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Combining Weight and Endurance Training for a Marathon

It’s not uncommon for folks who are weight training to suddenly get the urge to get into endurance activities.  More specifically they decide that they either want to ride a century bike event (100 miles), run a marathon (26.2 miles) or do one of those Tough Mudder events.  This raises the question of how best to combine weight and endurance training for those types of events.

Generally the explicit goal here is to be able to complete the event but not sacrifice too many of the hard earned gains from the weight room.  And that will be my primary focus in terms of the recommendations I’ll make.   That is, these are folks who primarily weight train and just have some desire to do one of these events.

I won’t explicitly be talking about the role of weight training for high-performance endurance athletes although much of the information will more or less apply to them.

Basic Training Schedules to Compete a Marathon or Century

Now there’s a lot of beginner marathon and century programs online.  I’ve linked out to some of them in the text underneath this video.  Hal HigdonJeff Galloway are some of the big running coaches.  There are a variety of Century approaches on the bike as well.  They all tend to take the same basic  format.

Which is you see three shorter workouts during the week and then one very long workout on the weekend.  For running, there are typically three shorter runs during the week, that one long run on Saturday.  For cycling you often see a little bit higher frequency since just because cycling doesn’t beat you up so badly.   But the general idea is the same, multiple shorter workouts during the week and then some long rides on the weekend when folks have more time.

So a basic marathon training schedule might look like the following overall.

Basic Marathon Training

The short runs might be anywhere from 3-5 miles and typically don’t change much.  Some approaches have the Wednesday medium workout increasing gradually over time.  Others use it for more quality work by which I mean some type of interval training.  The key run is the Saturday workout which gets progressively longer each week.  A typical program might start with 5-6 weeks and add one mile per week to reach 20 miles by three weeks before the event. If you can run 20, you can run 26.

Century programs look basically the same, workouts are a little bit longer since cycling workouts tend to be about twice as long (as running).  So you might see an hour bike ride a few times during the week with perhaps a harder ride on Wednesday.  Since people have more time on the weekends, Saturday or Sunday is the long ride.  It might start at 35 miles and add 5 miles per week until the person is doing 75-80 miles two weeks out from the event.  If you can do 80 miles, you can do 100.

Since the goal of this training is to complete the event, that means that the endurance training must take priority.

How Much Weight Training Should You Do?

The first recommendation I am going to make is cutting your weight training back to only twice per week.  In general I’d recommend two full-body workouts, both of which will also be done at a reduced volume.  When you’re trying to do high volume endurance training, there simply isn’t room or recovery for much more than that.

Honestly, two short full body workouts can be finished in 30-45 minutes under most conditions.  If the intensity is kept high, you will maintain the majority of your strength and muscle mass.  But you’re unlikely to successfully do much more than that.

Maintenance Training

As I’v written about for years, strength and muscle mass can be maintained with both a volume and frequency reduction of up to 2/3rds so long as intensity (weight on the bar) is maintained.  Someone who was doing 8 heavy sets twice weekly could maintain on as little as perhaps 3 sets once weekly.  It doesn’t seem like much but so long as you do your best to maintain intensity, you can maintain your strength and size for rather extended periods of time.

And I think this will be ideal for most people.  Pick a handful of efficient exercises that you know how to do.  Go do a couple of warm-up sets, then do a couple of heavy sets of 6-8 or 8-10 or whatever you were doing pre-endurance training and be done.  If you must, do a second exercise for 1 more set in a higher repetition range.

I’ve shown to very basic sample workouts below and the exercises should be considered examples only.

Full Body Workout Examples

And some of those exercises could even be dropped if desired.   Each workout might be done once weekly or someone could do the same workout both times.

Heavy/Light(Power)

Another possibility that should be seriously considered is sticking with two full body workouts but doing on heavier and the other one lighter/more explosively.   In the latter case, weights that are 75-85% of the heavy day’s weights would be used with the goal being more on movement speed.  So someone squatting 225X5 on a heavy workout might use 180-195 lbs and focus more on acceleration.

Using this type of approach can be critically important depending on how and when the weight training sessions are or can be scheduled relative to the other training.

Where Should the Weight Training Sessions Go?

So where should you put the weight training sessions?  There are several issues to consider here.  The first is that most people want to maintain as much of their strength and muscle mass as possible while training for the endurance events.  Whether it’s possible to maintain all of it in the face of this much volume is debatable.  But it’s certainly possible to minimize the losses if it’s done correctly.

The bigger issue become one of sequencing.  The first consideration is that, if your goal is to finish a marathon or ride a century, the endurance training is the priority.  For this reason you never want to put a weight workout on a day where it will negatively impact on the endurance training you are going to do.

Going forwards I’m going to make two assumptions about the weekly schedule.  The first is that Saturday is the long run or bike ride.   For a marathon/century this is absolutely the key workout and you want to do everything in your power to ensure that it can be done with as high a quality as possible.

The second is that Wednesday is either a little bit longer or harder than the other weekly workouts.  Ideally you don’t want that workout to suffer either.   If a choice has to be made for some weird reason, it’s better to negatively impact on the Wednesday workout than the Saturday workout.

What that would mean in general is that you don’t want to put your weight training the day before either of those workouts.  Coming into those workouts fatigued is a real danger.  Doing a long run on tired legs is a great way to get hurt.

Sequencing Option 1

So let’s assume you’re going to do 2 short full-body workouts with 2-3 heavy sets per muscle group tops.  Where do they go?  In an ideal world I would say to double them up with the two harder workouts on Wednesday and Saturday.  That is do them on the same day as those workouts.  But do them AFTER the endurance workouts.

The logic here is that by doing them after the key endurance workouts, they have no chance to negatively impact them.   It also allows for more total recovery during the week since there are only two truly hard days.  Yes, they can be brutally hard days but everything else is either off or easy.

Marathon Weights Option 1

The big assumption here is that your schedule can actually allow this.  Wednesday especially can be a problem.  Folks who work a typical job may be running in the evening and the idea of heading to the weight room shortly thereafter may be unrealistic.   Obviously if you’re able to run in the morning or afternoon, perhaps at lunch, weights could be done in the evening).

Saturday is a bit easier since typically you’d run/ride in the morning and could lift in the afternoon.  Even that assumes you don’t have life, family, etc. responsibilities.

Sequencing Option 2

So let’s assume that the above won’t work. Maybe you can’t train on Saturday due to family or other obligations so the double days are impossible.   That workout will be moved back to Friday which would mean that the second workout would fall on Monday or Tuesday.  I’ve shown both options below.

Marathon Weights Option 2

Option 1 would be my ideal.  Here the heavy full body workout would come on a Monday and, as above, it would need to be after the endurance workout.  Since the second weight workout must be on a Friday, this would almost mandate a lighter/power workout be done.  Otherwise the legs would just be too dead for Saturday to be any good.  The problem here is the same as with Sequencing Option 1 above with both weight workouts having to come on endurance training days.

Option 2 here puts the heavy legs day on Wednesday which is not ideal since it might negatively impact the Wednesday workout.  If this must be done, it must be done.  The Friday power workout still goes on Friday so that the legs aren’t too dead on Saturday.

Split Routines

Depending on their training background prior to starting endurance training, the fact is that many people don’t like full body workouts.  They tend to come in and out of vogue in the training world.  And under conditions like this, I happen to be a big fan of them.  A handful of exercises for a few sets gets it all done quickly and efficiently.  But it’s not for everyone.

One possible advantage of split routines within the context of endurance training is that it allows the workouts to be kept a lot shorter.  With even a basic Upper/Lower split, which is what I recommend, no workout should be more than about 10 total sets.  This can be cranked out fairly readily in 30 minutes so long as the lifter doesn’t dawdle and the workouts might look like this:

Marathon Split Routine Workout Examples

Note: the upper body is involved in sports such as running (maintaining good posture) and cycling (holding the handlbars and supporting the upper body) so don’t think that you can just destroy the upper body without consequences since most endurance training is lower body dominant.

Given the requirements for maintenance training, it would be possible to do upper and lower as infrequently as once/week and this give a lot of flexibility in scheduling, especially with the workouts being as short as they are.

For those who like to train more, doing both upper and lower twice/weekly would also work.  Finally, given how much other leg work is being done in most endurance training, it would be possible to train upper body twice per week and lower body only once/week.  I’ve shown some examples of how this might be sequenced below.

Marathon Split Routine Sequencing Options

Option 1 shows how training upper and lower once per week each might work.   Lower body is on Wednesday so as not to interfere with that day’s workout and upper is trained on Saturday.  Those two workouts could be easily switched.

Option 2 shows how an upper/lower split done twice weekly each might be scheduled.  The biggest drawback here is that every weight workout is on an endurance day which might make scheduling difficult.

Option 3 shows how a heavy/light (power) approach might work.  This would be good for trainee who were finding that two heavy days per week was simply too much given the demands of the endurance training.

Finally is Option 4 with an example of how two upper body and one lower body days might be scheduled.

Other Possibilities

There are of course other possibilities.  One of the assumptions I made above is that the endurance training schedule is Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday and there’s nothing that says that has to be the case.  In one of the endurance programs I linked to above, the training is done Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.  And that can actually make sequencing even easier.  Here’s one example, again with two full body workouts per week.

Marathon Weights Option 3

And in a sense this might be the ideal ideal schedule.  Certainly the Monday full body workout comes the day before Tuesday’s endurance workout.  But it’s a short workout to begin with.  So long as you’re not at risk of getting hurt, it should be fine.

This allows Wednesday’s higher quality workout to be done without interference.  Friday is a short full body power workout which shouldn’t negatively impact on the Saturday long workout.

Summary

Even though I didn’t cover every possible eventuality, I hope I gave you enough basic information to schedule training if you decided to put the weights on the back burner and do some sort of long duration endurance event.

Just remember the key points which are that

  1. You can maintain your weight room progress with a minimum of training.  The key is to maintain intensity as best as you can.
  2. During your endurance training, it becomes the priority and weight workouts must be scheduled around the endurance training rather than the other way around.
  3. So weight workouts must be sequenced so as to minimally (ideally never) negatively impact.

Good luck and happy marathoning or centurying or whatever.

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