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Marathon Fitness vs. Total Fitness

Fact: you don’t have to be in excellent shape to run a marathon.

Now before you go thinking I’m crazy for saying something so counter-intuitive, let me explain. To train for a marathon, the only thing you really have to do is run. You start off running a little, and gradually over time, you build up enough endurance and strength to continue running for hours on end. Is this hard? Yes. Do you need to be strong to do it? Absolutely. But do you need to be in great all-around shape? Not really.

In case you haven’t noticed, running a lot isn’t automatically going to give you a strong core or great flexibility. When you run, you are essentially practicing the same movements over and over. Ultimately, this is going to make you really good at those movements, and it will help your body become very efficient at keeping you moving for long periods of time. What it doesn’t do, however, is work every single muscle, leaving you strong and toned all over.

In an ideal world, runners should supplement their running with other activities – like cross training and weight lifting. Not only will these things make you in better all-around shape, but they will also make you a stronger runner.

The problem is, similar to the training for any endurance event, the actual running part of training takes a lot of time. And for most of us, running isn’t actually our full time job (sadly enough). There’s only so much you can fit into any given day. So unless you’re willing to cut back on the running or add to your total time working out, it’s really easy to let the non-running parts of training slide.

Clearly, this is the only reason why Kara and I both run marathons, yet I do not look like this: (okay, fine… so there might be just a little more to it than that…)

eliterunners.jpgThis woman just gave birth and has better abs than I do

Other forms of exercise aren’t the only things to go when you’re marathon training. For me, when my miles go up, my other movement goes down. Way down. Sure, I may run for a couple of hours one day a week, but in the days leading up to it, I’m resting to conserve energy. And then for a day and a half after my run, I’m resting to recover. Anyone who has never trained for a marathon before might be surprised at how much resting is actually involved.

Not only that, but it’s easy to let fruit and veggie consumption go down too, as peanut butter and carb consumption go up. Meals become planned around runs, and it’s a lot easier to snack on pretzels before a run than an apple.

Add to that the decreased activity level that occurs during a taper, and then resting after a marathon to recover (but yet an appetite that still seems convinced I need to stock up on calories!), and by the end of the full cycle, I’m left feeling a bit like the Pillsbury Doughboy.



Don’t get me wrong. I love training for marathons. I love the discipline, the challenge, and the opportunity to push my body harder and further than I had ever thought possible. There is something incredibly rewarding and addicting about this test of endurance, and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean I think that marathon training is the path to a well-balanced, healthy lifestyle. And honestly, I like having time between marathons to build up my fitness base – and get back into better all-around shape.

I always go into a training cycle with the best intentions. I plan to cross train regularly, lift often, and take Yoga classes to increase my flexibility. But a month or so into training, the same thing inevitably happens. I get busy, and my motivation to do anything that makes me more tired on my runs goes out the window.

Now that my spring marathon is done, I’m fighting the urge to just run, and taking steps to incorporate other forms of exercise into my life. For the next couple of months, I want to focus more on:

  • Lifting - my goal is to do this workout twice a week
  • Yoga – I need to break the mentality that if my heart rate isn’t up, I’m not really working out. I know Yoga is good for my inflexible-injury prone self
  • Classes – my comfort zone is running, not group exercise classes. But I need to break out of that comfort zone, and start trying new things like spinning (do you hear that Becky??)
  • (and if I’m feeling particularly ambitious) Other forms of exercise like cycling and swimming - one of these days, I will actually get around to training for a triathlon.

I will still be running and racing  (I have another race coming up next weekend), but that’s not going to be my primary focus. I’m going to try really hard to restore some sort of fitness-related balance to my life, so that by the time I start ramping my mileage back up in July, I’ll be in really good shape. And who knows – maybe this time around, I’ll actually stick with it.

Thoughts? Agree/disagree? Does being a marathon runner automatically mean that you’re in great shape? And is it really the best approach to a balanced, healthy lifestyle?

45 Responses to Marathon Fitness vs. Total Fitness

  1. While it may not use every muscle, I do love how it tones my legs and simultaneously requires me to engage my core for hills and balance, etc. I do think that a variety of workouts is most conducive to full-body fitness, though, which is why I’m trying to mix it up by doing both distance and speedwork along with weights, yoga, ellipticalling, and other “fun” workouts like dancing and rockclimbing! It’s like eating – the more variety, the better!

    • Yes! I completely agree. In fact, running makes my leg muscles get bigger (which I know isn’t the case for everyone but definitely happens to me)! And I think the comparison you made between needing variety in workouts like we need variety in the foods we eat is a great one! I’m going to remember that.

  2. Very good, interesting post! I said the same thing to my mom the other day after watching Boston “I truly believe anyone can run a marathon if they train right”, but often times training right means forgetting about other parts of your health and fitness. Running a marathon is a goal of mine, but I know even when I was training a half it was hard to work in everything else I wanted to do while working and being in class.

    • I believe that too! One of these days I will figure out how to balance everything, but usually the marathon training is such a huge goal that it comes at the expense of everything else. …which I think is totally fine. I just can’t do it all the time.

  3. I definitely agree with this. I was in much worse shape for the National Marathon than I was back in November before I got injured and was sidelined for 6 weeks. Even now my first goal for the next marathon is to get in better shape, which I would have thought comes naturally with marathon training but I’ve learned is so dependent on what you eat. The fun part of it is running and noticing that your mile pace has dropped 20 seconds even though you feel essentially the same.

    • Isn’t it crazy how that happens? I definitely got faster over the winter, but I was in much better overall shape last summer when I was lifting and cross training a lot (and my mileage was a lot lower). And it’s hard for me to control what I eat (and probably more importantly, how much!) when I’m marathon training. I always just use the excuse that it’s better to be over-fueled than under-fueled :)

  4. I agree but I don’t have much experience with it since I haven’t trained for a marathon. Since I swim & bike (okay maybe not so much), I find it helps with my overall fitness. I wish I could add weights in as well – but like you said, time, time time.
    Tanya´s last post ..Crowd Support

  5. Totally agree. I haven’t ran a marathon (yet) but I’m training for a half next month and while it’s not as rigorous as marathon training, my other activities (bikram, kickboxing, weight training and other gym classes) have taken a backseat. I really need to push myself to cross train more but sometimes I really just don’t have the time! Great post.

  6. Totally agree. I feel more in shape when I am doing some running (not a ton, and mainly speedier workouts), doing yoga, weight training, and other cardio like swimming and fitness classes, VS just running. And I think it’s so important for the body to recover in between training cycles. I’m glad I’m not the only one who goes into marathon training thinking I will do tons of weight training and cross-training, but not wanting to live at the gym or give up other things in my life to make that happen. Unless it’s your job, it’s hard to fit in a lot of other things besides the miles. Great post, Lauren!
    Corey @ the runners cookie´s last post ..One day at a time

    • Yes! I’m glad you can relate to that!! I am always impressed by people who manage to do it all and still successfully train for a marathon. Maybe one of these days I’ll figure out a better balance. But for now…that’s why I love my in-between training times so much.

  7. Yoga can SO get your HR up, and leave you feeling like you had an awesome full-body workout for a few days! Look for Power Yoga, Baptiste Yoga, Vinyasa Flow – these are just a few styles that are more “athletic” than simply flexibility/meditation-style. PLUS – the static holds really trigger your slow-twitch muscle fibers which is awesome to accompany all of your fast-twitchers you use when running!

    • Thank you for pointing this out! Clearly I am a little ignorant when it comes to Yoga…and am too much of a stubborn runner to appreciate this about it. :) I have tried power yoga once, and you are right – it was a much better workout than I expected. I’m going to follow your recommendation and start looking for these types of classes. I know it’ll be really good for me (and really help my running!) to actual practice Yoga regularly. So thank you!!

  8. I totally agree. In fact I think I become a better runner when I do my strength training. Switching it up is very important to keep improving your body. It was hard for me to get into yoga but new it was good for runners. I finally found a style that I love called vinyasa and now I try to do yoga once a week.
    Sarah´s last post ..The Dreaded Scale

    • I need to actually do this too! I know in my head that regular Yoga will make me a better runner, but I just have a problem sticking with it. I think I need to make a real commitment…and then hopefully a few classes will leave me hooked!

  9. Great article! I definitely need to incorporate more strength and cross training into my marathon training but hey, I’ve only run one so I’ve got a lot of room to grow!

    It was great to meet you in Boston!!
    Christy´s last post ..three things thursday

    • It was great meeting you too!! Let me know if you ever make another trip up to Boston! And I’ll let you know if I ever head down to NYC.

  10. great post! I totally agree – *just* running isn’t the best way to stay in overall great shape. Especially if you don’t want to get injured. I find that strength training, yoga and XT have really helped my running and gotten me a lot stronger. When the mileage goes up and I get into marathon training in a few months, my goal is to keep up with all of these things as much as I can!
    Kelly´s last post ..Spring Races

  11. As with all of your posts — I love this post! It is SOOOO true. I think when you start running it’s kinda like being in a new relationship. It consumes you. You just want to run. You kinda forget that there are other things going on. But then you gain weight and all you do is eat and you hardly see your other friends (who aren’t runners). It can be really hard to find that balance sometimes! Even now, when I’m not training for a race, I think — why not just run, it’s SO much easier for tie up my laces and go outside! I’ve vowed to make it to the gym twice a week now (and not hop on a treadmill) — NO EXCUSES. Hope I can stick with it!

    Oh, I do hope you love spinning. Give it a couple of classes. It really grows on you!!

    • haha yes! I love this analogy!!

      Good luck sticking with your new commitment to the gym. So far I’ve only actually made it there once a week. But baby steps, right…? :)

  12. I completely agree. I find it really hard to keep up strength training during marathon training because I never want to be fatigued for my long runs. I think my body fat % went up in marathon training actually!
    Liz´s last post ..Run To Work

  13. Totally agree. I think training for a marathon puts you in great shape, but it’s very specific shape for cardio fitness – not all ’round “best shape”.
    RunEatRepeat´s last post ..Leaving Las Vegas

  14. You know how I roll – eat, run, rest, repeat. It’s a vicious cycle and it works for my mental state, but it definitely leaves me feeling less fit than if I stuck to a more well-rounded workout routine. Luckily, I have a solution. We get the {ontherun} family plan at the Y, go to classes, spin, swim and become the fittest, fastest marathoners around. Deal? Good.
    Becky´s last post ..Dig Deep

  15. I think this is all the more reason to join the YMCA ;) For reals.

    These are really similar to my goals too – I want to become really well-rounded and enjoy all of those activities. If you want a strength training plan, I’m happy to ask my brother – he’s great at putting them together and really knows what he’s doing.

    So fun to hang out last night, neighbor!
    Erin @ Big Girl Feats´s last post ..Kripalu Scones

  16. I go through this, too. I WANT to incorporate other forms of exercise such as lifting but I just end up running.
    DC Runographer´s last post ..Back to basics

  17. This is so true…I definitely felt like I was in great shape when I was swimming and biking when I was injured from running last year. Swimming is an AMAZING workout. If only gyms weren’t so expensive, gah! Plus, I actually LIKE running, whereas swimming definitely felt more like I was working out. (Which is also why I don’t lift…seems like a workout to me!)

    I’ve heard of people who didn’t do anything to their running routine, but they added in weights and core, and they dropped significant time from their marathons. Not sure what it’s actually related to (second marathon? the weights?), but I figure it can’t actually hurt.

    But as you said, once marathon training ramps up, my dreams of fitting in cross training or weight lifting or core work fizzle. Even when I say, “Only ten minutes per day!” I get home from work and I’m tired. And I need to eat healthy. It’s hard work being a marathoner, but I do love it.

    However, I would LOVE to rock a 10k…if I ever get myself to stop signing up for marathons, I’m totally becoming a rock solid runner…
    Susan´s last post ..a tribute and a tour

  18. Completely agree! Since I love to run (and it seems I’m always training for something), running will ALWAYS trump yoga, core work, etc. I have been better this cycle with yoga…I do it abut once per week. I definitely think it has made a difference too. Next thing I want to try is BodyPump but I just need to find the time…ahhh!

  19. I’ve ALWAYS struggled with maintaining the balance between running and other fitness “stuff” during the spring/summer training months. I love group fitness classes and live for them in the colder (aka non-running months), but they always go out the window in the summer! I literally am in better overall shape in the winter when my mileage is really, really low because I’m doing so much more lifting and yoga and cross training! Like you, my goal this spring/summer is to keep a little bit more cross training in the routine! I hope it keeps me out of the PT’s office and injury free :)

  20. I have been in the best shape of my life while deep in tri season (hint hint).
    Emily´s last post ..Introducing- Sweaty Dates

  21. I have a hard time finding balance when I’m training for a race. I try to lift, but it always gets put on the back burner.

    I’m trying to do more yoga too. Hopefully we can motivate each other.

  22. I completely agree! It’s hard to work in strength training when I’m running for 2 hours a day, then resting the next day. I’ve been really good at getting in 1 power yoga class a week to stretch out and work other muscles, but I could definitely use more.
    Lauren´s last post ..Mocha Madness

  23. I can completely relate to this! It’s funny actually, because my sister and I were JUST discussing this earlier today! I was talking to her about how I think I was in the worst shape I’ve ever been in when I ran NYC last fall. Leading up to the marathon, I let all my weight training and cross training go out the window, and I was resting about 3 days a week. I’m running NYC again this fall and I have every intention to be in great all-around shape at the starting line!
    Liz´s last post ..Coconut Birds Nest Cookies

  24. 100% agree- that’s probably why runners come in all shapes and sizes. I cross train during training but not hard and I don’t really lift. I defnitely know I need to get back into it. It’s a really interesting question because if you can run a marathon you are in great cardiovascular shape but are you in shape shape? Hmmm… tricky!
    Lizzy´s last post ..Race Recap- The Boston Marathon

  25. Another voice for the chorus of agreement here. :) For a while, I was really good about alternating early morning yoga class with running. And then… not so much.

    I’m going to have to try that core workout!
    Beth´s last post ..Book Review- Nerd Girls- The Rise of the Dorkasaurus by Alan Sitomer

  26. I 100% agree with you here, Lauren – being in “marathon shape” (which I haven’t been in a while) does not automatically mean you’re in all-over great shape. All-over great shape means having strong muscles and a strong core AND flexibility in addition to endurance. When I used to run long distance, I thought I was in great shape until I tried yoga in pilates in college and realized my core was so weak, I couldn’t lift a decent amount of weight without hurting myself. I have since become older and wiser :)

    I think your training schedule sounds well-rounded and likely to get you in the best shape ever! Have a wonderful Easter weekend, Lauren! :)

  27. I think I”ve been in better endurance shape than ever during my training for marathons, but muscle wise and weight wise I’ve been the highest I’ve been in a while. And I found that I’ve become much lazier with my other work outs because I’m typically exhausted. I went to a zumba class bc my friend was teaching it the other day and I could feel the fact that I was weaker with different muscle groups
    Cait´s last post ..Catch up… not ketchup though

  28. Lauren: Great post, but they always are.
    The marathon is a great and challenging event, and I agree that anyone can run one if they put the work into it.
    My take on all this is that you cannot do everything right during training unless you are Kara and this is your job. Or, if you have no job can train, lift, stretch and sleep all day.
    I never considered myself a good marathoner and felt I never would be unless I worked out twice a day, ran 80 to 100 miles a week and lifted weights more while training. But, life took over and I ran less than that and rarely weight trained. Every time I trained for a marathon, my speed dropped because I focused more on distance and never kept up with the track workouts.
    You my girl have lopped huge chunks of time off since your first marathon and I do not think you have peaked yet.
    Your next step needs sponsorship so you can quit your job and run double sessions and lift. Hey! Magna Card can sponsor you. Can you live off free locker accessories?

  29. Totally agree with this post! While I do think running does a lot for your legs and core, it alone is not going to make you look like Ms. Goucher up there (one of the reasons I love her is that she’s not just rail thin like a lot of other pro distance runners).

    After one of my last big triathlons I was burned out and in the mood for something different, but I had my wedding coming up and wanted to “get in shape.” I decided to work with a trainer for a bit, and the only cardio I did was walking on the treadmill or the elliptical. WELL, after a couple months I felt like I was in some of the best shape I’ve ever been. I felt strong ALL over, not just in my legs:). (I also did not compensate for my working out with all the peanut butter and carbs, as you said, which I am totally guilty of when I am doing endurance training.) My trainer had me doing a lot of circuit training and functional sports training, and I loved it!! I wish I could afford to always have a trainer…but sadly, I cannot. I told myself I would stick with the strength training, but as soon as I started training for a tri again I quickly “ran out of time” to fit in that extra workout:/.

    I love your goals! I need to have the same:/. Good luck!!
    Erin @ Until You Tri´s last post ..Rumpus in Bumpass Race Report

  30. HOPPY EASTER !!!

  31. Since I started training for half marathons last October, my muscle has decreased and my body fat percentage has gone up (that wasn’t a fun day at the personal trainer).

    I’ve always run, but you are so right. You’re main focus is running and you don’t do the other things as much. I wouldn’t weight train as much because I didn’t want sore muscles on race day.

    I’m doing the same thing as you. Focusing more on strength training until my marathon training starts in June. It’s nice to have a little break. Plus, I want my lady muscles back. :-)
    Paula @ Eat: Watch: Run´s last post ..A Day for Bunnies

  32. i totally, totally agree with you! and now that my race is over i’m excited (and hopefully motivated) to focus on my overall fitness and to be able to improve my non-running strength. i’m actually sad that the town that we’re moving to doesn’t have any yoga studios…. i’m starting to long to go to “real” yoga rather than “ymca” yoga. is there a difference? i’ve never been able to compare.
    the dawn´s last post ..Boston Marathon 2011

  33. I agree and its one of the reasons that I have been hesitant to commit to training for a marathon. I would love the sense of accomplishment but not at the expense of other the other benefits that I get from the cross training that I currently do. I hope that when I am ready I can find a creative way to strike a balance between the demands of the training program, other physical activity and my regular life!

  34. I’m running the cox half this weekend, too! we should meet up!

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    Max Robust´s last post ..Max Robust

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