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I will be running a half-marathon in two and a half months. This will be the third half marathon I've run. I hope to run it in under two hours; my previous best is just under 2:08. My resting heart rate is 52.

Because of winter street and trail conditions where I live, my training for this half marathon has all been on a treadmill. I do distance, speed, and incline work. A friend suggested that I should cross-train. Lift weights, swim, or something other than simply running five days a week on a treadmill.

Is there any scientific evidence that cross-training will help my half-marathon performance? More specifically, is there any evidence that spending half an hour on swimming, lifting weights, or some such, would be more beneficial than spending that half hour on a treadmill? I accept that cross-training may help my overall fitness, but I am only asking about half-marathon performance.

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Oh, btw, I wouldn't agree that winter street and trail conditions in Edmonton should stop you running. One of the world's best female ultra runners, Ellie Greenwood, lives in Banff, AB and she's out training in the snow up there (as well as treadmill training). Mind you, that kind of discipline is probably part of why she won Western States last year. –  Sarge Feb 13 '12 at 20:06
    
Nice. :) Entirely unconvincing at getting me to run at -30C or on icy sidewalks, but then, I'm probably two or three orders of magnitude less disciplined than Ellie Greenwood. –  ChrisInEdmonton Feb 13 '12 at 21:20

3 Answers 3

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There is scientific evidence to support the opposite... Essentially Hans Selye put forth a basic theory around 1925 that governs our understanding of stress and adaptation called General Adaptation Syndrome. This theory has provided the foundations of both vaccinations and all exercise theory. In essence, when your body is put under some form of stress, it needs to adapt to that stress to better handle it the next time. This is why injecting a weaker poison in your system can improve your immune response to a similar strong poison. It's also why we get stronger when we lift heavy objects.

We've refined this basic underlying theory with a better understanding of our bodies, which is nicely summed up in the book Practical Programming for Strength Training by Dr. Kilgore and Mark Rippetoe. The important bits are:

  • Exercise is specific. Working your arms doesn't make your thighs get stronger.
  • There are several metabolic pathways to get energy to your muscles. Not all exercise causes those energy systems to adapt the same way.
  • There is a difference between strength and endurance.

Now, as Rippetoe is fond of pointing out, more strength will only help you in all areas. However, there is a marked difference in the type of strength necessary to run for 4 hours straight and the much shorter intense exertion necessary in weight lifting. In fact, most endurance efforts require aerobic conditioning. This is in sharp contrast to the anaerobic pathways needed for sprinting (in contrast to your marathon run).

Because exercise is specific, and you need to optimize your aerobic metabolic pathways, you need to select exercises that are compatible with the type of training you need for long distance running. Compatible endurance oriented exercise includes:

  • Running (long distance)
  • Cycling (long distance)
  • Swimming (long distance)

Look familiar? That's right, the three most common compatible exercises are what makes up the triathlon. Weightlifting would actually work against you because it is an anaerobic activity. Cycling and swimming can help you in that they can provide more resistance, causing you to work harder. That in turn will help your legs get stronger while still using the same metabolic pathways, causing you to put forth less effort with each stride. The same will be the case if you keep increasing the incline on your treadmill.

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On this one I agree with Berin Loritsch over @DaveLiepmann. In my experience, weight training interferes with running training (and this would be the opinion of most ultra-runners I know). –  Sarge Feb 13 '12 at 20:04
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I would add to the triathlon sports, cross-country skiing, as this is also an endurance sport, which may particularly be interesting to the OP in the wintery conditions he described. Snow-shoe hiking, and hiking in general also should improve endurance that is of use during running. –  Rafael Cichocki Jun 21 '13 at 21:35

The National Strength and Conditioning Association has a bit of research in this area.

Here is a sample NSCA article

The key here is that you supplement your training as opposed to replacing one of your workouts. If you are forced to choose between one or the other, I would definitely choose your endurance training.

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Strength training will make you faster and less prone to injury. I imagine that these two improvements could help your marathon performance.

This answer to a similar question is relevant, and has scientific references. My answer here makes some recommendations more specific to your situation. I think that the relevant mindset is best summed up by Mark Rippetoe:

At some point, all serious athletes go outside their sport-specific work to improve.

Unless you already possess elite levels of strength for someone your size, I think getting stronger will improve your athletic performance. I wonder if agility and mobility work could help too.

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