Wise Running

Train smart, eat well, and enjoy the run.

Cross-training as Marathon Training: An Experiment

I have done cross-training as a way to maintain fitness through an injury.  Until now, I have tried my best to ignore the idea of cross-training as a serious tool for intense training for running; I just couldn’t take it seriously.  I have a dilemma, however, and cross-training looks like the only viable solution.

My Dilemma

I have now completed 6 marathons and managed to PR each time.  I feel like I am reaching a plateau, however.  Even though I have run Boston-Qualifying times for the past three marathon, I am still experiencing the same cramping issue over and over.  According to the work of the best running coaches in the world, my training should be netting results that are about 15 minutes faster than what I am getting each time.

Cramping is the limiting factor, yet cramping is a symptom.  The question remains, What is causing these cramps?  When I solve that issue, then I can reclaim those 15 minutes and finally run a marathon in less than 3 hours.  At first, I had an electrolyte problem. I found the right supplement and it does not seem to be a big deal any more.cycling

Until this last marathon, I have believed that my marathon cramping dilemma was a fueling problem.  I have had an ill gastrointestinal system due to a gluten intolerance.  That means unhealthy digestion.  That means that I have not been able to process calories as fast as other folks.  That means starving muscles.  That can lead to cramping.  Maybe that is the problem, but my gut is now as healthy as it is going to be.  I can’t count on it doing any better.  I use gentle, gluten-free energy gel always combined with water so it goes down as good as it could.

Cross-training to Simulate Running a Marathon

I believe that my body could adjust to the conditions if I could just run enough marathons during training.  Unfortunately, my body hates that idea.  Through 4 years of training, I have learned that my body thrives at around 35 to 40 miles of running each week.  Fewer miles means slow progress.  More than 40 miles of running in a week causes my body to break down a bit.

I have examined my training plan over and over and come to a firm conclusion: If I am going to get my body used to marathon conditions, I am going to have to find a way to create that experience without running more than 16 miles in one run.

Since my dilemma has to do with fueling and hydration rather than being specific to running, I can accomplish this simulation.  The condition I need to simulate is that of burning fuel for 3 hours.  If I do this enough times, my body will begin to adapt to that condition.  If I am correct about the root of my problem, this will solve my dilemma.

My Plan

I will create workouts with 3 hours of consistent, intense effort.  In order to simulate marathon conditions, most of the work has to be done by my legs.  Therefore, adding cycling to my long runs will help me solve my dilemma.  Cycling first will give me the added time without requiring me to run the entire three hours.

As I designed my plan, I did not build up to 20 or 22 mile runs as most plans require.  In my new training plan, the longest run will be 16 miles, but that will follow 60 minutes of intense cycling.  This will create the 3 hour workouts to which my body needs to adapt.

In my last training plan, 17 miles was my longest run.  That 17 miles, however, had no cycling on the front end.  Hence, I believe this new plan will push me harder than ever.  I believe that it will get me beyond my current plateau. I believe it will get me that first sub-three hour marathon… and it will do it at my first Boston.

Cross-training on Other Days

The marathon simulation cross-training will only happen once a week.  If I am to keep my mileage down to about 40 miles per week, I will need to take three days off from running each week.  Does this mean three rest days?  NO!  Three rest days would mean losing fitness.  To maintain or enhance my fitness level, I will have full rest on one day each week, but cross-train on the remaining two days.

For those two days, I plan to do a combination of swimming and cycling.  I will swim for an allotted number of minutes and quickly transition to cycling for a specific number of minutes.  This will keep my heart rate up, give me a full-body workout, and allow me to have effective training days where I do not run.

That leaves a total of four days per week when I run.  One day is the run/cross-train day that simulates the marathon.  Two days will be tough workouts with repeats, intervals, tempo runs, and such.  The remaining running day will be naked miles [no watch, just relax and run].


In this plan, cross-training brings specific benefits.  Cycling and swimming play specific roles as I train to race my first Boston Marathon.  The goal is a sub-three hour marathon.  I believe that this plan will get me there comfortably, without injury and with happy legs.

I have several half-marathons scheduled before the Boston Marathon.  I will report to you periodically along the way to let you know how things are going.

“Train smart, eat well, & enjoy the run!”  — P. Mark Taylor


Check out these books by P. Mark Taylor for more advice on running:

The Gift of Running: A Book for Runners & Future Runners  Wise Running Book COVER mockup


Wise Running: Thoughts on Running and Life


One response to “Cross-training as Marathon Training: An Experiment

  1. runfastorfaster November 1, 2013 at 11:18 am

    Ooh, I’m excited to hear about your progress! Good luck with the new training!

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