How To Maintain Muscle Mass while Marathon Training

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Cross Training For Runners
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David Dack

Let’s tackle a common challenge that many fitness enthusiasts face: maintaining and building muscle while training for a marathon.

It’s like juggling two demanding goals at once, and it’s no easy feat.

You see, the nature of long-distance running, the cornerstone of marathon training, can make it tough to preserve those hard-earned gains in the gym. But fear not, my friend, because I’ve got some valuable insights to share with you.

So here’s the dilemma: you want to conquer the marathon distance, but you also want to hold onto your muscle strength and size. Is it even possible?

The answer is a resounding yes! By adhering to the right training and diet strategies, you can defy the odds and maintain that muscular physique throughout your endurance journey.

In this article, I’m about to spill the beans and arm you with some indispensable tips to ensure you don’t bid farewell to your beloved muscles during your marathon training. We’ll delve into the art of training smart and fueling your body with the right nutrients. Trust me, these tips can make all the difference.

Ready? Let’s get going.

Building Muscles Vs. Maintaining Muscle    

Alright, let’s get down to business and debunk a common misconception. Building muscle and maintaining muscle are two different beasts altogether. Picture this: building muscle is like going full throttle on a roller coaster, pushing your muscles to their absolute limits. It’s about giving it everything you’ve got, forcing those muscles to adapt and grow stronger in response to the intense stress you put them through.

Now, maintenance, on the other hand, is more like a smooth ride on a scenic train. You don’t have to go all-out and exhaust your muscles to the point of collapse. Instead, a moderate level of effort is sufficient to keep your muscles in shape and prevent them from shrinking or losing strength.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Did you know that research has delved into the fascinating realm of muscle maintenance? Several studies have shown that training with lower intensity and volume can effectively preserve muscle mass, especially when combined with proper nutrition.

So, when you’re aiming to maintain muscle mass during your marathon training, you don’t have to fear losing your hard-earned gains. By adopting a smart and strategic approach, you can strike the perfect balance. Train hard enough to stimulate your muscles without overdoing it, and your muscles will thank you for it.

Now, let’s talk about the importance of scientific backing. Research papers and studies have explored the intricacies of muscle maintenance and its relationship with training intensity.

One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that training at a lower intensity, around 70% of your maximum effort, can effectively maintain muscle mass during periods of reduced training volume.

Another study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed that even a lower training volume, when combined with proper nutrition, can prevent muscle loss.

Why Keeping—let alone Building—Muscle During Marathon Training Is Hard?

Let’s unravel the truth behind the “running can burn muscle” myth and dive into the fascinating world of fuel utilization during exercise. It’s true that there’s some complexity to the relationship between running and muscle mass, and it all boils down to the availability of fuel for your workouts.

You see, when you engage in endurance activities like running, your body taps into different fuel sources to sustain the effort.

The key player here is fuel availability. If your body has ample fuel from sources like blood sugar, glycogen, and fat, it’s less likely to resort to breaking down muscle protein for energy. However, if fuel reserves are low, your body might turn to muscle protein as a last resort.

Now, let’s address the common fear that running will automatically devour your hard-earned muscles. If you’re an amateur bodybuilder who ventures into cardio for the first time, it’s true that you may experience some slimming down. But that doesn’t mean running itself inherently leads to muscle breakdown.

To reach that catabolic state where muscle protein becomes a primary fuel source, you’d need to log a substantial number of miles, follow a protein-deficient diet, and have inadequate recovery practices.

Take the marathon as an example. A study conducted on 30 recreational runners tackling distances of 6.2, 13, or 26.2 miles revealed that all participants experienced significant muscle damage post-race.

The longer the distance, the more pronounced the muscle damage. It’s important to note that this damage doesn’t equate to muscle loss, but rather reflects the strain endured during the intense endurance endeavor.

When it comes to fuel utilization during exercise, muscle mass contributes only a small portion. Running is no exception to this rule. Yes, it’s true that a fraction of the fuel—around 10 percent in many cases—may come from protein sources during endurance training. However, the exact figures and intricacies of fuel utilization are still the subject of ongoing research and debate.

The key takeaway here is that running alone won’t magically consume your muscles. It’s all about balance. Adequate nutrition, including a sufficient intake of protein, and proper recovery practices can help preserve your muscle mass while reaping the benefits of running.

Additional resource  – Check this 50K training plan.

How To Maintain Muscle Mass while Marathon Training

So is it all doom and gloom? Not really!

If you’re worried whether or not running will eat away at your muscles while training for a marathon, the following measures will help you preserve your hard gains while making the most out of your marathon plan.


1. Have Enough Fuel

Let’s explore how to power your body with the right fuel to support your marathon training journey and preserve those mighty muscles.

First and foremost, let’s dispel the myth that running will mercilessly devour your precious muscles. While there is some truth to the idea that running can impact muscle mass, it’s not the full story. The key lies in fueling your body with the right calories to maintain a muscle-friendly environment.

To keep those muscles firing on all cylinders, you need to provide your body with an abundance of fuel. During marathon training, your body demands a significant amount of energy, especially on those long run days that push your limits. So, let’s make sure your fuel tank is fully loaded.

Dive into a world of dense carbs that will nourish your body and keep your muscles humming with power. Think vibrant vegetables, wholesome whole grains, energizing rice, pasta that fuels your engine, sweet potatoes packed with goodness, hearty oatmeal, and the natural sweetness of fruits. These nutritional powerhouses will provide the energy your body craves.

Timing is everything, my friends. Pay close attention to what you consume before and after each run. The right food choices at these crucial moments can make a world of difference. Prior to your runs, indulge in a carb-rich feast to fuel up your glycogen stores. This ensures that you have the necessary energy reserves to tackle the miles ahead. Remember, carbs are your trusty companions when it comes to replenishing glycogen.

But wait, there’s more! Post-run nourishment is equally vital. Feast on foods that increase insulin production, bringing balance to the muscle-building equation. Look for moderate to high glycemic items that provide a quick dose of carbs. This speedy replenishment of muscle glycogen helps minimize post-exercise muscle breakdown, keeping your muscles strong and resilient.

Now, let’s talk numbers. On your long runs, aim to add at least 50g of carbs per hour of running. This will ensure that your energy reserves remain robust, enabling you to push through those challenging distances. For a glorious 2-hour long run, set your sights on a carbohydrate feast of around 100g. Your muscles will thank you for this glorious influx of energy.

Additional Guide – What’s The Fastest Marathon Time?

2. Eat your Protein

Protein is the literal building block of muscle. It provides the crucial amino acids needed for muscle synthesis and tissue growth. Without an ample protein supply, your muscles won’t have the raw materials they need to flourish. It’s not just about building muscle; it’s about preserving the muscle you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

But don’t just take my word for it; let’s turn to the scientific realm for some hard evidence. Research conducted by the esteemed International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) has shown that increasing protein intake from the recommended 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight to a range of 1.2 to 2 grams while simultaneously reducing caloric intake by 30 to 40 percent can optimize fat loss while safeguarding your precious muscle mass.

Now, let’s put theory into practice. Imagine you’re a dedicated 160-pound runner who currently consumes around 60 to 80 grams of protein per day. To maintain your muscles during marathon training, you can boost your protein intake to around 100 to 140 grams, even while slightly reducing your overall calorie intake. This combination acts as a fortress, fortifying your muscles against the marathon’s demands.

But here’s an interesting twist: increasing your protein intake can even facilitate muscle growth while following a calorie-restricted diet. There’s a catch, though—you need to complement it with resistance training. This dynamic duo of protein and resistance training becomes the secret recipe for muscle gains in a calorie-conscious context.

So, how can you ensure you’re getting enough protein? Start by incorporating whole-food, high-quality protein sources into your daily diet. Seek out the protein-packed goodness of eggs, lean meats, fish, nuts and seeds, beans, cottage cheese, lentils, and Greek yogurt. These mighty foods will supply your body with the amino acids it craves.

Timing matters too. Aim to spread out your protein consumption evenly throughout the day, ensuring you have a protein-packed snack or meal every three to four hours. This steady supply of protein will keep your muscles fueled and ready to conquer any challenge that comes your way.

And if you find it challenging to meet your protein goals through whole foods alone, fear not—supplements can lend a helping hand. Consider adding a high-quality protein supplement to your routine to bridge any nutritional gaps and keep your muscles thriving.

3. Strength Training

Although your main focus during marathon training is obviously running a marathon, strength training is also beneficial. That’s why as well as devoting time and effort to your road work, you should also be consistent with your strength training.

In fact, lifting weights is an important component in maintaining muscle mass.

Hit the weight room three to four times a week. Just make sure to make your schedule work with your marathon plan. Know your priorities.

Schedule your strength session on days when you’re not doing hard runs—that include interval sessions and long runs—as these types of training place a lot of stress on your body. Remember to space out your weightlifting session with at least one rest day.

Additional resourceShould you be running after leg day?

Here’s what your workout schedule should look like:

  • Monday – Chest and back + optional easy run
  • Tuesday – Tempo run of 45 to 60 minutes
  • Wednesday – Legs and core + optional easy run
  • Thursday – Interval run
  • Friday – shoulders and arms + optional easy run
  • Saturday – Long Run
  • Sunday – Rest

4. Supplement

When it comes to sculpting those muscles, my friend, your workout routine and diet form the backbone of your journey. But let me tell you a secret: supplements can be the secret sauce that elevates your training to new heights. It’s like adding turbo boosters to your muscle-building engine.

Research has delved deep into the realm of supplementation and its impact on muscle growth. The findings are enlightening, my friend. When you combine supplements with a solid strength training program, the results can be awe-inspiring. You’ll be able to unleash your full potential and effectively maintain or even build that coveted muscle mass over time. It’s like supercharging your progress.

Now, let’s talk about one of the superheroes of the supplement world—BCAAs. Brace yourself for this acronym: branched-chain amino acids. These three essential acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—are the powerhouse trio that your muscles crave for optimal protein synthesis. They’re the architects of muscle growth, with leucine taking the lead role.

And hey, I won’t just throw this information at you and leave you hanging. Let’s turn to the treasure trove of research to back up these claims. Numerous studies have highlighted the crucial role of these three amino acids in muscle recovery and repair. They’re the knights in shining armor, swooping in to help you bounce back stronger after a tough workout.

Sure, you can find BCAAs in protein-rich foods, and I encourage you to load up on quality protein sources in your diet. But supplements, my friend, they take it to the next level. They provide a convenient and concentrated dose of these muscle-building heroes, allowing you to reach new heights in your intake. It’s like having a personal army of muscle-supporting warriors by your side.

Additional resource – Running Vs. Strength training

Maintain Muscle Mass while Marathon Training – The Conclusion

Don’t let the fear of burning muscle keep away from logging the miles.

You should be on the right path as long as you balance muscle burning—or muscle breakdown—or muscle building—or protein synthesis. The rest, as the saying goes, is just details.

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