How Cycling helped me Prepare for my First Marathon

How Cycling helped me Prepare for my First Marathon

When actually running isn’t an option for you to improve your running fitness, there are alternatives

In recent years, you could argue that I’ve come down with the dreaded “injury nug” (a term used to describe getting a string of notable injuries). It all started with a stress fracture on my tibia which I sustained while preparing for my first full marathon in 2018. While my hopes of running that race were dashed as a result of the injury, I still wanted to find a way to maintain and potentially even build my fitness. Along with such suggestions as swimming, elliptical, and other low impact exercises, my doctor suggested cycling.

While I begrudgingly avoided running in the hopes my injury would heal faster, I set out to my local gym to make use of their stationary bike. I brought my phone and Bluetooth headphones to watch YouTube videos and hopefully entertain myself from the monotony of riding a bike to nowhere. At first, it was a tedious and boring affair. Far different from my typical running outside in fresh air and being entranced by the passing landscape. But as I cycled more and more and got into the rhythm of this being a new normal and finding a good series of videos that excited me into working out harder, I found myself looking forward to my stationary bike sessions.

After I finally got better from my stress fracture and got back into running regularly, I kept cycling training in the rotation. Desperately seeking to avoid another stress fracture but still find a way to gain fitness quickly.

In late 2019, it was time to make another attempt at training for a marathon that would take place in early 2020. But alas, I was visited by the dreaded injury bug and sustained a very bad ankle sprain which would end up haunting me for most of the time leading up to the marathon. This was a very poor start to my training. Even short runs of 4 or 5 miles resulted in post-workout ankle pain. Long runs were pretty much out of the question. If I were to continue running on a bad ankle, I knew it would never heal and potentially cause long term issues.

My whole training plan revolved around distance runs to prepare my body, legs, and mind for the long distance of a marathon. I knew the best way to prepare yourself for the 26.2 miles is to gradually increase the distance you run to condition your body to handle the target distance. Without that fundamental workout in my toolbox, I needed to find an alternative to get the much-needed miles in my legs. As a result, I turned to cycling.


My weekend distance runs were replaced with long stints on the stationary bike. I pushed myself to do a minimum of 1 and a half hours on the stationary bike in the beginning and by the end, I was pushing 3-hour sessions at whatever wattage/power/intensity was comfortable. In addition, I finally pulled the trigger and bought myself a bike so I could ride outside for long rides to break up the monotony. Later I then bought an indoor trainer so I could make use of the Zwift service to ride indoors and still feel as though I’m riding outdoors over hills.

My shorter runs during the week were also required to be reduced to ensure ample time for my ankle to heal. So as a result, more cycling training was added to replace the lost sessions.

With the reduced strain on my ankle and doing some physical therapy, I could feel it getting better and better. After a couple of months, I felt good enough to incorporate some short running and later middle distance running into my training. I was amazed at how easy running felt after the hiatus and after only focusing on cycling workouts!

I felt so good, that when it came time for me to run my tuneup half-marathon a month before the full marathon, I targeted to run it at a PR pace and a final time of 1 hour and 30 min. After a practice session of running that pace for about 8 miles, I felt confident in my ability to hit my target time. That confidence and all my work paid off when I did end up crossing the finish line of the Arizona Rock ’n’ Roll Half-Marathon in under my target time in 1 hour and 26 minutes. In the final month leading up to the full marathon, I decided to go for a Boston Qualifying time of 3 hours for the marathon. I felt amazing during the half-marathon and I was eager to push myself to see if I could accomplish such a feat!

My cycling training intensified and I was up to regularly riding 2 hours during the week each day and 3 and a half hours over the weekend for my “long run/ride.” It wasn’t only cycling though. I also did a 20-mile run at a light pace with some friends, which I was able to do without any serious effort. It did hurt my ankle a lot, which resulted in me not wanting to do any more running until the marathon.

On the day of the marathon, I went out at my target pace (target 3-hour marathon time which is running at 6:50 min/mile) and I was able to easily maintain it for about 17 miles or so. Then it got harder and harder and I slowed down. Finally, I crossed the finish line with a time of 3 hours and 15 min. Not a Boston Qualifying time, but not too shabby for only really doing cycling training for the past couple of months.

 

Through all my small nagging and large injuries I’ve experienced over the past few years, cycling has helped me to maintain and even build my fitness. It is now comfortably established as a core part of my training and will continue to be so. I still love and enjoy running and will always prefer to lace up and run outside as opposed to riding on my indoor trainer. But cycling is always something I know I can fall back on if I feel like my legs are too spent for a run or if I have another injury that requires a low impact activity.

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