Cross-Training

The Rise of Iron Runners

How many top-five U.S. female marathoners are working out three times a week in a CrossFit gym and swimming 3,000 yards twice a week? One for sure. A look inside the “unorthodox” training regimen of Nell Rojas, and how her approach could help you run faster, feel stronger, and stave off injuries year-round.

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For several reasons, Nell Rojas is not your typical marathoner. She does only one quality run workout per week, rather than the conventional two or three. She follows a 12-week marathon buildup instead of a more traditional 16-week plan. She’s content with 60–75 miles per week, even though many top marathoners are running well over 100. And while runners are knocking out a second run of their day, she’s swapping mileage for kettlebell swings.

In June 2019, Rojas went 2:28:06 to win Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. As of press time, that’s the fifth-fastest American female marathon time ever. And it was only her second marathon.

Rojas made her marathon debut at California International Marathon in December 2018, where she qualified for the Olympic Trials in a time of 2:31:20. But prior to that she was zeroing in on much shorter distances. The former collegiate runner focused on steeplechase and 5K at Northern Arizona University, and then spent three years as an Olympic-distance professional triathlete. Up until just last year, Rojas was traveling the country winning Spartan Races—eight- to ten-mile competitions that involve monkey bars, spear throws, and tire flips.

While 26.2s may be relatively new to the 31-year-old, strength training definitely is not. “What people don’t know is that I’ve been doing strength training since I was young,” she says. Rojas’ father, a former elite athlete, had his daughter lifting in their garage when she was in middle school. And it’s a recipe that has been invaluable to her success at longer distances.

“Compared to my competitors I’m undertrained, and that’s okay,” says Rojas. “My goal is to make the Olympic team, which means being consistent with running training. And that can only happen if I’m consistent with my strength training.”

Training at a Glance

Here’s what a typical week of workouts looks like for Rojas.

MONDAY Off or Light Swim

Rojas says she takes these days by feel. If she feels like she needs to fully rest, she’ll take the day off. If she feels like she needs to loosen up, she’ll swim about 3,000 yards that includes some easy kicking, drill sets, and non-free laps.

TUESDAY 8-Mile Conditioning Run

This is an easy aerobic workout that usually starts slower and ends faster with a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 5/10.

WEDNESDAY Quality Run Workout + 1-Hour Strength + 1-Hour Swim

A run workout (i.e., mile repeats, tempos) totaling around 10–12 miles with warm-up and cool-down. For the swim, if she feels up to some intensity, she’ll do 10 x 100 on 1:30 intervals.

THURSDAY 8-Mile Conditioning Run

FRIDAY 10-Mile Conditioning Run + 1-Hour Strength

Rojas fits in her workouts where she can depending on her work schedule (she’s a trainer); 50% of the time she’s doing them back-to-back.

SATURDAY 10-Mile Conditioning Run + 1-Hour Strength + 1-Hour swim

SUNDAY Long Progression Run

During her marathon buildup, Rojas alternates 20-mile long runs with 16-mile runs. Those long runs are broken into sections. Typically 20 miles is broken into three parts: 7 miles easy (around 7:30 pace), 6 miles moderate (around 6:00-6:30), 7 miles hard at goal race pace (5:35-6:00).

Your Body on Strength Training

These days, more and more elite runners are realizing the benefits of being really strong. Regular strength training increases a runner’s capacity to withstand stress on every level: It builds stronger, more efficient muscles, improves running economy, and bulletproofs your body’s joints and tendons. And just to make sure we’re all on the same page: It in no way “bulks you up” or “slows you down.”

“Not only do women have less testosterone, the volume of training needs to be drastically high to put on size,” says Rojas’ strength coach, Dylan Miraglia. “When I coach runners, typically they have two to three strength workouts per week depending on the time of year. These sessions are geared to improving strength for running, not building size.”

For many runners, the volume and intensity of their running decreases in the winter months, making it a great time to push the volume and intensity of their lifting routines to put their body in a good position for the increased mileage and tougher workouts come spring.

Thinking of adding some iron to your routine? Smart. Here are a few pointers to make the most of every rep:

Schedule Smart

While developing strength is important, it’s more important to remember your big-picture goals. If you’re fatigued from lifting weights, you won’t be able to perform your best during key run workouts. To get the most bang for your buck, perform your strength workouts after your quality main run, making sure to schedule an easier aerobic run the day before and after to ensure proper recovery.

Beginners, Be Warned

For first-time lifters, there will be a two- to three-week period when your body will feel sluggish and sore. Any “bulky” feelings you might experience are not added muscle, says Miraglia. Instead, it can be from the temporary blood flow into your muscles during and after a tough strength workout (what some people refer to as “muscle pump”); the body also goes through an inflammatory process, which will add to the fluid buildup in the muscles. This is only temporary.

Prioritize Recovery

A lot of people who jump into a lifting routine only to see their run performance falter or are annoyed by sluggish, sore legs will quickly blame their time in the weight room. But usually it’s a strong indicator not that you’re over-lifting but that you’re under-recovering. Reduce initial soreness and inflammation by adding regular foam rolling and easy aerobic activity (walks, bike rides, swims), and make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep.