Here’s What Happened to My Strength After Running a Marathon

In honor of finishing my second marathon recently as a powerlifter, I thought it would be interesting to jump into the conversation of how cardio affects our strength. The first thing you’re probably wondering is: “Why would you run a marathon?” Challenging myself with different forms of fitness has always been something that I’ve found rewarding. It’s the same reason I compete in powerlifting.

Many powerlifters fear doing “too much” cardio because they believe it will sacrifice their strength. Knowing this, I went out there and attempted one of the most extreme forms of cardio: a full marathon (26.2 miles). Along with that came 16-weeks of training, which included anywhere from 3-20 miles of running five times a week.

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My results aren’t going to be the same for everyone, but this may serve as a great reference point as to why you shouldn’t fear cardio, and what happened to my strength after training for a marathon.

The Marathon + Lifting Training

The first thing you should note are that genetics, gender, age, and other factors will play a part in whether this would be an effective program for you. For reference into my marathon training outline, I followed Hal Higdon’s Marathon Training: Intermediate 2 program (if you’re interested, search it!).

As vigorous as this training program looked, I was certain that if I didn’t keep up with my strength training, I would lose more strength than I was willing, so I created a program that would coincide with my running schedule.

My Strength Program Looked Like This

Weeks 1-5

Training 5x/week with Daily Undulated Periodization (DUP), alternating between 70-85% for my main movements. I benched 3x/week, hit squats 2x/week, and deadlifts 1x/week. DUP, or daily undulating periodization, is a style of training in which your training intensity, reps, sets, and weight lifted will vary from day-to-day. For example, on Monday I may have squatted 4×8 at 70%, but on Thursday, I may have squatted 6×5 at 80%.

This style of training can be beneficial in this scenario, as it provides better recovery for runners; consistently training at a higher intensity can be draining on the body, with running on top of it. Because of DUP, I was able to add in more weekly volume for my goal of maintaining muscle without causing too much soreness or exhaustion during my runs.

Week 6-12

Training 4x/week hitting 5×5’s of my main movements at 75-80% and increasing hypertrophy work slightly on those days. I removed a bench and squat day at this point, which left me benching 2x/week and hitting both squats and deadlifts only 1x/week.

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During this time, my runs became longer and more difficult, so my training frequency needed to be decreased. Although, I kept my overall training volume relatively high by adding in more accessory work after my main movements. This meant I was in the gym slightly longer in comparison to weeks 1-5.

Week 13-18

Training 2-3x/week, hitting 5x5s at RPE 7-8 and decreasing hypertrophy work. The main focus here was to do the bare minimum with main movements alone, listen to my body (autoregulation), and ultimately decrease the risk of overtraining. This was around the time that I were to run a full 20 miles in one session on three different occasions, which is tremendously rough on the body.

The Compound Lifts

My main movements throughout these weeks were based on my competition style lifts. For squat, I varied between high-bar and low-bar. With bench, I only focused on my competition bench with minimum exercise variations throughout the 18-weeks.

For deadlifts, because they are the most taxing and require the most recovery, I focused on sumo deadlifts and completely stopped training conventional, which is generally my competition style movement. Eliminating conventional deadlifts took out most of the stress on my back and made recovery unbelievably easier in comparison.

The Accessory Lifts

For the accessory movements, I focused on my weaknesses to improve not only my strength, but also my runs. If you notice a weakness or poor muscle activation, this is what I would recommend focusing on for your accessory work. My weakness happened to be in my glutes, so my primary accessory work for legs were hip thrust variations, glute kickbacks, and RDL’s.

Running hits the legs hard, so I kept training volume for the legs to a minimum as far as accessory work goes. When it comes to accessory work for upper body, my exercise selection was similar to when I’m training for a powerlifting meet because your upper body isn’t as affected from running outside of overall recovery. My go-to accessory work for upper body was overhead press, row variations, lat pull downs, cable face pulls, incline dumbbell press, and chest flies.

Overall, the program was set up so that the strength training and marathon training would correlate; as the volume increased in my runs, the volume in my strength training would decrease, but just enough so that I didn’t stop seeing progress.

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The Nutrition

We all know that nutrition is incredibly important as an athlete. I contribute a large portion of my success in maintaining my muscle to how I went about my nutrition, although it wasn’t anything special. All I did was increase the amount of calories I was eating due to my increase in total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) so that I was still maintaining weight.

This means that I was eating the same amount (in calories) that I was burning. Since I was burning more calories, I now had to eat more to maintain my weight. To learn more about TDEE, check out this video.

This not only gave me the physical energy to put forth my best effort in my lifting sessions, but it also allowed me to maintain muscle to the best of my ability. If the training and nutrition are aligned, it seems that the cardio, outside of the extremes, doesn’t have much of an impact on lifters as people tend to think.

It’s also worth noting that I wasn’t consuming any meat, making my overall protein intake lower than the average powerlifter. At about 165 pounds, I was eating around 100 grams of protein per day. My carb intake varied from 200-270 grams per day and my fats varied from 90-110 grams.

My protein sources were limited, mostly coming from eggs and protein supplements. When programming my meals, this is the first macronutrient that I work with, aka trying to get my protein as high as possible to maintain muscle mass throughout my training. This is one of the more important macronutrient sources to pay attention to.

Carb sources were what I relied on for the majority of my energy when it came to my training. Since I wasn’t eating meat, the second highest caloric intake for me were my fats. If you want to find your recommended macros, a good place to start is with an online macro calculator.

If you decide to use a calculator, the macros may not be perfectly accurate, but they will get you to a decent starting point and you can adjust based on your results after a couple of weeks of trying it out. You can also check out this video if you’d like to get an almost exact number within three days, based on your activity level and lifestyle.

My personal recommendation for your macro percentages is to do what feels best for you, as long as your overall health is being maintained. Start with the general recommendations, and after a month or so, you’ll have a better idea of what feels better for you. If you notice that you wish to have more carbs over fats, then you can adjust the percentages slightly until you find the amount that you feel best consuming.

The Recovery

That leaves us to the recovery plan. This is the biggest factor that may prevent someone from doing something as taxing as this. Your body needs to recover to progress. If you go over your maximal recovery volume, you’ll get sick, injured, or both. Due to probable factors such as my age, gender, and genetics, I was able to more easily maintain strength while training for 18-weeks on an intermediate runner’s program for a full marathon.

So, what actually happened to my strength?

The Results

Here’s a visual reference on how my body composition and muscle mass looked before and after I began training for the marathon.

  • 6-weeks into the training, I was able to increase the weight during my hypertrophy work.
  • 13-weeks into my training, I was able to hit new PR’s in all of my main movements.
  • 4-weeks out from my marathon, I was able to hit a new 1RM for bench.

What This Means for You

Most of you out there probably aren’t going to go run a marathon, but hopefully this information gives you the confidence and eliminated your fears of including cardio into your program as a strength athlete.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @lexesohara Instagram page. 

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Lexes is a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist. Her primary focus with her athletes and clients is strength, nutrition, and physique transformations. She runs a blog called Flex Club where you can find helpful tips and motivation to begin your journey into fitness. Her competitive side of fitness was introduced at age 3, when she began bowling in league. By age 8, she was winning scholarships in state and junior nationals and at 18 began competing in USBC Women's Championships. She first picked up a pair of dumbbells at 17 and, soon after, competed in her first NPC bikini show. After developing binge-eating disorder, she began doing more reseach on the mental aspects of fitness and nutrition. At age 22, she re-discovered the fun and competitive side of fitness, where she got into powerlifting and marathon running (the full 26.2). She has been personal training and online coaching since 2014, using her past experiences to help current clients.