Yes, I have the answer to the question that all runners want to know the answer to, ” How do you run a sub 2 hour marathon?”
In today’s article, we are going to discuss why current marathon training is compromised and how it could be improved. The reality is that what we are going to suggest is extreme to the point of practically impossible but none the less we will propose a theoretical plan to enable somebody very close to breaking the official world marathon record and run sub 2 hours. Now even though this may be a bit of a crazy idea some of this could be employed by any runner in a toned-down version to improve their marathon times.
Strength trainings effect on endurance running
Now we have done a previous article on why runners should include strength training into there usual running training (Click image for article):
For those who haven’t read the above article, It has been found that strength training done concurrently with running training definitively makes you run faster in endurance running.
As a recap to this evidence, a study by Mikkola et al (2011) had endurance runners perform heavy resistance training concurrently with their endurance training for an 8 week period, which isn’t long but in spite of this, the runners improved their running economy, top speed, VO2 max and maximal endurance performance. Piacentini et al (2013) had endurance runners perform low-rep high weight resistance training and they found significant gains in their running economy.
So this is conclusively highlighting the benefits of strength training to endurance running. There is a huge but though, concurrent training (training two types of training at the same time) is not optimal. The effect is called the interference effect.
What is the interference effect?
This is exactly as it sounds, the effect on the development of strength is impeded by doing endurance exercise in the same periodised training plan. It has been shown that if you compare the strength gained from strength training alone it is much better than when done concurrently with endurance exercise (Fyfe et al 2014). So we have established that being strong makes you run marathons faster and we have also established that endurance training stunts the optimal effects of this. So what do you do? You have to run and do your endurance training, don’t you?
It depends how committed to the goal of running a sub 2 hour marathon you are!
So strap in, here is the plan:
Minimal running and no cardiovascular training
Sounds scary, but we want to gain the maximum possible amounts of strength to accentuate this effect on your marathon time. So amazingly, you are going to stop all endurance training with the exception of a tiny bit of running. The reason to keep 1 run per week in place is for technique and nothing else and you should only do 1 short-run, purely working on technique and form and you should not max it out in terms of speed or fatigue at all. Now this will definitely make your running performance plummet for the moment but don’t worry. Now you have cleared the interference effect you can focus on something that you never have before, you can do optimal strength training without metaphorically tieing one hand behind your back.
How to train for strength
You really need to use high loads that get you relatively close to failure as this is the best approach for strength, a term called specificity is what this is about. The loading should not be the same for everyone, you need to work out your training load on your 1 rep maximum or 1RM. This is the amount of weight that you can lift just once and not a rep more. Heavy loads are a requirement to develop strength according to Schoenfeld et al (2017) and this is not disputed for strength by anybody in the research. It has been found that around 70% of a 1RM is the minimum to achieve the optimal strengthening effect but everyone is different so this has some poetic license. Other ways to work out the load are based on either Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) or Reps In Reserve (RIR) for a given load in the rep ranges that you are planning on doing in each set. If you are experienced with this type of training then your body has built up a tolerance to the stimulus and so greater loads than a newbie will be needed.
The reps per set will need to be working close to failure, which means unable to lift the next rep but not to the point that you can’t lift the next one. A study by Haun et al (2018) found that 4.4 Reps In Reserve (RIR) was the tipping point at which the muscle-building effects started to significantly lessen. So you should be 5 reps off failure but not 6 or 7 off otherwise this is suboptimal. An example of this would be around an RPE of 7 and above.
Your reps per set can be as low as 1 rep per set but this is not a great idea to do very often even for powerlifters but as runners, this is just pointless. The maximum rep amount per set should be around no more than 10 reps and as a runner, I would say go more to the higher end of this scale. Kubo et al (2020) found ideal rep ranges for strength gains when comparing strength between training at a 4RM, 8RM and 12RM and they found that the 12RM group didn’t get as strong as the other two groups.
An example set would be planning 9 reps in a set with an RIR of no more than 5. This would mean that you would want to be able to do no more than 14 reps if a gun was pressed to your head and using the RPE method you would be feeling 7/10 exhaustion at rep 9.
These will vary based on your reps in each set. For example, if a strongman was performing 2 reps per set, then 3 sets of this would be insufficient as you will only have done 6 total working reps for that exercise and at the other end of the spectrum, you wouldn’t want to do something bodybuilders sometimes do such as German volume training, which is 10 sets of 10 reps as this would be 100 reps per exercise. Unlike building muscle strength doesn’t need high volumes of work per session the most important aspect is the load being heavy (Mattocks et al 2017). Like most things in life a more moderate approach would be best, so having sets between 3 to 5 sets would be a good zone to work in. So 2 examples could be 4 sets of 7 reps (28 total reps) or 3 sets of 9 reps (27 total reps). Both of these would be of a similar volume and neither is too low or too high in terms of total reps per exercise.
Rests between sets:
This is not endurance training you will be resting for most of the time and this is because absolute full recovery between sets is the key, as the goal is to lift heavy every time within your rep and set amounts. Grgic et al (2018) found that 2 minutes between sets was enough but I think that this will depend on the RIR or RPE, the load, the type of exercise and the cardiovascular fitness of the person performing the exercise. Even though as a runner you will have great CV fitness I would air on the side of bigger rest times between sets and exercises. Honestly, the best approach is to listen to your own body and your actual performance in each set. If you feel recovered and ready to go and you can do the same reps to the same RIR or RPE then you are good to go!
In a study by Colquhoun et al (2018) they compared strength gains with one group training 3 times per week and another group training 6 times per week and found no difference when the volume was equal for the entire week. So for strengthening, high frequency isn’t needed nor high volume, that being said, you do need some volume per week but it is more quality (heavy) over quantity!
Range of motion:
Full range of movement of the exercise is better according to McMahon et al (2014). In this study, they compared full range of movement to partial range of movement and they even increased the load on the shortened range too. They trained 3 times per week over 8 weeks and overall they found significant differences between each group. The full range of motion group was superior to the short-range group. However, strength is functional and this is key for you as a runner, you simply don’t need to train into a range that you will never use or need, so look at the angles of your joints when running and train to this extent of the range.
So you may already or should already be periodising your training as a runner but just in case you aren’t, periodisation is simply the plan of your training from the point that you are at to competing or your goal. This is aimed at optimising training and recovery to get you peaking at the correct point. Periodisation is split into the big picture, which is your macrocycle, this can be broken down into smaller chunks of training blocks called mesocycles and then in each mesocycle, you break it down into your weekly training plan which is your microcycle and even smaller than this would be your individual training sessions.
Then there are types of progression approaches in your periodisation, such as linear periodisation or non-linear periodisation. Linear is where at the start you have high volume but low-intensity workloads and you gradually increase your intensity and simultaneously reduce your volume until you hit peak performance with low fatigue. This is great in theory or if you compete only very infrequently as you can work through this until you peak and you compete. The problem is that people compete many times through a season and this means they will not perform well throughout the year until the final event. This is why non-linear periodisation is needed, simply this is much more varied with periods of shorter highs and low. In this, there are daily undulating, weekly undulating and block periodisations. Now I’m not going to go into this for running but periodisation is also done for strength training and because you are planning to now almost exclusively focus on strength and your aim is to peak this at one moment in time then you will employ linear periodisation to your strength training.
Periodisation of strength training
So remember this idea is purely theoretical and not really feasible and so the plan is to do 1 year of linear periodisation for strength training, yeah you heard me correctly, you are going to train for strength for 1 year and not compete in running for 1 year and only do 1 short sharp technique run per week for a year to completely focus on maximal strength gains.
Good luck with that!
So at the start of the year, you will have higher workload volumes per mesocycle but the loads (intensity will be low). Gradually throughout the year, you will increase your load/intensity and simultaneously reduce your volume to hit maximum strength and load in your training at 1 year from the start.
Deloads for strength training
During this time your will need deloads every so often to allow recovery of tissues and of performance. These are usually done roughly every 4-6 weeks and are usually 1 easy week meaning less load/intensity and /or volume and in some cases even a week off. Below is a video going into deloads more:
Calories, protein and creatine
Now runners need to be light in bodyweight terms to be as energy-efficient as possible but for strength, this is practically the reverse of this. Another issue is that building muscle for strength is energy consuming and that is why during this theoretical year you will increase your overall calories to around 10% above your maintenance amount, which you will have to trial and error but essentially you want to be gaining weight very slowly (hopefully muscle more than fat). As we know proteins are the building blocks of building muscle so you need to get this up with foods that have a good amino acid spread, especially leucine amounts. This is easy with non-vegans as all meat and dairy will cover this easily but you will need to get a bit more inventive if you are vegan but it can be done without question.
So how much protein is optimum for maximal strength gaining?
This is all about looking at what is called muscle-protein synthesis and it has been found in many studies that somewhere between 1.6 grams and 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight are optimal. If you are a bit older then you could benefit from more, for example Morton et al (2018) found 2.2 grams was found to be the optimal point for muscle building and strength in older age groups. Chances are when you work this out for yourself you will be low on this requirement. So if it is low then increase it per day and don’t worry too much about when you consume it as long as your daily amounts are up in this zone.
The final dietary guidance on strength improvements is on creatine and this is because creatine supplementation is excellent at improving power and strength training as was found by Dempsey et al (2002) with a 9.76kg improvement in strength on the squat with creatine use. To find out more about Creatine and it uses, click the video below:
Easy to maintain strength
Now somebody’s argument could be asking the question: ” After a year of this won’t I just lose my strength as I go back to normal running training?” The answer is no, providing that you train with the same loads and intensity but with one-third of the volume. So it is feasible and practical to train once per week for strength maintenance after this year is completed. This video talks about this and the study highlighting this effect by Tavares et al (2017).
After the year of maximising strength development
So the theoretical runners year from hell has finished and now you need to try to maintain as much of the strength that you gained and build your running ability back to its previous levels. Hopefully combining significant strength to your usual abilities will speed that marathon time up enough to maybe break that pesky sub 2 hour marathon time (obviously if you were Eliud Kipchoge or somebody else close).
So you need to gradually bring your weight back down so you get back to your running weight or as close as you can. You need to do this very gradually and you must maintain high protein throughout otherwise you risk losing strength significantly.
Reduce strength training to maintenance volume
At the same time as reducing calories, you need to drop your weight training gradually to just once per week as this should be enough to maintain your strength providing you are still lifting heavy. Your aim is to try to keep your weights the same for the same rep and set numbers as best you can.
Build running up
As you bring down your weight session frequency you need to gradually build up your running frequency with a linear periodisation approach. As you see your running performance improve then revert to your usual periodised running training with your once per week heavy weights session.
If you didn’t already know, beetroot is excellent for improving endurance so it may be beneficial to supplement this along with your creatine. Check out the benefits of beetroot in the video below discussing the research by Peeling et al (2018) where they found an improvement in running economy through improved oxygen uptake and blood flow.
Boom! Sub 2 hour marathon time?
Ok, so doing this is not practically applicable due to you not being able to run as much or compete etc. and as an athlete, you have to compete to satisfy sponsors and get paid and as a runner, you just want to run. The other issue is it’s a long haul approach which could take 18 months to 2 years or even longer with no guarantees that the outcome would produce the 2 hour marathon time. So as I have mentioned throughout this is really a theoretical exercise. However, there is some wiggle room! These types of ideas can still be implemented in a watered-down fashion to get at least some of the proven benefits of this type of approach. So if you aren’t doing strength training you should, if you aren’t using creatine or beetroot you could. It is distinctly possible to have one or two training blocks/mesocycles dedicated to strength training without the interference-effect. So although you won’t optimise the true potential of strengthening you will still benefit to some degree.
Anyway, this was just a fun article just to propose a theoretical way to shave that last bit of time off your marathon but the pros and cons clearly outweigh each other negatively but like as said you can definitely take some of this and apply it.
Happy running and lifting!
The content in this blog article is provided for general information purposes only and is not meant to replace a physiotherapy or medical consultation.