, and because I had never resolved the root of the issue, the injury came back almost immediately once I began increasing my mileage again.
The Better Method: The Big 3
While the traditional training format of miles upon miles works for some, I knew that I needed another plan of attack if I wanted to stay injury free, get faster and still train long distances. I knew I needed to run, but I also knew I had to cut down my mileage and improve on my strength.
So I focused on the following three training types:
- Longer Run (once per week on the weekends) — to maintain stamina
- Strength Training (two days per week) — to improve running economy and speed
- Interval Runs (two days per week) — to get more out of less miles
Brian McKenzie is one of the most well known endurance athletes to rely on strength training, chronicled in his book Power, Speed, Endurance. I followed a similar Big 3 template leading up to the San Diego Half Marathon and I finished in 1:37:49 with a 7:28/mile pace. I was stoked and immediately saw this diverse, lower mileage approach had proven effective.
A friend convinced me that I could qualify for Boston so I registered for CIM in Sacramento and went all in. The qualifying time for women in my age group is 3:35 which is equivalent to an 8:12/mile pace. I had run my first marathon prior to strength training at a 9:40/mile pace following the traditional running only plan.
After I joined P360 and implemented my strength training, my first half marathon saw a 7:28/mile pace with training that focused on quality of mileage over quantity. I figured if I mimicked the modified plan for this upcoming race I would be able to pull off the required Boston qualifying time and sure enough, I ran a 3:30 in the pouring rain and 15 MPH headwinds.
- Running only — 4:10
- Big 3 — 3:30
This was a forty minute improvement from my first marathon.
I learned something very valuable here. Number one, just how much the strength training helped me push through the poor conditions and head winds. Number two, it is very possible to train for a 26.2 mile race while never exceeding 30 miles in a week. That it’s all about the strength and interval element to both keep your legs fresh and your economy at max efficiency.
I want to bring special attention to number three as adding interval work to my routine was a huge difference maker. It allowed me to maximize my time while avoiding constant longer sessions that beat up my joints, shins and IT band. The important thing to remember about interval or tempo training sessions are that they are not to be treated as casual jogs. I set out with an intention at the beginning of each session to feel gassed at the end in order to build up endurance and strength for the long runs.
Once a race is two months out and I’m increasing my mileage in my distance workouts, I dial it back on strength as I tend to be much more sore after heavy lift days. In the months leading up to a race I am usually performing sets of deadlifts at around two hundred pounds, and in those two months pre-race I will scale that back significantly. That’s not to say that you can’t train max strength and speed for a race, but if your goal is to run a sub-4 hour marathon, don’t be disappointed if you aren’t seeing a 1 rep PR during your prime training! Know that while strength can still be a goal, it may have to take a backseat if a race is your priority.
If I’m focusing on a race, I add another interval or some kind of short, fast workout to the mix.
To lend some perspective, I’m currently training for the Boston Marathon and I still train at the gym 3-4 times per week along with my interval and distance work.
So, What’s a Good Training Split?
If you are a competitive or aspiring endurance athlete, I recommend the following sample training schedule.
- 2-3x/week — P360 Weight Training
- 1x/week — P360 Endurance (interval runs)
- 1x/week — 1 Long Distance Run
- 1x/week — P360 Yoga (Active recovery)
- 1x/week — Complete rest (Passive recovery)
Stick to intervals once a week for the first 6 weeks or so. For the longer runs, you want to be sure to build up over time, my rule of thumb is an additional 2-3 miles each week. Mental endurance is just as important as physical endurance, so to stay accountable I like to post my workouts in my calendar at the start to every week. It allows me to mentally prepare for the longer workouts, plus I can track the work I’ve done to make sure I’m not overdoing it.
You MUST be prepared to take your recovery seriously. Distance running can beat you up if you don’t take it seriously so it’s very important you have your recovery strategy in place just like your training.
My recovery involves a lot of time spent with the foam roller, ice and epsom salt baths, active release massage therapy (this is my life saver) and yoga. If you are just starting out with endurance training, allow yourself to build up before you start adding in additional work to avoid over training, because it will absolutely happen if you don’t monitor your volume.
I hope this article is helpful for both beginners and more advanced athletes. I look forward to helping everyone in the P360 Endurance Classes and anyone who is interested in improving their cardio conditioning and stamina. I can’t wait to see everyone’s progress!
Please feel free to ask if you have any additional questions!
Maria Alcoke is the Endurance Coach at Performance360. She is also a member of the Level II Barbell Club and number three all time in the gym strict pull-up record.